Saturday, April 17, 2010

Not Another Activity!

I have written recently about the problem of taking "old temple" sentiments and applying them to church buildings ("The Church's New Address"). So if the old Temple is gone, and if the church building should not be the focal point of the church's identity, then what has happened to old Temple activities? Maybe we just call them "church activities."

First, what were these Temple activities? Certainly the whole sacrificial system was central. But now, Christ offered Himself as the perfect and final sacrifice, so there is no more of that. Pilgrimage was a vital part of Israel's faith. Three times a year people would come from all corners to attend the major festivals in Jerusalem. But again, these have been fulfilled in different ways. Jesus is the Passover lamb. The Holy Spirit was poured on the new-born church at Pentecost following Jesus' ascension. The Feast of Booths may be fulfilled in part by the spread of missionaries carrying the Gospel around the world, and may look forward to the final harvest of God's people leading up to the Last Day. Nonetheless, we are not bound to make pilgrimages. You may certainly visit the "Holy Land" if you wish, and there may be benefit to that, but not in terms of satisfying God's law or expectations. Also, the teaching and study of the Law were common Temple and synagogue activities. Remember Jesus discussing the Law in the Temple as a boy (Luke 2:46,47). 

Let's think about this last point for a minute. How does our attention to Scripture change when it is the text for introducing a Person as opposed to delineating God's law? In the Old Covenant, the Law and the Prophets served to lay out God's claim on His people, and His expectations for them. Yes, it is a rich text, composed not only of law code, but also narrative and poetry that convey story and emotion. But now, in the New Covenant, Scripture functions much more as an introduction to a Person, Jesus Christ. Is that distinction being made clear in how we handle Scripture in our church gatherings? After all, in evangelical churches, the preaching of the Bible is the primary activity. Is the activity one of engendering love for Christ as opposed to setting up more and more expectations of what it means to be a "good Christian?" There may be a real problem here. 

Let's push farther. Church activities demand and depend on church fixtures. What about the pulpit? There is a great tradition throughout Church history for the place of the pulpit. But we do not know that Jesus ever preached from a pulpit. Nor Paul, or any of the other apostles. Yes, God's Word must be preached and taught. But how it is done must have in view its goal - to know and love and serve Jesus better. Yes, the "whole counsel" of God is needed. But the "whole counsel of God" points to Christ.

Maybe it's the difference between paying close attention to details, and reading between the lines. When I was engaged to my wife, we would trade letters back and forth on a daily basis (this was before texting and email). As I would read these love letters, I was not concerned about the details. But I read between the lines. Details might give me clues as to how I could measure up or meet her expectations. But I was already assured of her love for me. Yes, I wanted (and still want) to please her. But that is different from measuring up or meeting expectations. Reading between the lines is something altogether different. It is getting to know her, imagining her expressions and emotions, even as I read the words. The word serves to build the relationship, not define it. 

And in addition to pulpits, I am afraid that our pew alignments and sanctuary setups promote activities that may be more akin to temple activities than the true life of the church.

Acts 2:42 reads as follows: "And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." This is a description of the new-born church, meeting so that they might know and follow the risen Lord as they are now led by the Spirit. We do not know where they met. It seemed not to matter. We do not know how they were organized or arranged. Even their schedules and calendars were secondary. But one thing is clear. They were not merely going through the motions of old temple activities. The were "devoted" to something new; something that was making a difference; something that they needed and wanted.
I know that Acts 2 was an unusual time. But the church itself is unusual. Heavenly light and power have broken through into the lives of these groups of people, meeting in local assemblies. And they just want to see and experience more. I do not believe that the old Temple activities were characterized by this kind of excitement and expectation. Nor do I find it in most of our church activities. Some things need to change.

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