But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you (2 Cor. 4:7–11, NIV).
While my wife, Carolyn, and I were in London to participate in the International Congress of Preaching, we were walking near Buckingham Palace and noticed a church; actually, the shell of a church building that was being rebuilt. There was nothing standing but the four walls—no windows, doors, or pews. Scaffolding was up on the inside of the walls and the craftsmen were eating their lunch in the nave.
Around the church was a chain-link fence with barbed wire across the top. Near the opening that served as a door was a large sign written for all to see: “Danger! Enter at your own risk.” Those words were designed to protect the general public from construction accidents. As I read the sign, I could not resist thinking of the many church people, both clergy and laymen, who have been chewed up by the institutional church and would testify to the truth of that sign.
A scene early in Margaret Mitchell’s classic novel of the Old South, Gone With the Wind, describes the barbecue at Twelve Oaks plantation. Many young people were there, dressed in their best party attire, flirting, bragging, and having a genuinely good time. During the barbecue, word came that the War between the States had started. The young men donned their uniforms, mounted their horses, and rode off to fight for the Confederacy. They fully believed the war would soon be over, and they would come home victorious as heroes. Not so! Four years later they came home wounded, hungry, disillusioned, and defeated to a South that had been burned and looted; all was gone.
This was much like my experience ten to fifteen years after seminary graduation. My phone started ringing with calls from classmates who had entered church ministry with high energy and strong idealism. They were full of Niebuhr, Barth, Brunner, and Tillich, not to mention Greek and Hebrew. They believed that once they explained these theologians to their churches, all would be right in the kingdom. They thought that there was nothing in the church or denomination that would not be better once they were in control.
These same young men, now older and wiser, called and told me about their brokenness; of churches that would not do the right thing about the race issue, organizational change, or community involvement; of church leaders who were masters of political intrigue; of families who were selfish in their demands; of old men and women who excelled in controlling the church and pastor with gossip and innuendo. They told me of their families being harassed by these same people and of the unfair demands placed upon them. They also recited incidents when the denomination and seminaries had abandoned them. The recurrent refrain was “the church is the only army that shoots its wounded.” One pastor lamented that being a pastor is to be abandoned by the denomination. I asked myself, “Is the church worth the effort?”
The apostle Paul reminds us that “we have this treasure in earthen jars.” We are (1) hard pressed on every side—but not crushed; (2) perplexed but not in despair; (3) persecuted but not abandoned; (4) struck down but not destroyed. We carry His death so that His life may be “revealed in our body” (2 Cor. 4:11).
These words may provide help if they are exegeted, but they also may be understood from another perspective. They are words of feeling. Let them roll over you. These are not words of glory but of struggle. This reality did not start with the modern church; it has always been with us. I had to remember that they crucified Jesus; they did not elect Him chairman of the board. Kingdom work, church work, is tough, demanding, and frustrating. This work does have its rewards, but not for the faint of heart. We are educated to understand and preach the treasure, but, in reality, we spend most of our time on the earthen vessel.
While taking our grandchildren swimming one summer, I noticed that the deep end was occupied by experienced swimmers who were improving their skills, respectful of others, and of the posted rules. The shallow end was dominated by young, inexperienced swimmers who made strong demands on the lifeguard by breaking or challenging the rules made for their safety and the safety of the larger groups of swimmers. All of the noise was coming from the shallow end of the pool. This resembles a church where the immature Christians, regardless of age, are usually the most demanding and manipulative. They are constantly challenging or threatening the authority of the lifeguard and dominating the entire pool. It takes special gifts to become a pastor in the swimming pool that we call “church” (Eph. 4:11).
However, in spite of these issues, I still love the church. I love the church universal, as well as the church local (red brick, white-columned, with deacons arguing in the parking lot). With all of its dysfunction and flesh marks, with all of its confusion and humanity, the church remains the best thing God has going in this world. We do have this treasure in earthen vessels.
A close reading of history will show that when God does anything in this world, it is done through the church, and most of us have been formed spiritually by our childhood churches.
Like the tree that Zacchaeus was in when he met Jesus—the church holds us so Jesus can find us. We must remember that Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it. Most of the New Testament was addressed to churches, not individuals. The church is pivotal to God’s plan for the world (Ephesians), and is the bride of Christ.
We can easily introduce people to Christ, but it takes a church to help them to grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior. Let us not forget that the church was in the ghettos before the current crop of activists—like William Booth and the Salvation Army. The church was into education before the government. Note the large number of universities, such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, that were started with the express purpose of educating clergy. The church has been feeding the hungry and providing community while the general culture was debating political agendas and power. It was the church that broke down the Berlin Wall, led the march on Selma, produced Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement, and it was the church that led the war on poverty.
The church is a solid oak tree, not a fragile teacup. It has withstood Roman imperialism, Jewish legalism, pagan optimism, medieval institutionalism, the excesses of the Reformers, wars and rumors of wars, youth quake, modern skepticism, provincialism, resurgent fundamentalism, and heresies in each generation that seem never to die. It can withstand anything our generation can throw at it too.
The church has been victimized by unprepared and selfish clergy, tone-deaf musicians, manipulative members, argumentative deacons, demanding denominations, unloving reformers, and greedy politicians. Still it continues to provide love, affirmation, and community to the fallen in the face of alienation.
Serving through the church is a matter of the call and claims of God on your life. The only way one survives and thrives in the church is to know that God has called you to serve this way, and that the church is the bride of Christ.
To those who are believers and have given up on the church and those on the outside who do not understand it, I offer this final word. While taking a short vacation to St. Simons Island on the Georgia coast after a very stressful period of ministry, Carolyn and I had an experience that made this very clear to us. We were tired and in need of rest. Preaching, fund-raising, a building program, and the usual daily responsibility of church leadership had taken its toll on us. We were staying at a small motel on the island and spending our time reading, walking on the beach, and visiting the abundant historical sites on the island.
We had made a reservation for an early dinner one evening and were driving along the marshes on the island made famous by the noted Georgia poet Sidney Lanier, in his famous poem, “The Marshes of Glenn.” We passed Christ Church, a picturesque white church located on the north end of the island. An oak tree stands in a spot near where Charles Wesley had preached, and bears a marker placed there by the state of Georgia. Carolyn insisted that we stop and look at the church.
“I’ve seen a dozen churches just like this, and besides, I’m hungry, and we have a dinner reservation. If we stop, we’ll be late,” I explained. Carolyn insisted, and so we stopped.
As we walked up to the church door, I was like a pouting child being forced to do something he did not want to do. We opened the door and the entire atmosphere changed.
The sun was setting and the evening light was coming through the beautiful stained-glass windows at just the right angle. The colors in the ancient wooden pews were deep and mellow, and the reflection on the antique silver Communion service at the altar was stunning. We sat on the front pew for a while in total silence, captivated by the entire experience inside this church. As we drove to the restaurant for dinner, neither of us spoke for several minutes. My attitude had changed, and I apologized for the way I had acted. We both concluded from that chance experience that you really cannot understand the church from the outside. To know its real meaning you must be inside; in fact, it must get inside of you.
And now I say to all of the critics of the church—and there are many if you do not have a church, where do you assemble people to teach them to live by the highest summoning of the human spirit? What do you read that can be called Scripture? How do you sing? How do you celebrate?
The church is worth the effort.