Some people in the world today enjoy poking fun at the church, even running it down and talking negatively about it. In some parts of the globe, people persecute the church. Sometimes we will hear criticisms of the church even from within. Someone once compared his church to Noah’s ark. “If the flood on the outside were not so bad, you couldn’t stand the smell on the inside.” That’s not exactly a positive thing to say about the church, is it?
Some will make statements such as, The church is full of hypocrites or It’s irrelevant; it’s behind the times. Some from the outside will point to some of the sordid history, such as the Crusades or more recently of clergy misconduct. Others tend to treat the church as kind of an extra in life, a non-necessity, nice to have around. What matters though is my personal walk with the Lord, they’ll say.
Let me ask you, What is your attitude toward the church? Do you love her or are you a critic? Do you cherish her or do you treat her as an extra in your relationship with the Lord? We have been talking about the Church of Jesus Christ for the past two Sundays in our series called, “This Is Us.” Along the way we’ve learned that there are two ways of talking about the church. The Church can be talked about as the Church Universal – all believers in Christ on earth. As we say in our Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the holy catholic Church.” Or we can talk about the church as a local congregation of believers in Christ who are called together and then sent out into the world to serve Him.
In the book of Ephesians, the Apostle Paul uses various images to help us better understand what a special and glorious thing the Church of Jesus Christ really is. We’ve seen that He calls us the family of Christ, Christ’s body with many parts – each one important.
Today he uses another interesting image to describe the wonder of the Church, one which we don’t talk about much. We find it in the fifth chapter of Ephesians as he is instructing husbands how to treat their wives. In the instruction, he describes the Church as the Bride of Christ. In verse 25 he makes this very interesting statement: “Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the Church.”
Now we have a marriage imagery. The Church is the Bride of Christ, and Jesus loves her. He cherishes her with a superior type of love. Sometimes after we’re married, we will jokingly say, Well, the honeymoon is over! But the love Christ has for His Church is a superior type of love, and the honeymoon for Him is never over. He is affectionate; He loves His church.
How has He loved her? In verse 25 we see that He gave Himself up for her to make her holy, which means set apart for Him. He has cleansed her for Himself with the forgiveness of sins. You see, this bridegroom was willing to pay any price for her – even going to a cross. He sacrificed His life for her good.
I love the way Martin Luther talks about this in his writing, The Freedom of a Christian. Listen to this: “Who can understand the riches of the glory of His grace? Here this rich and divine bridegroom, Christ, marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all evil, and adorns her with all his goodness. Her sins cannot now destroy her since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by him. And she has the righteousness in Christ, her husband, of which she may boast as of her own and which she can confidently display alongside her sins in the face of death and Hell and say, ‘If I have sinned, yet my Christ in whom I believe has not sinned, and all his is mine and all mine is his.’”
Isn’t that a beautiful statement of how Christ has loved His Church? He went all the way to the cross to make us His own.
We also see in verse 23, prior to today’s reading, that He leads the Church. Christ is the head of the Church. He has been given responsibility for the Church, to care for her, to lead her, to take the initiative for her welfare, to help her be all she was meant to be. He’s always up to something good on behalf of His bride.
The Church has no idea what Christ is up to a lot of the time. He surprises us with all kinds of things. Sometimes in history He surprised the Church with revivals. He moves in ways that surprise the Church with joy and health and growth. I’ve seen this in my own congregation. Jesus has led us through some exciting adventures with the evangelism ministry and outreach ministry and small groups ministry and prayer ministry. He even took us into a relocation we never anticipated. He was leading. He was the initiator, the head.
In verse 29 we also read that He nourishes and cares for His church as one cares for his or her own body. How does He do that? He feeds the Church through His Word and the sacraments. In that Word, He cleanses her with the water and the word. This is a reference to Ezekiel 16 where God is cleansing His bride Israel, making a covenant with her. He protects her, takes care of her. He builds her up. He sees what she needs and what she can become, and He provides for her. He does everything in His power to shape and mold His body through the Holy Spirit’s work. He cares for her as we care for our own bodies.
Finally, we learned He actually has a stake in her future. He holds her future, her destiny. In verse 27 it says He is preparing us for the great wedding day. Listen to these words of Paul: “So as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so she may be holy (set apart) and without blemish.” The beautiful bride on the day of the wedding. I think of my beautiful bride of 40 years ago this year on our wedding day coming down the aisle. All I could say as she came toward me was, She’s beautiful!
Jesus will present her to Himself on the great consummation day without stain or wrinkle. We were betrothed to Him at our salvation; at the consummation we are received as His bride. At the end of the Bible in the book of Revelation, the Apostle John is given a vision of the wedding of the Lamb. There is a great shout – hallelujah and praise – for Christ has made His bride ready. The Church has a great destiny awaiting us.
So this is us! In this world, which can be so critical and condescending to the Church, remember – we are the bride of Christ! Are we perfect? By no means! We won’t be without blemish until the great wedding day of the Lamb. We are still a group of saints and sinners. It resides within each of us. We are blemished, in need of God’s grace and forgiveness time and again. But we are forgiven, and we are loved by Jesus. We are a covenant people being shaped and molded by His Holy Spirit, and called into service for the glory of God. We are the bride of Christ.
I hope you understand the passion, the love this bridegroom, Jesus, has for the bride. I hope you see and understand the value of the bride in the bridegroom’s sight. You will find joy and assurance in that. I hope you can feel your attitude toward the Church rise a little bit under the Word of God as we look at the image of the bride of Christ, and I hope you are coming to understand that the hymn writer is right when he says, “She’s the Apple of His Eye.”
Now the question is, If Christ is the Bridegroom and the Church is His bride, how then would He have us view the bride and treat the bride (our local church)? Listen to this statement: If you love the bridegroom, then you will love the bride. For as Paul says, “They are one.” There is a special union of the two becoming one. Hear His words from the last part of this reading for today: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.”
Remember when Paul, who once was called Saul – the great, persecutor of the Church – was knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus and had a conversion? He saw a bright light and heard these words: “Saul, Saul! Why are you persecuting me?”
Saul asked, “Who are you?”
The voice of Jesus replied, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” When you persecute the bride, you are persecuting the bridegroom. Then Jesus called Saul (who became Paul) into service for the bride. If you love the bridegroom, then you’ll love the bride.
Imagine a scenario – A man invites a friend into his home for dinner. They enjoy a delicious meal the man’s wife has graciously offered to make. The man and his friend casually catch up on life, but then halfway through the meal the invited guest starts to do something unbelievable. He starts listing things his wife’s friend could’ve done better. The chicken’s too tough, he says. You should have marinated it longer. And the broccoli’s overcooked. My twelve-year-old daughter could cook a better meal than that! And you really should do something else with your hair. Then he begins to criticize her character and even ridicule her.
I’m guessing his visit would be cut short and the guest would simply be sent away with a few choice words by the husband. Even if he might’ve been right about certain things, the typical husband simply wouldn’t tolerate someone openly and caustically criticizing his wife. He loves her, and for a husband that means accepting and honoring his wife despite her quirks and shortcomings. On the other hand, if someone reaches out and helps my wife, I consider them my friend. When you’re good to the bride, you bring pleasure to the bridegroom. Grasp that truth, and you will think in new and different ways about your local church.
As a follower of Jesus Christ, I am to love what Jesus loves. He loves the Church as His bride. How can I do otherwise?
When we talk about love in the Church, we’re not simply talking about a feeling but a superior sort of love, the love Jesus has that led Him to the cross. Love is a verb, not a noun. It’s an action word. Just think of what we do for those whom we love, those whom we are committed to. We talk of them and to them with words of affirmation. We say, I love you. I appreciate you. When we pray, we thank God for those we love. We give them words of value and honor. For those we love, we make time for them, and make them a priority even when we have a busy schedule.
Likewise, if you love the Church, you make her a priority, time wise, in your busy schedule.
We give thoughtful gifts to those we love. We think long and hard about how to give a special gift to the person we care about. Likewise in the church, we give thoughtful gifts if we love her – resources of our time and our talents and our treasures – and we give them passionately. Those we love – such as in our own marriage – we serve one another. We serve together. Are you serving in your church’s ministries?
And of course, we meaningfully touch those whom we love.
Are you committed to be at worship every week? That is expressing your love to Christ and to His bride.
This is the appeal I make to you today. Christ loves His bride, the Church. If you love Jesus, love your church. She’s not perfect, but she is very near and dear to Jesus.
You might be thinking, That church hurt me somewhere along the way. Let me remind you that to love also means to forgive and start over.
Okay, where do I start? you might be wondering. Pray for her to be the light of the world for Christ – great commission people as well as great commandment people. In your prayers, give thanks to God for your church and what she’s done for you in the past. Pray for the bride’s health and growth.
Ask God to show you where you can serve and contribute to the mission of His bride. Then dare to take the next step after you’ve prayed. Put that love to work for the bride. Ask your pastor, for instance, where you can help in the church because this is us, the church, the body of Christ, the bride of Christ through whom Christ works, the family of Christ, belonging to Christ. We are the bride, loved by Christ and valued by Christ, attentive to her. He delights in us.
If you love the bridegroom, then you’ll love the bride, and count yourself blessed that you belong to the church. Amen.
Pastor Steve Kramer