Pure Church: Understanding Who the Church Is

I once met someone who worked in a café in Iceland. She told me that one of the specialities of the café was pure water. It was bottled and labelled but the water did not come from a factory. The café owners simply filled the bottles from the pure mountain stream than ran behind the café. Apparently the tourists could really taste the difference, no additives or preservatives.

We look for the pure. Whether its pure water, pure wool, pure juice or pure motives. After all, our world is full of the impure and the polluted.

Every now and then one of our rivers has dead fish washed ashore. Pollution kills. In some cities like Beijing it’s hard to breath because the air is so polluted.

We long for pure air, water and food. We also are mindful that our minds can so easily be polluted. I think of what Internet porn is doing to innocent minds; it’s a form of mental pollution that can lead to other harmful effects. Jesus once said “Blessed are the pure in spirit for they shall see God”. (Matthew 5: 8). Jesus was not advocating a new kind of pharisaic perfectionism. He defined and lived out a new kind of purity, where the love of God, liberated people to welcome and embrace people who were considered unclean and unwanted, the poor, the leper and the prostitute. It was a holy and moral love without straying into moralism or sentimentality.

This pure undiluted love of God flowed freely in Jesus and is what he encourages in the awesome sermon on the mount. It is aspirational, for one of the first things we discover about ourselves is that we are far from pure.

We are a mix of good and bad. Saint and sinner, capable of great good and frightening evil. Still we aim high, with the help of the Spirit , the guidance of God’s word and the encouragement and correction of others.

We don’t need to hang around the church for very long before we discover that it is not a sinless community. As the American New Testament theologian Scot McKnight says, ‘the church is a hospital for sinners, not a retirement centre for the perfect”.

Many centuries ago, a group of Protestants were intent on purging the Anglican Church in England of all traces of Catholicism. They wanted a pure church. In the end, frustrated and disillusioned, they got in boats and became American Pilgrims.

Some of them followed a sad five step pattern out of the church.

  1. Step one, they discovered the glories of the church in the New Testament, while overlooking the flaws of the fragile community.
  2. Step two they had a fresh vision of the church, which was very idealistic and unrealistic.
  3. Step three they had real problems achieving their vision, not surprising they face opposition and their own fallen humanity.
  4. Step four, they got discouraged and became very critical of the church.
  5. Step five they withdrew from the church.

What began with hope and idealism ended with frustration and failure. Where did they go wrong?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, renowned Christian minister, professor, in his great little book, Life together speaks about people who have created a dream image of the church that doesn’t exist. He says “those who love the dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community.”

Looking for pure or perfect Christians in a pure and perfect church is a failure to understand who the church is.

At our best we demonstrate in word and deed, the love, truth and unity of Christ, at our worst we are jealous, arrogant, loveless and self-centred. This does not mean that we give up on God or the church but rather  we recognise that following Jesus is always about being in a community of faith, loving others in strength and in weakness. We are celebrate each other, while at times admitting our weaknesses and repenting of our sin. Truth is we need each other. With Christ and each other we can be the best we can be.

We hope and pray and work for the renewal, reformation and reimaging of the church. We are to love each other, despite our failings. That’s not about perfection, but it is about a journey forward together, being a pilgrim people.

This is what I have signed up for, what about you?

Rev Francis