I recently left K-12 school administration to plant a church. Now, when asked what I do, I reply, “I’m a pastor,” which is when things get interesting. Many people have trouble knowing what to say next. Often an individual will proceed to explain how their uncle sometimes goes to church or how the neighbor’s kids were baptized recently. I get it. These are generous efforts to make a point of connection with me and my work.
Every once in a while, a person will reply with a look that says, “what a waste of time!” and not put forth much effort to make further conversation. I don’t mind this response either, for it makes sense coming from those outside the faith. After all, if Christianity is untrue, a pastor’s work is pointless and pastors are the pitiful shepherds of the most pitiful lot on the planet (1 Corinthians 15:19).
It’s not new that a pastor’s work would seem obsolete and futile. More than fifty years ago, when the Beatles’ Paul McCartney pondered the subject of loneliness, he sang of Father McKenzie “writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear.” This attitude toward pastoral work is tied to a broader suspicion of organized, institutional religion, a suspicion even found among some Christians. Which brings us to the question: what good is the Church?
As I, along with our core group, ponder that question, we are continually struck by what a remarkable thing it is we are doing. By planting a church, we are (by the Holy Spirit’s power) ripping open a hole in the universe that makes way for a flood of blessing. In other words, when a church is planted, a window to heaven opens. Ordinary churches dotting the globe are portals to heaven.
The Bible begins in a site where heaven touched earth. In the Garden of Eden, humanity dwelt with God. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit they were expelled from the Garden and forfeited God’s presence and the blessings that follow. The result was devastating, even lethal. Humanity was shaken to the core and in an effort to regain a sense of control, the people of the world built a tower stretching to the heavens. The objective of this Tower of Babel was to give the people a name and security, all apart from God (which is why it was doomed to fail). In the next story, God promises Abraham the very things the people at Babel sought: a name and the security that comes with being God’s people. The difference, however, was consequential. Whereas the people at Babel sought their name and security through their own might, organization, and ingenuity, God would give Abraham his blessings.
The difference between the Babel project and God’s redemptive project through Abraham crystallized in a dream decades later. Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, dreamed of a tower staircase reaching down from heaven. This portal to heaven had heavenly beings making their way up and down the staircase. The staircase signaled a portal to heaven, a place where heaven reached down to earth. Four hundred years later, heaven would land upon earth in the form of a tent, God’s tent, the tabernacle. But what would this heavenly arrival of God mean?
As the Bible unfolds it becomes clear this tabernacle is a symbol pointing to something beyond itself. The tabernacle, an enclosed space with its entrance facing east, laced with tree-like structures, and cherubim stitched into the veil, pointed backwards to the Garden of Eden. Even the priests who were to care for the tabernacle were given the same job description God gave Adam in the Garden (the Hebrew verbs are abad [to serve] and shamar [to guard]).
On the face of it, the prospect of God opening a site of his holy presence on earth is frightening for fallen and rebellious humanity. And yet God’s arrival in and through the tabernacle (and later the more permanent Temple) is filled with hope. The prophet Ezekiel vividly captures the restoration associated with the Temple. It all begins with a trickle of water issuing forth from the Temple that grows into a stream and eventually a river with ever-increasing depth. As this river reaches the surrounding area it brings life and healing to all it touches, even life to the Dead Sea.
Centuries after Ezekiel’s hopeful vision the Gospel writer John describes that Jesus pitched his “tabernacle” (as the Greek reads) among us (John 1:14), an unmistakable linking of Jesus to the tabernacle. And verses later, Jesus tells Nathaniel that he can expect to see the “heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51). Between this allusion to Jacob’s ladder dream and Jesus described as “tabernacling” among us, we see Jesus as the true heavenly invasion, the true axis point between heaven and earth. And yet he doesn’t destroy us but offers the type of life-giving water that Ezekiel describes as issuing forth from the Temple (John 4:10).
Jesus’s arrival pierced a hole in heaven, a hole issuing forth not judgment (at least not yet) but forgiveness and life. Where can these blessings be accessed? The answer is staggering. On the final day of a feast centered on the tabernacle, the priests, having already spent days carrying water to the Temple to be ceremoniously poured out, make seven laps around the altar and offer a final pouring of water. Meanwhile, Jesus tells the crowd that he offers living water and, moreover, this living water will (brace yourselves) flow out of his followers’ hearts (John 7:37-39). That’s right, Jesus’s followers, the Church, issue forth by the power of the Spirit life, healing, and restoration. To solidify the point, Peter calls Jesus’s followers living stones that together form the Temple of God.
So back to the question: What good is the church? Churches, although ordinary and easy to overlook (you’ve probably passed several already today), are portals that crackle with the power of God. But the supernatural activity of God in Christ’s churches doesn’t destroy but heals. When ordinary pastors in churches preach the Word of God, they proclaim a Word from heaven (the very Word of God!) that brings healing. When Christians ingest ordinary bread and wine at the Lord’s Table, they are lifted to heaven to commune with Christ, and are spiritually nourished. This interpenetration of heaven and earth that happens every week in churches is a hopeful anticipation for the full union of heaven and earth that will be realized at Christ’s return. So now, when asked what I do, I like to answer: I am ripping a hole in the universe that makes way for a heavenly flood of blessing upon the earth. And that’s when things get interesting.