I just love this song, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in a hymn book. The composer is unknown. I can only find credit being given to “traditional.” And we need to sing it. All of us.
It’s a song about humility and prayer — and faith in a living Jesus who is active and who transforms those who believe in him. It’s a song that assumes Jesus wants us to make it and is willing to help us become who he wants us to be. It’s a song of hope found, not in our own efforts, but in Jesus’ efforts to fix us.
It reminds me of a couple of my favorite passages —
(2Co 3:17-18 ESV) 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
(Phi 2:12-13 ESV) 12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
And so many more …
Now, both 2 Corinthians and Philippians were written by Paul to congregations, not to individuals. I believe we err just a little when we read texts such as these purely individually. Yes, there absolutely is an individual application. God, through his Spirit, absolutely dwells within each Christians and does these things. We are each individually a temple of the Holy Spirit!
But most of the passages that speak in these terms are speaking of the congregation as the Spirit’s temple, not the individual.
(1Co 3:16-17 ESV) 16 Do you not know that you [plural] are God’s temple [singular] and that God’s Spirit dwells in you [plural]? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you [plural] are that temple [singular].
(Eph 2:19-22 ESV) 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
(1Pe 2:4-5 ESV) 4 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
Each congregation is a temple being built together for dwelling place for God himself, through his Spirit. And you can see from the verses that it’s a process, not an accomplished fact. Your church is a temple under construction — far enough along for worship and sacrifice, but still not complete, still not what it will be one day.
The work is being done by the Spirit. We don’t build the church. We are “being transformed.” We are “being joined together.” We are “being built up.” The voice of the verb in Greek is passive. The construction, the edification is a gift to be received from the hand of God.
Then again, as Paul declares in Philippians 2:12-13, we are to “work out” our salvation as God “works” in us. We cooperate with God’s work within us — but it’s God first and us second. After all, who knows better than God what improvements need to be made? what transformation is necessary? what we’re supposed to look like when he’s all done.
We Westerners have a tendency to want to — and I’m the chief of sinners in this regard — draw the plans, hire the contractor, award the subcontracts, and even drive the nails ourselves. We might give God the credit, we aren’t about to give him the control.
In fact, we aren’t even sure that we know how to let go. I mean, by what process do we discern where God wants to take us? And so we just naturally keep on doing what we know how to do. Inertia and tradition and habit — and the need for control — drive us all.
Now, I’m an elder in a Church of Christ. And we elders should be all about discerning the direction God wants our congregations to go. In fact, a few years ago my fellow elders and I met with our entire congregation, two or three small groups at a time, and we asked them, “If you were to leave our congregation for 10 years, and if the Spirit had his way with our church during that time, what changes would you find when you returned?”
We figured the Spirit is in all of us and so we should hear from all of us. We took notes. Listened much more than we talked. (Not so easy for me. Really. It was hard.) And we asked just a few follow up questions to go deeper. It was a memorable, transformative experience.
Now, every church is in a different place, but in the Churches of Christ, especially those Churches of Christ that have leaders who read Wineskins, we have a few things in common.
Most of us come from a heritage that for many years lacked a full appreciation of grace. And for many of us, when we finally — finally! — discovered grace, well, we thought we’d arrived. Some of us (me especially) got a little full of ourselves. I mean, the scriptures became so much clearer, spoke more directly to my heart, and so for a while there I thought I’d plumbed their depths — 30 years ago. And I wasn’t even close.
Most of us also come from a heritage that long denied the personal, effective indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And again, when I finally figured this out (it took me awhile), I figured I’d found Absolute, Final Truth — and there wasn’t much else to learn. And, again, I was very wrong.
And during this time, as a church leader, my tendency was to think in terms of where I’d been and how glad I was to have learned these new insights. My theology and so my leadership was about where we’d been, what we were leaving. And having left many of things, well, we were pretty much all done. But that was a long time ago, and God has been busy teaching me a little humility (and I’m confident he has a few more lessons yet to teach me — which I’m really not looking forward to).
Now, I’m done looking through the rearview mirror. It’s time to look ahead, to no longer be defined by what we once were and to instead ask what God wants us to become. And the answer will no longer begin with “not.” It’s time for a positive direction defined by God, not history.
And so I’m asking — and have put this question to my fellow Featured Authors here at Wineskins — looking at the Churches of Christ as a group, with a particular focus on those congregations that are becoming more grace-focused and open to the workings of the Spirit: If you were to step away from those congregations for 10 years, and if the Spirit were to —
* transform those churches into the image of Jesus the Messiah, from one degree of glory to another,
* work in us, both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure, and
* build us up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Messiah,
— what would that look like? Where do you think the Spirit wants to take us? What would we look like when we get there?
Not where are we in fact headed. Not what we are leaving. But what we would look like if God’s Spirit accomplished a decade’s worth of temple-building work among us? How would we be different? Where should the leaders of these churches be leading us if they were to lead as the Spirit leads?
If God answered the prayer, “Fix me, Jesus,” at the congregational level, what would a congregation under repair look like? what stories might we be able to tell?
And here are two bonus questions:
How do we learn the Spirit’s will? What is the discernment process? (Oddly enough, I think that one’s harder, although you’d think it really should be answered first.)
How would this play out at the (what’s the right word?) movement level? How would Churches of Christ relate to each other and cooperate (if at all, I suppose) after a 10-year temple building program?
These questions are too big for one post or one author. Or even for the authors who will post here. Please provide your own thoughts in the comments.