I’m in the middle of Eugene Peterson’s Practice Resurrection. It’s the fifth and final book in his series of “conversations in spiritual theology.” It just came out. I’m devouring it. It centers on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, especially the line in Ephesians 4:13 about “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” What does it mean to grow in Christ? What does spiritual maturity look like? How do we measure it? Why doesn’t spiritual growth, development of the mind of Christ, seem to be as high a priority in our churches as it does in our Scriptures?
See, it’s really easy to put down the Church. It’s easy to dismiss the Church as ineffective. Irrelevant. It’s easy to be condescending toward the Church because the Church appears to be in such a mess. It seems that the Church has had little impact, if any, in making any headway toward peace and good will on earth. Nobody’s clamoring to get inside. Nobody’s breaking down our doors to get closer to God. The world is coming out of the bloodiest and most violent century in history. And this current century appears to be determined to pass it. What good is the Church?
Well, Peterson’s point is that maybe we’ve got the purposes of the Church all wrong. Maybe the expectations we have of Church are wrong. At the very least, they’re not big enough.
Peterson points to a term coined by C. S. Lewis way back in 1952: deep church. It helps convey the ocean fathoms of all that God is doing in and with and through his Church. Things seen and unseen, things from eternity past to eternity future, things here and there, things God started long ago that are being finished today, things that are being started by God today that won’t be fulfilled in our lifetimes. Deep church.
“It takes both sustained effort and a determined imagination to understand and embrace church in its entirety. Casual and superficial experience with church often leaves us with an impression of bloody fights, acrimonious arguments, and warring factions. These are more than regrettable; they are scandalous. But they don’t define church. There are deep continuities that sustain church at all times and everywhere as primarily and fundamentally God’s work, however Christians and others may desecrate and abuse it.
Church is an appointed gathering of named people in particular places who practice a life of resurrection in a world in which death gets the biggest headlines: death of nations, death of civilization, death of marriage, death of careers, obituaries without end. Death by war, death by murder, death by accident, death by starvation. Death by electric chair, lethal injection, and hanging. The practice of resurrection is an intentional, deliberate decision to believe and participate in resurrection life, life out of death, life that trumps death, life that is the last word, Jesus life. This practice is not a vague wish upwards but comprises a number of discrete but interlocking acts that maintain a credible and faithful way of life, Real Life, in a world preoccupied with death and the devil.
These practices include the worship of God in all the operations of the Trinity; the acceptance of a resurrection, born-from-above identity in baptism; the embrace of resurrection formation by eating and drinking Christ’s resurrection body and blood at the Lord’s Table; attentive reading of and obedience to the revelation of God in the Scriptures; prayer that cultivates an intimacy with realities that are inaccessible to our senses; confession and forgiveness of sins; welcoming the stranger and outcast; working and speaking for justice, healing, and truth, sanctity and beauty; care for all the stuff of creation. The practice of resurrection encourages improvisation on the basic resurrection story as given in our Scriptures and revealed in Jesus. Thousands of derivative unanticipated resurrection details proliferate across the landscape. The company of people who practice resurrection replicates the way of Jesus on the highways and byways named and numbered on all the maps of the world.
This is the Church.”
Massive. Eternal. Rich. Huge. Deep.
I am honored to be invited by Rick Ross to speak tonight at the Decatur Church of Christ. Rick was our preaching minister at Mesquite when Carrie-Anne and I were there from 2000-2003. And I believe Rick is the first preacher I ever seriously listened to. Really. Of course, I’ve been listening to preaching since the day I was born. But Rick is the first preacher I ever really paid attention to. Not just his sermons, which were powerful and bold, but his life.
Rick carried himself in a godly way. Patient. Gentle. Encouraging. Cheerful. Determined. Strong. His preaching came out of that life. His sermons were born out of his own walk with our God. He was Thomas Long’s Witness of Preaching before I had ever heard of Thomas Long or read his book. It moved me, the way Rick lived and preached, preached and lived. Yes, there were other things going on in my life then. I was growing in Christ, I was maturing in my faith, I was thinking differently about eternal matters and God’s purposes for me. But Rick was all over that. God was working in him and through him to teach me.
Rick and Beverly treated me with great patience and understanding even as I acted selfishly and foolishly in church settings and congregational matters. They embraced my family. They showed me grace. They taught me grace.
Watching Rick and learning from him helped motivate me to answer God’s call to preach his Word. I’m so thankful for the ways God used Rick to shape me during those short years in Mesquite. I’m grateful for the rock solid example of faithfulness and trust in God that Rick has been to me and everyone who knows him since February. And I’m honored to speak to his church tonight in Decatur.