37. C.h.u.r.C.h.

It is unavoidable that the word church is received with a whole bunch of emotions and reactions. For some the negativity comes unrestrained, fuelled by hurt and disappointment over many years. The pain permeates into the conversation about church and leads to sharp rejection of people and organization in the hearts of individuals.

I am truly thankful that I was privileged to enjoy a loving and welcoming church community as a teenager. I cannot clearly remember all the teaching and sermons, but I remember the friendliness of the leaders, the organization to have fun together and my fellow youth very well. For my two eldest sons however, church was not the comfortable home that we so desired for them.

It is intentional that the heading for this Pebble is written like an acronym. We have to establish a new and positive concept within the principle of CHURCH. There might be a lot of possibilities but for now let us define church as a:

Congregation of Hope Unified and Redeemed by the Cross of Healing.

The Cross is the crux – always and everywhere. In every situation, every crisis, every feast, every life-event it is the Cross of Jesus that gives meaning and healing.

With this principle firmly in place as priority, we can look back to the exiles returning with Ezra to restore the temple in Jerusalem. God stirs the heart of this learned man to lead the way and guide the people. He comes equipped with the approval and support of the dominant Emperor of the ancient world at that time. Even within these very beneficial circumstances Ezra writes about God’s hand on his endeavour.

Blessed be the Lord God of our fathers, who has put such a thing as this in the king’s heart, to beautify the house of the Lord, which is in Jerusalem, and has extended mercy to me before the king and his counselors, and before all the king’s mighty princes.

So I was encouraged, as the hand of the Lord my God was upon me; and I gathered leading men of Israel to go up with me. (Ezra 7:27,28,NKJV)

Church organization starts on the journey. Ezra makes a meticulous record of the families accompanying him and finds no Levites. Traditionally the Levites were responsible for temple ministry. When Joshua divided the Promised Land, the Levites received no land to free them in order to serve the people full time with regards to their service to God.

Ezra organizes 220 temple servants from the tribe of Levi to come to Jerusalem with them. (Ezra 8:15-20) He appoints twelve leaders to the priests and entrusts all the valuables of the temple to them. On arrival they secured the treasure of silver and gold and prepared the sacrifices.

Personal worship is restored, but reveals the sin in the community. Ezra becomes deeply aware of it and intercedes for the people to plead forgiveness. He tears his clothes and pluck out his hair and beard – an extreme display of deep emotional distress. He prayed so powerfully and sincere that the people gathered around him in tears, realizing and repenting their sin.

The occasion is marked by prayer, repentance and reverence to the Word of God. It is significant that Ezra’s reaction to the sinfulness and imperfection of the situation is a heartfelt, earnest prayer emphasizing the sovereignty and might of God. He prays and repents on behalf of his people. He did not go amongst them with judgment and blame for the sad situation and reproach for the lack of enthusiasm in the restoration project.

Before the restoration could begin the people had to divorce their pagan wives and send them and the children away. (Ezra 10:44)

For our modern ears this is radical and drastic. The Old Testament is our symbolic guide to spiritual purification. Secular attitudes so comfortably embedded in the church like a “wife” corrodes the church from inside and render it powerless. We all know that the church is often victim to gossip, offence, pride, lovelessness, selfishness, self-importance and haughtiness, unforgivness – oh, the list is shockingly long and nasty.

In the Gospel of John we read about the woman caught in adultery and brought before Jesus in the streets of Jerusalem to be judged and executed by the “church”. Read the story in John 8:1-11.

The Scribes and the Pharisees actively devoted their lives to ministry. They were the leaders responsible for the spiritual well being of their people who were distinct in their worship of their one God Yahweh. His commandments were the foundation of the community. Their lives were lived wholly dedicated to faithful service. Their passion often smothered compassion when the zealous application of the letter of the law brought harsh and ruthless verdicts. In case of doubt about the application of the law and sentencing, it was quite normal to bring the matter to the rabbi.

Although they did not fully accept Jesus as part of their exclusive theological community, the respect from the people, which He spontaneously received, caused them to try and trap Him into an argument that would discredit His teaching.

Any Jew would know that adultery, murder and idolatry were punishable by death. Leviticus 20 and Deuteronomy 22 prescribed the death sentence for both parties to adultery. Interestingly, the man in this case was not a co-accused.

Death by stoning was the obvious conclusion in this case. The Law of Moses was clear. An added bonus was a theological ambush for Jesus. In the words of William Barclay: …and here they thought they had impaled him inescapably on the horns of a dilemma. [New Daily Study Bible]

If He supports the execution, his message of love and grace would be discredited and He will not be called the friend of sinners anymore. He would at the same time be in trouble with the Roman authorities, since the Jews were not allowed any execution rights, even within the limits of their own people and religion. Rome was the ultimate authority and held life and death in their power. Maybe Jesus would not realize that this would bring Him into trouble and then Rome could get rid of him.

On the other hand, if He chooses to forgive her, He will be in conflict with the Law of Moses and would indirectly condone the sin of adultery.

Jesus bowed down and started writing in the sand. On this matter the commentaries name countless possibilities and the mystery that clouds the content of his sand secrets, has been the subject of many sermons and discussions. Rightly so, there is room for interpretation on multiple levels. Let us consider only two. Maybe he could not face the hate and condemnation in the eyes of the spectators and church leaders and knelt down to pray for guidance and wisdom. Maybe His godly insight in the lives of the executioners gave Him the opportunity to write their sins and transgressions to expose them as hypocrites. The Greek word for write is graphein. In this case the word katagraphein is used, which means to write something on the record against somebody.

Could it be that Jesus went on record against these sadistic stone throwers?

Nevertheless the church leaders insisted on an answer. An answer they received:

So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” (John 8:7 NKJV)

The loud accusers disappeared quietly. They left the woman, but they also left the key to their own forgiveness and renewed lives. They left the scene where the Source of forgiveness and reconciliation with God remained standing.

When Jesus and the woman were alone he asked: “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” (V10)

Jesus never denied her sin and the condemnation following it. How could He free her so unconditionally? Adultery is serious. According to His own teaching a ground for divorce. (Matthew 5 – the Sermon on the Mount.)

Jesus knew He was on his way to the cross to die for her sin. He lived in the awareness of His ultimate purpose. He spoke liberty over her just because of who He was.

His words of farewell are significant, but sound almost casual.

And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” (V11)

Jesus did not send her to the synagogue for training in the Law of Moses, or to the rabbi for spiritual guidance and teaching. He neither gave her a long lecture on a pure life and new thinking. He sent her away with words of grace in the full knowledge of who His father is and the power of the Holy Spirit to lead her into a future of victory over sin.

Grace is the unmerited favour of God. God’s grace cannot be earned and He gives it freely without reproach for our benefit because He is a good, good Father.

Mercy is defined as follows:

Compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.

According to Merriam-Webster: mercy implies compassion that forbears punishing even when justice demands it.

Mercy is the withholding of punishment from somebody in a position of authority over you. God defines Himself to Moses as a God of mercy. (Exodus 34)

Not only does He withhold the punishment. He took our punishment on Him!

The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, (Isaiah 53:5 NKJV)

This was real church in the streets of Jerusalem. Not a place of condemnation and execution. It was a place of liberty and bold entrance to a future of victory over sin and shame.

Jesus knew that His words of freedom would ensure her to His father and the Holy Spirit. She will be safe and secure. The Holy Spirit will convict of sin, righteousness and judgment. (John 15)

It is not for the church to shout the sin and judgment. The church is the place of love and mercy to enable the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts of men. Without love there is no constructive confession of sin.

The Holy Spirit prepares the people for the Presence. In the Presence, in the holy light of His countenance, sin is realized, confessed and replaced with restoration and victory. This is church at the foot of the Cross.