This morning we begin a series to look at and discuss some focal images of the church. That is, images which identify the purpose and nature of what we are called to be and do as the Church. But before we get into those ideas of what the church is called to be and called to do as a result of its identity, the what and the how questions, we must first ask the where, the when and the why questions.
From where did the church come? When and Why was it created? Is it a human creation, or does its origins find themselves in the very heart of God?
To really understand the answer to this question, the whole narrative of Salvation history must be dealt with from the beginning of Creation and human disobedience in the Garden of Eden through Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ, and beyond to the Eschaton, when Christ will return, as Paul says “with a cry of Command, with the voice of an Archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God” and we will be “caught up together… in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so… always be with the Lord.” (1 Thess. 4:16-17, ESV).
It is our Christian understanding that at the present we live in an in between time. The time between the Ascension and Return of Christ. It is a time when the Kingdom, or the Reign of God proclaimed by Jesus has been inaugurated, yet not fully realized, or completed as we believe it shall be at his Return. It can be described as an “already, but not yet” period of history. Within this period of time, the Church was created, and given its identity and purpose.
To know where the Church came from, we go back into the Old Testament, even back to the very beginning of Adam and Even in the Garden.
The first 11 Chapters of the Book of Genesis are often overlooked by the modern reader because within them is contained so much of what many people believe to be myth. Now whether or not you believe that Genesis 1-11 should be taken literally or not, is not of consequence for the point I want to draw your attention to, which is that at the very least, these eleven chapters truthfully describe the reality of the human situation here on Earth.
As faithful Christians this means we understand that we are created in the image of God, with the ability to make choices, to love, to create, to imagine, to reason and to live in harmony with creation and with God; that we have fallen away from our relationship with God through disobedience, following our own short-sighted desires and sinful pride, rather than God’s perfect will for us. We know now that God would eventually fix the problem by sending his own Son into the world to Reconcile the World back to God. But before that there is the long and arduous history of God’s people.
But before we get to that, there is one story which I would like to draw our attention to which is so often overlooked. It is the story in Genesis Chapter 11 about the Tower of Babel. Someone who takes the bible literally will argue that this passage demonstrates the origins of the various languages throughout the world. The real point of this story is deeper than that. While it is the Bible’s attempt to explain language groups and ethnicities, it also speaks to the lack of harmony and cooperation among the peoples of the Earth.
In the story of the Tower of Babel, people’s tongues or languages are confused, and they are no longer able to communicate with everyone else. People are separated into language groups and so on. But the point here is that humanity is no longer a united group. In a world which has Google Translator and Bablefish, this may seem insignificant. But in a world full of thousands of languages and ancient dialects, this was a major factor. In a world in which communication across cultural-linguistic boundaries was limited, conflict and prejudice towards ones own “kind” was a way of life. We see in the New Testament how the divisions among people are ended. On the Day of Pentecost, when the Gift of Tongues is given so that the Good News may be proclaimed throughout all the world.
This is an important point because it is within this world of a divided humanity, that God chose one group to be the nucleus of his plan of salvation. This process starts in Genesis when God calls Abram and promises that he will be father of a Great Nation, and will have descendants as numerous as the stars in heaven or the grains of sands on the sea shore.(Gen 12:1-3, 15:5, 22:17). It is through this one group of people, God’s chosen people that plan of salvation will play itself out.
What follows through the Old Testament is the story of God creating and caring for his people, Israel.
They are led out of captivity in Egypt, into the desert where they wander for 40 years. Here they are given the Law from God. They enter into the land of promise. A Kingdom is established, but then it becomes divided. Within this period of the 2 Kingdoms, they are sent prophets, a unique aspect of the Judeao-Christian religion, to warn them from turning from God. The prophets warn that the Kingdoms will fall, and they will lose their promised land. This happens when the Babylonians conquer Jerusalem in 586 B.C. There follows mass deportations. In 539 B.C. Babylon is conquered by Cyrus the Great of the Persian Empire. He allows the Jews to return to their homeland, though many, having already been fully integrated into Babylonian culture never return. Within the exile there are prophets, both in Babylon and in Jerusalem, who proclaim a restoration, particularly the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel.
After the return, the Temple is rebuilt in 515 BC, and the ritual sacrifices are resumed. This temple will stand until is is finally destroyed by the Romans around 70 A.D. This is called the Second Temple Period. It is into this society that Jesus will be born.
The second temple period sees a rise in the scribal tradition. In 332 the persians were defeated by Alexander the Great. The Greek culture began influence Jews living in Palestine. This upset many and in XX there was an uprising against the Hellenes led by Judas Maccabaeus. In 63 BC, the Seleucid Dynast, which was created in 312 BC by the death of Alexander the Great, fell to the Romans, who took over control of the region.
The Jews never ruled themselves in their own right after the return from exile. They were always subject to a foreign power. Within Judaism there was a longing for the old days, as it were. They wanted to have their own state, as they believed God intended for them. As the scribes read the scriptures, they began to see that there would be an anointed one of God, who would restore the Throne of David. There was contradictions in the understanding of what this Messiah would do, or rather, how he would restore the Reign of God. Some thought he would be a strong military and political leader who would over throw the foreign governments and restore Israel to its proper dignity. This difference of opinion would be the cause of the conflict between Jesus and his Disciples and the Jewish hierarchy in the early First Century A.D.
As the Early Christians looked over the scriptures, they found passages which they believed rightly showed the type of Messiah which was to be expected.
That he would be born of a Virigin:
 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.  He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.  For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.  The LORD will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.” (Isaiah 7:14-17 ESV)
and that he would come from Bethlehem:
 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.
 Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has given birth;
then the rest of his brothers shall return
to the people of Israel.
 And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth.
 And he shall be their peace.
When the Assyrian comes into our land
and treads in our palaces,
then we will raise against him seven shepherds
and eight princes of men;(Micah 5:2-5 ESV)
Again in Isaiah, they found the idea not of a political leader of the Suffering Servant who would establish forever the reign of God:
13 Behold, (Z)my servant shall act wisely;[a]
he shall be high and lifted up,
and shall be exalted.
14 As many were astonished at you—
(AA)his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—
15 so (AB)shall he sprinkle[b] many nations;
(AC)kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
(AD)for that which has not been told them they see,
and that which they have not heard they understand.
If this were a bible study class, we would discuss the details of the context of these passages and how the early Church came to use them and understand them as fulfilled in Jesus. For us now, in this context, we must leave it simply that as Christians, we believe that these prophecies are fulfilled at the coming of Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem of the Virgin Mary.
The New Testament is the story of that fulfillment. It contains the narrative of the Incarnation, Birth, Ministry of Proclamation and Healing by Jesus, of his betrayal, and his crucifixion, his return from the dead and his ascending to the Father, and the sending of the Paraclete (which means advocate or comforter), the Holy Spirit.
In this whole story, it seems that we have yet to encounter the word church, or any sign of the creation of the church. For this we must look into the Gospels.
There we find that Jesus has gathered around himself 12 disciples. Disciples are students of a teacher. Jesus had disciples, as did John, and many others. Disciples sit at the feet of the master to learn from him. They are not better than him. Then there is a transformation. Jesus changes these 12 from simply being disciples to being Apostles. This is an important word. The word is greek and it means “ones who are sent.” The disciples formed the first nucleus of the Church, their role was changed from that of a passive student to an active minister. In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus gives the Church its primary mission: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold I am with you always until the end of the age.”
This is the Church’s Great Commission. This is what it is called to do in its most fundamental aspect. It is called to share the life it was given by it’s savior.
But the Church is more than simply a missionary society. It has a quality of life which is its own. And before we can share that life, we must first understand it and be living it out ourselves.
It is this self knowledge which motivates us to share the Good News, with others and to invite them into that same life, into the life of the Church. The purpose of our time together is to explore who we are as the Church, and then understanding who we are, explore what it is we are called to do as a result. As I suggested before, our primary purpose as the Church is to share the Good News of the life we have in Jesus Christ. It is my hope that as we explore the various aspects of our identity, we will realize that sharing that Gospel does not simply mean going out and hitting people on the head with a bible and telling them to come to church. The Christian life is much deeper than that. One of the most important ways to witness to the truth of what we believe is to simply live it out. People will ask, “why do you live this way?”
Together we will explore four focal images which get to the heart of our lives.
These four images are:
The Church as the Bride of Christ
The Church as the Body of Christ
The Church as the Light of the World
The Church as a Pilgrim People