Church, from the other side

From the underside, it’s a hot mess.

Random colored threads loop over one another, willy-nilly. Loose ends dangle like overgrown vines. The colors and patterns that are visible look more like the textures of a nightmare.

But flip the tapestry over, and it’s a different world. All those chaotic weavings, those half-seen patterns, were part of bringing to life a pristine creative vision. There’s order and beauty when you look at it from the proper side.

Life as a church often looks like the underside of the tapestry.

Life as a church often looks like the underside of the tapestry. We have our chaoses, personal and corporate; we’re caught off guard by sin; every so often we glimpse the pattern (if we squint), but a church can still just seem so … human. Messy.

The book of Ephesians owns that messiness. From chapter four onwards, Paul slogs into all the snarls of temptation and toxic culture and struggling relationships. That is, unfortunately, part and parcel of being the church this side of the new creation.

But the special beauty of Ephesians is that in the first chapters, Paul flips the tapestry for us. He shows us what’s going on in all these tangles; what’s really emerging from the unresolved patterns in our lives. He starts us with a vision of the church seen from the perspective of heaven:

  • … Even as [God] chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.
  • In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will…
  • [God] raised us up with [Christ] and seated us with him in the heavenly places …
  • So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God …

While the church is a rabble of suffering, struggling, bedraggled human beings, at the same time it’s a living temple of the adopted children of heaven. While we experience history one minute at a time, with no idea what tomorrow brings, at the same time we’ve been caught up in the unshakeable goodwill of the Lord of the universe. That holy unity, that cosmic plan are just as real as – one could argue more real than – our present struggles.

As we become a family of neighborhood churches, we chose Ephesians because we want to remind ourselves of both realities of the church. We want to address the struggles and the mess because that’s part of being human; but we also want to remind ourselves of what’s going on at the same time in the world we can’t yet see. Knowing that God is in control of everything helps me struggle well through tough medical issues. Knowing that my crotchety neighbor may be my brother in heaven gives me the perspective I need to love him well. Knowing I’ve been freed from my sins helps me fight them harder.

god cares about your mess

So know that God cares about your mess. The Incarnation – when God became a human being – was God coming into this side of the tapestry, to sweat and cry and go hungry and touch the sick. He cares about your tough marriage, your bullied child, your underemployment.

But for Christians, there’s a pristinely beautiful story unfolding on the other side of the curtain. God is in control; he’s adopted his children; and he’s orchestrating everything, as Paul writes elsewhere, for the good of those he’s called.

Image: “Abraham Entertaining the Angels,” Flemish tapestry ca. 1600. Images from Metropolitan Museum of Art.