I rejoice with those who said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” Our feet are standing in your gates, Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is built like a city that is closely compacted together. That is where the tribes go up – the tribes of the Lord – to praise the name of the Lord according to the statute given to Israel. There stand the thrones for judgment, the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels.” For the sake of my family and friends, I will say, “Peace be within you.” For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your prosperity.
When I was a teenager my middle brother and I played a season in a curling league. One night a week I had team practice at the curling club and on Saturday’s we played against another team. To be completely honest, I didn’t love curling. I wasn’t very good, I fell a lot, and couldn’t figure out how to get the right weight (the strength with which you throw the stone) and the spin (the rotation applied to the stone to make it ‘curl’). But more than that, I didn’t think curling was a ‘cool’ sport. I played competitive volleyball and basketball – sports which, at least in my then circles, carried some social capital; volleyball was the elite sport in my high school.
And so, especially on Saturday game day, when it approached the time to head over to the curling club, my brother and I would head to the basement of our house, as far away from my mom as possible, in the hopes that she would forget that we were there and that we were supposed to be at curling. I remember it only working once. And even then, because we were so excited our plan had worked, 10 minutes after curling had started I walked upstairs to mom and proudly stated, “Hey mom, curling started 10 minutes ago… I guess that means we’re not going.”
Now, my mom was no fool. She knew we tried those shenanigans. And so she responded, “Right, good thing you reminded me. Let’s go. Get in the van.”
And we went, head held low, 20 minutes late, begrudgingly to play out the rest of the match (God bless good moms).
Because I didn’t love it, I didn’t want to go. Because I didn’t love it, my commitment to the team meant very little to me. And because my commitment wasn’t high I never even had the chance to develop or find a love for the sport.
Years later I went curling with a group of friends for one of their birthday – and it was amazing! We had so much fun and curling became a semi-regular thing with that group of friends. When I reflect on what was different in that second experience the easy assessment is I’d matured a little, or that I was playing with friends, and that makes a difference. And while that is all true, I think it was something a little deeper than that – I think it was the fact that one of my friends, Craig, loved curling. And I mean really loved it. He was the reason we all went that first time – it was his birthday party. And the joy on his face and in his voice as we all played was infectious – it was compelling. His love for the game, and his love for all of us, and our shared love for each other – expressed in a commitment to do ‘weird’ and out of the ordinary things together – made all the difference to my ability to experience joy in the game.
I offer this story as a (hopefully) compelling analogy to what’s happening in Psalm 122 – or, at least, in the negative example a contrast to what can happen in our own hearts as we come to God through the church.
Psalm 122 is a Song of Ascent. As such it was part of the worship liturgy for the Jewish people in the three pilgrimage festivals: the shalosh regalim – the Feast of Passover, the Feast of Weeks (aka Pentecost), and the Feast of Booths (aka Thanksgiving). As they approached Jerusalem, walking up (ascending) the mountain, prayers and songs would be offered up as part of the experience. Those attending the festivals would come rejoicing, in celebration at coming to the house of the Lord (vs. 1). They would proclaim her firm foundations and God’s faithful promises to her (vs. 3 & 5). And they would come praying for her prosperity and peace, her wholeness and her blessing (vs. 6-9).
Jerusalem was lauded, not because of her inherent might – or even her architectural beauty. Jerusalem was praised and taken joy in because she was the place where God promised to be present with his people, and through them to the present to the world.
What Jerusalem was to the ancient Jews, the Church is to those who profess belief in Jesus, to those called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). The author of the Letter to the Hebrews makes this connection explicitly, “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.” (Heb. 12:22-23, emphasis added); Paul says that Christians are citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20) who are being built up for a purpose: “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (Eph. 2:19-22). Follow the logic of that identity statement: once foreigners and strangers, now citizens with God’s people, part of the household; built on the foundation of apostles and prophets with Jesus as the chief cornerstone (all of this is very clearly language of the temple in Jerusalem being applied to the church of Jesus)… all of this comes together as a new, heavenly building – a temple – in which God lives by his Spirit.
The Church is now the place were God promises to be present in and with his people – and that doesn’t mean a building. We are being made like a building; we are being made like the building where God previously resided. The Church, the family of God, the bride of Christ, is now the people through whom God reveals himself to the world through the proclamation and the living out of the Word of God. Lives transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit through the renewing of our minds as we a not taken captive by hollow and deceptive philosophy but where we learn to take every thought captive to Christ is the realm of the work of the church and the place where God promises to be. It is no longer about people being found in a particular land, but about people found in Jesus.
10 years ago – maybe 20 – with the rise of the Emergent Church movement and a new (?) progressive liberalism in western expressions of Christianity (likely also in response to a militant evangelicalism in the so-called culture war) a phrase rose to popularity: “I love Jesus, but I hate the Church.” And in part, we can understand the sentiment; especially as we become more and more away of historical abuses in the church closely tied to the history of colonialism; as more and more sexual abuse scandals are revealed and the depths of the cover ups by people in the institutions is made clear; as more and more prominent figures in evangelicalism are exposed as having abused power and sexually and spiritually abused people under their care.
Even though hypocrisy is common to all people it is most poignant in people who profess to be Christian. And while the language of “Hating the church” has maybe softened, there is a whole new generation of people deconstructing the faith of their youth, parents, and community who are walking away from Christian orthodoxy by asking the question: “What is the point? I don’t really need church to be a good person. And I don’t need to go to church to be a Christian.” Worse than hate is apathy.
But to be a Christian is to share in the anointing of Christ; it is to be loved by Jesus and to strive for loving Jesus in return. The best way to strive for loving Jesus is to love what Jesus loves. And Jesus loves the church! So much so that he died for her! And maybe what Psalm 122 can teach us is that we don’t love the Church for what she is, but what she can be, what she is becoming, who Jesus has declared her to be. And so we pray for her prosperity and peace, her wholeness and blessing. We pray for eyes to see the Church as Jesus sees her: a bride beautifully adorned for her husband, the King (Rev. 21:2).
To be clear, the Church of Jesus is made real in the lives of Christians by being present in local churches. The local gathering of believers must continue meeting together (Heb. 10:24-25); it only takes two or three people together for Jesus’ presence to be especially present in their midst (Mt. 18:20); it is in and through the gathering of believers around Word and Table that both defines Christians as such and through which the church is grown into maturity (cf. Acts 2:42-47 & Eph. 4:11-16).
Maybe what we need more of in this age of faith deconstruction and increasing apathy towards church is for a few church people to be like Craig: may the joy on our face and in our voice as we all gather be infectious – and compelling. May our love for Jesus, and his love for all of us, and our shared love what he loves – expressed in a commitment to do ‘weird’ and out of the ordinary things together – make all the difference drawing others to experience joy the followship of believers and the joy of knowing, and being known by, Jesus.
Lord Jesus, help me to love your church like you do. Help me to see her in the truth of who she is and in the truth of who she is becoming. When I experience doubt, help me to pursue peace; when I experience disappointment, help me to offer forgiveness. In Jesus’ name, Amen!