Over Easter, we had the privilege of receiving a team of eight from our home church, Cottage Lane Mission – thanks guys :-), fantastic job! – to help us do some work on our house. Hence the gap in blogs – just too busy between paint and cement to put virtual pen to paper, I’m afraid. Our house is a hundred year or so old Spanish town house, crumbling a little at the edges, in sore need of a little TLC – which it got over ten days of intense work on all fronts.
The at times frenetic work brought at some point the inevitable jocular reference to the first verse of Psalm 127: “Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labour in vain.” I am not quite sure what this meant in the context of work on our house, though suspect it is probably some kind of get-out clause – if everything falls down when they have gone, we should blame God, not them! But it did make me think.
Let’s turn that text round a bit. (Yes, I know that reversing syllogisms can produce some interesting fallacies, but bear with me on this one for a moment – this verse is not a syllogism, nor is this a class in Aristotelian rhetoric for that matter…) “Even if the Lord does want to build the house, unless its builders labour, it will all be in vain.” Just as intense human effort divorced of God’s blessing is destined to failure, so also is God’s desire without people prepared to work hard to bring things about. God’s work would appear to always be the product of toil – yes, the Hebrew word ‘amal is that strong – on the part of people who labour under the blessing of God.
Builders labour. Houses simply don’t get built without hard work.
So too God’s house. To believe anything else is to live in a world of magic wands and fairy godmothers, of “with one bound, Jack was free” theology. Deus ex machina finales work well for Rambo films, but belong to the world of fiction; the drama of real life is not the work of Hollywood script writers.
Let’s start with the building of faith in our own lives. Paul is quite clear:
“For we are God’s fellow-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no-one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:9-15).
The foundation of the grace we have received in Christ is in place – what is in question is what and how we build on that. Spiritual disciplines are just that – disciplines – not leisure breaks. Wisdom does not float down from heaven, it is searched for like a buried treasure. We get to know Scripture by engaging directly with the Bible, not merely listening to others’ sermons (though that is a start!); there are no short-cuts to reading, studying, meditating. Sin is resisted, not magicked away. Christian fellowship happens as we forgive and put up with other sinners who God asks us to love as he himself loved us. A mature Christian life does not “just happen”; it is the fruit of a labour of love.
Beyond our individual faith, Christian community is also not built without its own measure of toil. Paul tells the new Ephesian believers that they are:
“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” (2:20-22).
Built together – to which Peter adds, “as living stones” (1Peter 2:5). I have often observed that it is much easier to build with dead bricks than living stones. Dead bricks fit all neatly together, and stay put. A splodge of cement, a couple of taps with the trowel handle, and done, onto the next brick. Living stones are different. With an infinite variety of shapes and sizes it takes a good dose of creativity to fit them together well. But turn your back to get another one and on returning to the building-in-progress, they have moved. Sigh…
Starting, building, developing churches is hard work. Terribly rewarding, it is true, but extremely hard work nonetheless. From its inception in evangelism through the discipleship process to the formation of mature local fellowships, church is created by patient and dedicated toil. One of the most common New Testament terms used in this respect, kopiao and its cognates, refers to feeling fatigued, and by implication, the hard work that leaves us in that state. Whatever our romantic ideals about Christian ministry, let there be no doubt about it – wherever you see healthy church, you can be sure that someone or someones have sweated a great deal over it.
Even in this, however, the complicity with God as “arch-builder” stands. Speaking of his ministry to see Christ made known amongst the Gentiles, Paul confesses: “To this end I labour, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1:29). We labour, we struggle, but the energy which keeps us going – and the work with us – comes from above. We are never unfeeling robotic channels of divine power. We still labour, pushing our frail humanity forward, of necessity using all the time, energy and abilities that we have at our disposal, at times wearing ourselves thin in the process. But somehow, like the burning bush which “though on fire… did not burn up”, grace keeps us going.
Jesus will build his church, and all that hell can come up with cannot prevent that. The Lord will build the house, the Lord is building the house. Labourer, in your fatigue, know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.