29 May 2016
I can’t recall anyone celebrating my birthday for the first 14 years of my life. No birthday cakes, no birthday songs, no birthday presents. In fact, the first time my siblings sang me a birthday song was the day I turned 40, and only because that coincided with Chinese New Year’s Day; we had an extended-family gathering, and my wife had brought a cake and made everybody sing for me.
At 13, I put my trust in Jesus Christ and started attending the youth fellowship in church. My cell group gave me my first birthday cake ever the year after. It was at an outing at the Botanic Gardens. I had told them I was not sure I would be there, but they went ahead to prepare for me anyway. Unknown to the kind people who had put in the effort, that probably played a greater part than anything else to make me keep coming back to church, and to get more and more involved over time. For it was in that spiritual family that I had known love I had never known anywhere else, and having received it, I wanted others to find the same love as well.
Ironically, one outcome of my early positive church experiences was that I can readily understand why some people are so critical or dismissive of the church—because like me they had memorable experiences in church, but unlike me, these were negative events. As a result, they leave the church, or they stay put but refuse to get involved, because they have been hurt and disillusioned.
While our experiences, good or bad, would inevitably colour our perception of the church and generate either positive or negative motivation, they ought not become the main factor in the way we view church. The reason we should love the church is simply because Christ loves the church. The bible makes a staggering statement about the extent of his love for the church. It says Christ loved the church so much he gave himself up for her. He paid the ultimate price; he gave everything he could possibly give, in order to present to himself the church as a perfect bride.
Two implications flow from that statement. Firstly, Christ places an infinite value on the church. It is something to feel passionately and deeply about. It is worth laying down our lives for. It is neither optional nor peripheral; rather, it plays a central role in God’s redemption plan for the world. Secondly, the church is horribly flawed but God is not finished with it yet. Out of the corruption, divisions, hypocrisy and abuse that we so easily associate with church, Christ is at work to eventually bring about a radiant church without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
Nobody who claims to be a follower of the One who gave himself up for the church can be negative or indifferent about the church, any more than you can claim to love only someone’s head but not his body. To believe in Christ is to believe in his church. To serve Christ is to serve his church. To honour Christ is to honour his church. The Roman Catholic Church was not far off when it said that he who would have God as his Father must have the church as his mother.