THE NEW ECCLESIA
What is this word "Ecclesia"? We use it in English as "ecclesiastic;" the French have "l'Eglise." In the Greek New Testament it is used for the Church. The evangelists took it from classical Greek, where it means an Assembly. Literally it means "CALLED OUT." The famous Ecclesia in ancient Athens was a special Assembly of leading citizens, who were summoned or "called out" from time to time to decide on urgent matters of government. It usually met on the Pnyx Hill or the Acropolis. A herald with a scroll would ride on horseback through the beautiful streets of Athens, calling out the names of the councillors in the Ecclesia. As each man heard his own name, he would stop what he was doing and hurry to the meeting place on the hill.
We might translate the word Ecclesia as "paged." In the old days before electronics, a page-boy would go through the lounges of a hotel, "calling out" the name of someone wanted at the desk. Today it is done on a P.A. system. Have you ever been paged at an airport? It gives you quite a shock to hear your own name booming out over the loud speakers! You feel everybody is looking at you, as you straighten your tie or pat your hair and set off proudly to meet the one who has "called you out."
The early Christians thought of themselves as having been paged, or "called out" by the Lord Jesus Christ, summoned to a special meeting with him. This shows very clearly in the Book of Revelation chapter 18, where after a powerful description of Babylon with all its wealth and corruption, the author reports: "I heard a voice from heaven saying, Come out of her, my people, that you be not partakers of her sins, and that you receive not of her plagues. COME OUT OF HER, MY PEOPLE!" The early Christians believed that not merely had they chosen the Lord, but, incredible as it might seem, he had chosen them! The pagan world, symbolized by Babylon, was about to be destroyed; but to the Christians a voice was sounding on the celestial loud-speakers, "Come out of her, you, and you, and you; that you be not partakers of her sins, and that you receive not of her plagues." What a thrill! Those who responded to the summons, setting themelves apart and refusing to conform to the ways of a wicked and adulterous generation, were in the short term persecuted by the pagan world, even put to death, as their Master had been; yet they knew in their hearts that their beloved Lord had taken them to himself. The Christian Ecclesia grew rapidly, even during the period of the most intense persecution. After three hundred years, converts had been "called out" from every corner of the Roman world—and a wonderful band they were! That was Christianity's finest hour.
Then an astonishing event took place, which changed the whole direction of history. The Emperor Constantine, whose mother Helena was a Christian woman (perhaps from Britain), declared Christianity to be the official religion of the whole Roman Empire! The Christian community hailed this as a magnificent triumph for their faith. God's reign on earth had begun! Ironically, however, Constantine's well-meant action just about brought the Church to an end. It could survive persecution, but not this! Christianity became fashionable. All were in it now; nobody had to be "called out" from paganism any more. Pagans became Christians over-night. People without the slightest pretensions to spirituality were baptized and ordained, and even became cardinals and popes. Soon it was impossible to tell from a man's manner of life whether he was a Christian or not. Moral standards dropped lower and lower until the Church itself became the Scarlet Woman, and the Lord's cry from heaven, "Come out of her, my people!" was no longer heeded.
In Protestant Britain, after the Industrial Revolution, the Church became equated with Big Business. Wealthy factory owners supported and attended the parish church and were accepted as Christians, even though in many cases their life-style ran counter to all the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus had said: "Blessed are the poor, the mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers." Big Business countered with: "Blessed are the rich, the unscrupulous, those who elbow their way to the top and lavishly satisfy their hunger and thirst and all their appetites and desires!"
Missionaries were embarrassed by this situation when they began to make converts in heathen lands. At first the native peoples wanted to join the Church because they thought Christianity must have some very strong magic in it, since it made these foreigners so powerful, rich and clever. They attended the mission schools and learned to read, and were given the New Testament as their text-book. Then their bewilderment began, because it became evident that there was no relation between the way these foreigners lived, and the religion expounded in their holy book. These foreigners said with their lips "All men are brothers, equal before God;" but in practice they placed the themselves on top and the native peoples underneath. They called their Christ the "Prince of Peace," but they were always at war and built up huge empires by conquest on the battlefield. Jesus had apparently lived and worked with the outcasts of society, the n'er-do-wells, traitors and prostitutes. He had been at loggerheads with the Establishment, calling the rulers a "breed of snakes;" yet the Christian Church was one of the biggest establishments in the world, and the drunks and molls and hippies had to stay outside! No wonder the missionaries found it difficult to explain what we know to be the true position: that the foreigners were not exactly telling lies, nor were they consciously hypocritical; it was just that the holy phrases of the New Testament had lost all meaning for them. When read in church the venerable words were so-much cotton wool which padded them round and made them feel comfortable and good; it never occurred to them that their whole way of life was challenged by those words.
One of the hopeful things about our present generation in this 20th century is that thinking people are questioning the validity of merely conventional religion. I read a book recently called "God-Evaders," which demonstrated that almost every feature of our middle-class Christianity has been subtly designed to take the bite out of our religion and enable us to evade any direct confrontation with God. Another book, "The Comfortable Pew!" carries the same message. Then there is one called " Who is Killing the Churches?" and the answer given is that God himself is killing the Churches, because they have ceased to serve the purpose for which they were established.
The obvious situation is that the Church of Jesus Christ, which lost its distinctiveness back in the 4th century when it became equated with Civilization, is no longer functioning satisfactorily. As an Institution it is still impressive; but does it influence the life and thought of the people? A sociological survey conducted over a large and representative segment of the population revealed that only a negligible proportion, even of so-called Christians, paid any attention to the attitude of their churches on any live issue. The vast majority formed their opinions from radio and TV, magazines and their local newspapers; or just went the way their fancies led them.
So we have come to the point in history when the Old Christianity is moribund, and a New Christianity is taking its place. This New Christianity has not yet "jelled," so we cannot say in detail how it will develop. But I do know that if you and I are to belong to it, we shall have to begin by making a clean break with most of the attitudes and values of our western culture. We must become a New Ecclesia, called out from the world and dedicated to a truly Christian life. I do not mean that we must separate ourselves from the world in the sense of forming a closed community. Jesus himself said of his disciples: "I pray not that they should be taken out of the world, but that they should be kept from its evil." (John 17:15.) As members of the New Ecclesia we should live actively in the world, facing its trials and temptations, going to church, getting along with other folk, earning our living, and so on; but with a. much greater sensitivity to the demands of our religion.
Most people, I suppose, regard life as being so many years of time to be passed through as pleasantly as possible. But in the New Ecclesia we learn that we are not in this world just to pass the time. We are here for a divinely ordained purpose: which is, to qualify as citizens of the Lord's heavenly city, the Kingdom of God; or, if you will excuse the phrase, to become angels. (No wings, please!—just good people in heaven.) This world is the anteroom of eternity, a School in which we are enrolled in order to train for angelhood. Unfortunately a large proportion of the students in this school do not take their studies very seriously! They have a lot of fun, join the correct clubs and fraternities, go to the dinners and dances; but when it comes to graduation day, they are totally unprepared.
To express it in another way, our purpose in life is to be spiritually regenerated or "born again" as children of God. ("Except a man be born again," said Jesus to Nicodemus, "he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.") By our first birth we are basically selfish, dominated by love of self and love of the pleasures of the world. Our major task is to remove these two loves to a subordinate position in our hearts, and become motivated instead by love to the Lord and the neighbour. From being ego-centric we must learn to become God-centric; from being concerned only with the things of this world, we must become supremely concerned with the things of heaven. The whole of our life here on earth should be geared to this process of regeneration. When at last we die and enter eternity, nothing will be asked about us at all, except this one vital question: "to what degree are we regenerated or reborn as Children of God?" Evidently, if we are to undertake membership of the New Ecclesia, we shall have to make some vital changes in the pattern of our living. Most of us must admit that a large part of our waking lives is wasted from the point of view of regeneration.
We Westerners are a restless people. It is characteristic of our culture that we should rush around doing things, filling up every moment of the day, always busy. We even pride ourselves on how busy we are! We say we are being of use. But if what we are doing fails to develop love to the Lord and the neighbour, then it is not serving any genuine use. We are "wasting our substance on that which is not bread, and our labour on that which does not satisfy." I suggest that we should resign from all commitments and responsibilities and membership of clubs and societies and boards and whatnot, if they merely exhaust our time and energies and do not get us any nearer to heaven. We must trim down our lives and replan our programme so that we are not too preoccupied to spend time on the things that really serve a use: such as, a quiet period every day in the Lord's presence, when we can open up our inner selves and align them with the Divine Will. We should allow ourselves time to exercise our creative talents, and develop our love of beauty; time to meditate on the Bible and read books which give us new spiritual insights. You will probably find you need to spend more time with your family; and there are friendships which you should cultivate on a deep level. Such occupations as these are far more useful and worthwhile than rushing around doing things for the sake of being busy.
It is characteristic of our western culture that we should be ambitious. We are urged to be successful, to do better than the next man, to make a name for ourselves. Why? For what reason? No reason, apparently, except to boost our love of self. Yet the whole purpose of life is to devalue love of self! So, as members of the New Ecclesia, we must step right out of this, going into reverse on the ambition line. We should have only one ambition: to love the Lord with heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbour as ourselves.
Again, our culture requires that we should pile up possessions. A high-pressure advertising propaganda is directed towards persuading us to buy more and more of a bewildering variety of consumer goods. Why? For what reason? To satisfy our love of the world! Yet the purpose of life is to soften up our love of the world! The less we pander to it, the easier our regeneration will become. As Jesus said, "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, but lay up treasures in heaven; for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."
And so I could go on, showing how a member of the New Ecclesia must develop an altogether different set of values, priorities and standards than those normally taken for granted in this secular age. These different values will revolutionize his thinking. They will transform his attitude towards politics, towards business, towards education and the upbringing of children, towards the use of leisure, towards everything. The change will come out very strongly in his home life. His married partner will find him much easier to live with. The children will catch something of it and will ease up on their own quarrels and struggles for mastery; there will be less shouting and nagging in the house. His friends will notice it; they will see he is developing a new kind of maturity and poise, and they will start coming to him for help and advice in their own problems, recognizing that he has "got something." In a crisis, he will be the stable one, on whom others lean. Because of his growing intimacy with the Lord and his deepening prayer life, he will have a confident trust in Providence, and so his fears will vanish, stresses and strains will ease away, and he will begin to experience a deep-down happiness which no outward troubles will touch, which this world can neither give nor take away. His tastes will become simpler. He will cease to need possessions to bolster his self-esteem, nor alcohol or tobacco or excitements or entertainments to keep him going. Old resentments will fade from his memory; quarrels will no longer seem important; physical pain and sickness will no longer disturb his equanimity. You see what is happening? He is becoming an ANGEL, and his environment is therefore becoming HEAVEN! That is what is supposed to happen with us all as we grow older, and the fact that it has so seldom been seen to happen indicates the urgent need for the inauguration of a New Church, the Nova Ecclesia.
The world today is very bad, and is getting worse. It is also very good, and getting better! We are at a turning point in human history. A new spirit is stirring, both within the churches and outside them. More and more people, young and old, are reacting against the sterile materialism of the age. The celestial loud-speakers are booming out from the clouds in the sky. Listen! Your name is being called! And mine! And others too. "Come out of her, my people," says the voice. "Come out of the humdrum, mediocre, secular, complacent, self-centred life that most of you have been living up till now. Depart ye, depart ye, go ye out from hence, touch no unclean thing."
Where is this New Ecclesia to assemble? On the top of a hill, of course. Which hill? The Pnyx or the Acropolis in Athens? No. Read from the Book of Revelation, chapter 21: "He carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain" (a spiritual mountain, elevated high above the ordinary levels of life) "and showed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God." That is where our Assembly is to be held: in the NEW JERUSALEM. Eventually we shall find we are assembling there so often that we shall leave our present abode (our present level of life) and become permanent residents of the New Jerusalem, living to eternity in perfect peace and heavenly joy, near to the royal palace of the King of kings.
"The Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And the nations of them that are saved shall walk in the light of the city, and kings shall bring the glory and honour of the nations into it. And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination or maketh a lie: but they that are written in the Lamb's book of life." (Rev. 21: 24-27.)