One of my most vivid memories from first watching Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is the feelings of wonder and relief when the elvish city of Rivendell appeared on the screen. A refuge for the battle-worn, beautiful Rivendell is a place of light and healing, feasting and fellowship, storytelling and singing – a far cry from the fighting and fear that marks so many other scenes.
I wanted to be there. And who wouldn’t? We may not be facing battle-hungry orcs, but life isn’t exactly an idyllic walk in the park. Suffering and trials come at us from every side and in every size. People and institutions we thought we could trust fail us. The headlines scream one tragedy after another.
A refuge in the real world?
When it feels as if the world is on fire, are safe havens to be found only in the land of make-believe? The Apostle Paul doesn’t seem to think so. Listen to him as he describes what a church ought to be in his letter to the Ephesians:
A sanctuary marked by complete humility and gentleness (Eph 4:2). There is no jostling for positions or power, and the fragile, vulnerable things are handled with care.
A haven where people are patient and bear with each other’s bad days and good days and everything in between with love (Eph 4:2).
A refuge from a fractured, splintered world, where each person makes every effort to maintain genuine unity and peace (Eph 4:3).
A gathering that is purposeful, where each one who steps through the doors is built up and equipped for faithful living, encouraged to keep growing and maturing (Eph 4:12-13).
A place of protection from evils without and within. A safe place (Eph 4:14).
A community made beautiful by diversity – one body with many parts and different giftings, all in need of the other (Eph 4:15-16).
A people bearing the fruits of goodness, righteousness and truth (Eph 5:8-10).
This is no fairy tale – this is how Paul expects a Gospel-shaped church to be!
I wonder what the above stirs in you. Relief? Hope? A longing to belong to this kind of community? Or maybe sorrow, pain or despair because your experience of the church has been very different. Can Paul really think such a church experience is possible in this sin-marred world?
A refuge made possible
Paul wasn’t deluded. He was writing to a church that knew something of the messiness you might face in your own. Yet he did not hold back in his encouragement because Paul knew the key to the church becoming this kind of refuge lay in the power of the Gospel to create communities of relational depth and beauty.
In the first three chapters of Ephesians, Paul exclaims the glories of the Gospel as though exhilarated by a new-found treasure. It’s not just that we are a people extravagantly blessed with every spiritual blessing – it’s that even the same power that raised Christ from the dead is working in us (Eph 1:3,19)! It’s not just that those who were once far away have been brought near – it’s that Christ has destroyed that old hostility and made us citizens and heirs with him (Eph 2:14-22).
These precious truths do more than fill our hearts with wonder. They create something too – and Paul knew this. As one recent podcast stated, “What the Gospel does through what it says is create beauty in human relationships. […] Church should have a felt experience of the grace of Christ.” A church striving for relational depth and beauty will also be a church transforming into a safe refuge for a weary world.
As an example of this, let’s unpack Paul’s description of the Ephesians as “children of light” (Eph 5:8). If that is the identity the Gospel gives us, we begin to feel its impact when we relate to each other with honesty and truthfulness. Sin is able to be confessed within the walls of grace built in our churches and small groups. Relational openness provides opportunity to speak encouragement and build people up. And slowly the church is transformed by the beauty of truth and light, becoming a place where people want to walk through the doors.
We will all fall short of this vision in some way but the Gospel not only pictures a church like this, it supplies the power to grow us into this kind of community. So how are we to work towards this vision in our own churches?
A refuge realised
Here are four starting points:
It may be a good time to remind the people of God of their identity and calling in Christ. It is so easy to forget who we are, and even easier to forget how our identity should change the way we live and relate to one another. Perhaps your small group could create a list of what we’ve received in the Gospel using Ephesians 1-3 and write down some implications for your relationships with one another to set a vision.
Look back over the list at the beginning of this post. Can you spot examples of where tastes of this Gospel community already exist in your church? Are there individuals or groups that you could both encourage and learn from?
Throughout Ephesians, Paul gives a few lists of traits that should and should not mark the church. With prayerful, humble examination can you identify how your church is doing? What is good? What is hard? What might be in need of change?
Reflecting on #1-3, is there one area you could focus on as a starting place? This will depend on your role within the church. Taking the “children of light” example, let’s say you are a small group member. Could you model an increase in honesty in prayer requests in your group? If you are a small group leader, could you take a few minutes to remind your members of who they are in Christ and how the Gospel shapes the way we do relationships – and then model the vision throughout the year?
Rivendell sadly does not exist, but Jesus’ church does. One day there will be nothing but wonder and joy when all that is imperfect and wrong is gone. But until that day, let’s press on together to live and relate in a way that is worthy of the Gospel we’ve received.