Monuments and living stones

I’m writing this on a flight from Istanbul to Tel Aviv, heading to Jerusalem for the third iteration of my National Ministers’ Conference (#NMCJerusalem).

I’ve spent the last week in Turkey, mostly in the region the ancients knew as Asia Minor. It’s been a real privilege to visit the sites of key cities and towns, especially those we remember for the little churches that sprang up within them in New Testament times: Colossae, Ephesus, Laodicea, Pergamum, etc.

Today you can visit archaeological remains from the period of those churches, but they’re not from the churches themselves. The archaeological evidence is of the great powers of the pagan civilisation within which the earliest churches found ways to be faithful and thrive, despite their suffering. Unlike the dominant powers they built no buildings. They erected no monuments. Instead they were buildings made of “living stones” (1 Peter 2:5). They were gathered by the Holy Spirit and held together by love for one another.

Their “monument” – if that’s the right word – is the church that spread throughout the world, springing up within every culture, speaking and thinking in every language, witnessing and serving in every kind of circumstance. Their “monument” is as different as could be from those twelve believers in Ephesus (Acts 19:7). But they were gathered together as “living stones” by the same Holy Spirit.

Of course there is an archaeological record of an ancient church in modern Turkey, but that’s from the later Byzantine period. For 1000 years Constantinople (modern Istanbul) was the centre of world Christianity. But again, there’s very little trace of Christianity in Turkey today – except for the Byzantine archaeological sites and re-purposed masterpieces like Aya Sofya. The ancient dominant civilisation is gone, and so are the living churches that grew up within it.

It occurs to me that the civilisation into which I was born – 1950s Australia – has also passed away. It has been replaced by the multicultural, multi-faith, hyper-capitalist, globalised, digital civilisation that is dominant in Australia today. It shouldn’t surprise me, then, that the churches that grew up within that former Australian civilisation have also passed away. There is evidence of their passing through this place in all those re-purposed buildings from the period, and the now impractical, difficult buildings, practices and institutions that many congregations and denominations still use today.

However the church of “living stones” is emerging afresh in the new Australia…and so I’m on my way to Jerusalem. I’ll be gathering there with colleagues to wrestle with that commitment made in our Basis of Union with such prescience:

The Uniting Church prays that she may be ready when occasion demands to confess her Lord in fresh words and deeds (Basis of Union paragraph 11).

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