God’s homes throughout the centuries, from basements to basilicas, have all shared one thing in common: the only reason they’re called God’s house is because the Lord drove up in a U-Haul and moved in. His presence and his presence alone makes them heaven’s earthly address.
When Moses and his artisans finished the tabernacle, for example, the “glory of the LORD filled [it]” (Exod. 40: 34). Later, on the day Solomon and his workers completed the temple, once more “the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD” (1 Kings 8: 11). Likewise, when God’s glory vacated the temple polluted by Israel’s idolatry, it ceased to be the divine abode. It became just another piece of foreclosed real estate destined for the Babylonian bulldozer (Ezek. 10: 18–19).
If God’s not home, it’s not God’s home….
What we call “houses of God” today are concrete places where Christ is at home to do what he’s always done. He lays aside his garments, takes a towel and basin of water, and washes the feet we’ve soiled on paths of disobedience. He cooks a meal and beckons us to take a seat at his table. He teaches us who we are, who he is, and who we become in him. He has us sing and pray and echo back to him what he’s first said to us.
In other words, Christ works from home. Just as he came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” so he sticks his head outside the church door and yells, “Come one, come all! I’m here to serve you with the fruits of the ransom I paid in full for you” (see Matt. 20: 28). A church service is what Germans call Gottesdienst, God’s service. It’s not our service but his. He is there not only as Lord but as the Servant of his servants.
This entails something else as well: God’s house is also the sinner’s house. Mi casa es su casa, he says. My home is your home. Because of that, under the Lord’s roof you’ll always find quite a mess. Streaks of blood on the floor from the wounded who drag themselves there after a week on the battlefields of addiction, grief, and family disintegration. Scratches on the walls from those trying to claw their way free from demons within. Vomit on the carpet from women sick of abuse and men sick with anger. Overturned tables from infighting. Everywhere you look in the church are the shards of broken hearts, trails of tears, and the blank stares of God’s children hungry for even a scrap of hope in a life racked by the famine of despair.
We may be wearing a suit or blue jeans, a dress or shorts, but all of us who walk in the door of God’s house are draped in filthy rags in need of whitening by the blood of the Lamb. In the church, cleanliness is not next to godliness; uncleanliness and ungodliness is all we have. And Jesus, over and over, purifies us with his blood.
This is comforting, to be sure, but also unsettling. In the sanctuary the grossness of our frailty, meanness, and evil is on full display. In the little congregation I served, for instance, only about seventy-five people gathered on Sunday mornings. Among them was the alcoholic who showed up, more than once, on a congregational workday to cuss out our trustees for spending too much money. Two elderly women still feuding over suspicions of a husband’s infidelity from thirty years before. The couple who regularly dialed 9-1-1 to report domestic abuse. The porn addict. The serial divorcée. The rumormonger.
The church of God is also the house of human failures.
The church of God is also the house of human failures. That tiny Oklahoma congregation was a microcosm of broken humanity. A living monument to how evil takes a chain saw to lives, marriages, and friendships.
Yet there we were, Sunday after Sunday, elbow to elbow in the same sanctuary, bathed in the same baptismal font, drinking from the same cup, hearing from the same Bible, members of the same body of Jesus. This flock might at times have resembled more a pack of mangy wolves, but the Lamb of God stood steadfast and immovable in our midst, taking away the sins of the world—including ours.
Whether God’s house is underground in Siberia, a clapboard house in an Ohio cornfield, or the Washington National Cathedral, they are all the chosen communities where the Holy Spirit, living among us unholy sinners, is hard at work. In quiet and slow and unassuming ways, he is transforming us into the image of the Father’s Son.