“Building a Porch”
January 7, 2007 - Epiphany Sunday
My uncle took a step and the boards cracked. Before he could step back, the floor opened and he went straight down up to his armpits through a hole in the back porch. It happened ten years ago at our cabin in Arizona. Our little wooden porch extends six feet out over a twenty-foot drop. It gets baked by Arizona sun and covered with snow in winter. We can’t keep paint on it and we don’t try. So that summer the main support beam rotted through.
Uncle Dick wasn’t hurt, just surprised. He grabbed hold of the door stoop and pulled himself back into the house. During the night, the rest of the porch collapsed and fell down the hill, making a tremendous racket that woke my aunt and uncle and the neighbors. It could have been much worse.
That was a back porch, but I’d like to talk about a front porch, a way into a house. Robert Farrar Capon says a porch on a house is like a theology. Having one is good, but you need to take care of it. Let it fall into disrepair and it could be disastrous.
Theology is thinking about our faith. Like other “-ology” words, it is the study of something, in this case, God. The word “theology” is not in the Bible. But Bible people and writers did it. Paul was a theologian, and so were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The mysterious magi from Persia were theologians. It was their theology, their ideas about God, which drew them across the desert toward Bethlehem. If they hadn’t thought about God, studied the Hebrew Bible, and tried to fit it all together with their study of the stars, they would have stayed home and worshipped their old gods, as T. S. Eliot said.
Theology is a porch. It’s a way to seek and find the Lord and draw near to Him. The theology of the magi brought them to the porch of a little house in Bethlehem, where Matthew tells us they entered, knelt down, and worshipped baby Jesus. That is the aim of all theology, all thinking about God, to bring us into the presence of Christ so that we can worship Him. Theology is a way of getting in the door to meet Him. It’s a porch. That makes theology a very good thing, but the real living is always in the house with our Lord.
Porches are helpful. Your house sits on a foundation. Without a step or two and a stoop to stand on as you unlock the door it would be hard to get inside. Porches also provide shade, protection from the rain, and a place to wipe your feet. Make your porch large enough and you can sit out there and watch the sun go down or play a game of cards like we used to at my grandmother’s house.
Theology is a porch to the house of Christian faith. In the text I read from Ephesians, Paul uses the word “mystery” four times, in verses 3, 4, 6 and 9. God’s work in Jesus is a great mystery, which Paul says in verse 5 was not made known in previous times. Paul was given insight, given understanding of that mystery, given a theology, so that more and more people could enter the house of faith and know the Lord. As verse 6 tells it, part of the mystery revealed in Paul’s theology is that the whole world, whether Jews or Gentile, is invited into God’s house. That same theological mystery is what we see acted out live as foreigners from Persia show up at Mary’s little house in Bethlehem.
So as this new year begins, I propose that we build a porch together. I put it this way partly because it sounds a lot more fun than proposing we study theology. Yet it comes to the same thing. I invite you to join me in studying the Christian faith so that through theology we can enter into God’s presence more deeply, and so that we can bring others into His presence.
A significant, lively Christian theology takes effort, like having a significant porch these days. On the Internet you can find an article entitled, “The Decline of the American Porch.” At one time, a porch was a prominent feature of most American homes. It held chairs or a swinging bench. You spent time on it, watching the sun go down, or chatting with neighbors as they walked by. It was a place to relax, to cool off, to talk with friends.
But society and technology has changed it all. With air conditioning, no one needs to go out on the porch to cool off. With television, you don’t need to talk to anyone to be entertained or hear the news. We tend to stay inside by ourselves, rather than going out on the porch to greet those who live around us. Our culture is more individualistic and less community oriented than it used to be. We put “decks” on the backs of our houses, not welcoming porches on the front. Even if you have a more or less traditional porch, like our family’s which has the typical posts holding up the roof and a swinging seat, like us you probably don’t spend much time there. It’s just for show.
Father Capon imagines a family porch starting out with a couple of wood steps, then being widened and deepened to hold a bench. Then the family calls in a contractor and covers it over with wooden beams. They add lights and outlets to plug in a CD player and an electric barbecue grill. They shop for hanging plants and designer outdoor furniture. It’s a House and Garden showcase.
After awhile, though, you get tired of taking care of that elaborate structure, putting water seal on the wood, caring for the plants, hauling in the fancy furniture in the winter. So the furniture gets moldy, the plants die and the boards start to rot. The same thing happens when we construct an elaborate theology just for show and then neglect it.
Paul did not study theology just to show off, just to prove he was smart enough to grasp intricate doctrines that might escape lesser minds. Verse 8 says, “Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given to me, to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ.” His theology was not just a bunch of pretty words and ideas for intellectuals. It was a way to share the richness of Jesus, to invite people into the house of God.
Every once in awhile, Christians get the idea they don’t really need theology. Just tear down all those silly porches and live in the house of faith. Our denomination comes from a group of people who thought a little like that. They were disgusted with the elaborate, extravagant, over-done affair that Lutheran theology in Sweden had become.
Yet when they came to the United States and didn’t have to be Lutheran anymore, Covenant people soon discovered they still needed theology. So they started a school, North Park College and Seminary, and began ordaining their ministers, to make sure Christian faith was properly taught and understood. If people were to find their way into the true house of God, there would still need to be some theology, a porch at the front.
It’s still true. Without the porch of theology, our church will join the general drift of American culture. We will all sit inside here, and let the world go by unnoticed. We need time sitting in chairs which face outward, observing our community and our culture, thinking how what we believe has anything to do with the lives being lived around us.
Praise God, He gave us a new building last year! Many of you sacrificed financially and a number of you gave your own sweat and labor to make it happen. But we need theology to remind us that the point of a church building is not just to sit inside and enjoy the comforts, like air conditioning and a computer network, that we built into it. It’s not just to have study and worship in a pleasant, functional environment. That building, and this building we’ve had for 20 years already, are not exactly homes to live in. They are porches from which to welcome our world. God gave these buildings to us as doorways for people to enter into His presence.
If we build a good theological porch, then we will begin to really understand and live the truth expressed in our texts this morning. Jesus Christ is our true home and He is home not just for us, but for everyone in the world. We will learn how to live in Jesus and how to construct a porch that welcomes friends and neighbors and distant strangers to live in Him alongside us. Paul says in verse 9 that his theology was given to him, “to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery,” that is the mystery of Christ.
The porch I’m talking about, this theological construction project, is not just the work of an apostle like Paul or a pastor like me. In verse 10 we read something I find absolutely astounding, “His intent,” that is God’s intent, “was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” That sounds to me like you and I, here in Christ’s church, by studying and living out our theology, are destined to teach the angels a thing or two. By learning how to live in Jesus Christ, we instruct citizens of heaven in God’s mysteries. That’s amazing and wonderful. I hope you want to be part of it.
So I invite you to join me in porch building this year. We will start with the basics. The first question in our Confirmation catechism is “Who is God?” Thinking about that is the first step to nail down in the theological porch. Then we can lay down the basic boards of understanding that Jesus is God’s Son. Upon those boards we can stand up some of the railings of salvation, discovering how Christ delivered us from the great Fall. On then to cover it with the roof of Scripture, God’s Word. Finally we furnish our porch with doctrine about the Church, the household of faith, and how to live together inside it. We can also hang a few blooming flower pots, such as doctrine about the sacraments and the end times.
In the end, Christian theology could be a big porch, an elaborate construction, but the point is always to get us and our world inside the house. In verse 11, Paul says that our theology, our instruction of the angels, is “according to [God’s] eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That purpose is to bring men, women, youth and children to God by the grace of Jesus. Every theological book, sermon or idea is for that purpose, so that everyone can come live in God through Christ.
The result, then, of studying theology this year will be what it was for the magi. They came into the house and worshipped Jesus. Paul says in verse 12 the same thing about Jesus, “In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.” Learning to think well about who Jesus is and what He taught us gives us freedom and confidence to approach Him. That’s what I pray you and I will learn.
I’ll meet you next Sunday on the porch. Bring a hammer, some nails, a few boards, and an open heart and mind.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj