Last week we talked a bit about what it means to claim that the Church is the Body of Christ.
With Christ at the head, we come together as members of the body. We each have a role to play, work that God has for us to do. In addition to the talents and skills we use in our everyday lives, God provides us with different gifts, spiritual gifts, to assure that we are equipped to do the work we are called to do together in our community.
It’s a pretty cool system. And sometimes, it works really well. Sometimes we struggle. After all, we are humans, flawed and imperfect. But we can trust in the Holy Spirit to prod and push and empower us to keep at it.
Another word we use to describe the church is community. There’s the geographic sense of being a community… people who live near one another, thus sharing common characteristics and common experiences in that place. Then there’s the more social sense… a feeling of fellowship with others, a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.
So what is it that sets the church apart from other community groups, like the Lions or Rotary or the Garden Club? Hopefully, as the Body of Christ, the things that compel and characterize our community are reflective of the one who has called us into being and has drawn us together.
In other words…The church is to be a community of faith. We are to be people who are in fellowship with one another because of our shared faith in God.
Certainly people come to a church for all sorts of reasons… I attended a particular church in college because the guy I was dating went there. I have met people who see congregations as business opportunities, places to chat people up during fellowship hour then hand them a business card, just in case.
But we become part of the community by building relationships around common ideas and goals. As the Body of Christ, we should be developing the mind of Christ, seeking the heart of Christ, strengthening our muscles with the work of Christ, All of which requires us to understand the ministry of Jesus, the whys behind the what of the church.
What Jesus placed his faith in was not the rule of law, but the giver of the law. Anytime he was asked by the teachers and the scribes about the actions he had taken, he offered a response that was steeped in his understanding of the law and the prophets. But it was also steeped in the grace, love and compassion of the new covenant, the forgiveness of sins.
In The Message, Eugene Peterson takes a very familiar passage from Matthew, and helps make it clear that Jesus is trying to teach us a new, different way of trusting God.
Listen with fresh ears to Matthew 11: 28-30:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
The community of faith that is walking in the way of Jesus is one that seeks to learn the unforced rhythms of grace. They are not laying heavy burdens on one another or those who would seek to come along. The community seeks to live freely and lightly.
Compared to the way people often talk about being and doing church, this almost sounds a little fluffy, maybe even unrealistic. After all, Jesus didn’t have a budget to worry about… he just fed people with what was around, sometimes making it multiply… miraculously. He didn’t have a building to maintain and committees to chair. He didn’t have traditions that needed following… Obviously, things look different for the church today, since we are not itinerant first century jews.
But… I really like the concept of walking alongside Jesus, listening so closely to the parables and lessons and prayers that without noticing, all of us find ourselves walking in step, slowing down as he slows to make a point, speeding up a bit as he gets really fired up about something else. Asking him questions and discussing his answers in that easy, unforced rhythm of language that friends share because they have come to trust one another.
What might it be like to follow Jesus so closely, to be in so in sync with one another’s dreams, desires and hopes for the community, that we were willing to let go of some of that control we tend to hold so tightly?
The church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God
What if we were to take Jesus at his word, if we were to entrust ourselves and our church to God completely? At its most basic, faith is trusting God to be who God is and to do what God promised.
By faith, we understand that God created everything – the world we see and the the world that remains invisible to us, from the dark matter that holds the universe together to the unseen angels that surround us. By faith, we say that God will provide for us and will be with us, that God knows us, and hears us.
The writer of Hebrews uses story after story to paint a picture of what it has meant to entrust one’s life, one’s people to God.Through that great cloud of witnesses, we see that trusting God is not for the faint of heart. The stories of Abel, Enoch, and Noah, of Abraham and Sarah, and the others mentioned in the later portion of the chapter… Gideon, Rahab and David… and prophets like Daniel and Jeremiah…
They all placed their lives, the lives of their families or armies, even entire nations, in the hands of God. They entrusted their futures to the One about whose faithfulness they had been taught, whose voice spoke to them in ways that made little or no sense, who called them into new places, new jobs, new relationships.
Trusting was hard as it always is, especially as hardships and loss mount. And time passes. And odds get worse instead of better.
That’s why hearing their stories is so very important to the faith of the community. For forty years and a couple of generations, the stories of the plagues and the sheep’s blood on the doorways and the red sea opening for God’s people and closing on Pharaoh’s armies,
Those stories got the people of Israel past the episode with the golden calf…. past the calls to turn back to Egypt… and through the wilderness into the promised land. A land they had hoped for, a place they had not seen.Sometimes only by borrowing the faith of Moses, they entrusted themselves to God’s guidance and direction.
Those same stories of deliverance and provision have sustained communities of faith for generations. The messiah was to be a new Moses, leading the people of Israel out of the bondage of Rome. Prisoners in Auschwitz and Dachau, slaves held on plantations across this nation and others, prisoners of war in camps and prisons around the world have recounted the stories of Moses and Jesus, all praying for God to deliver them. Some of them lived to tell their own stories of salvation and provision.
The devastation and loss experienced by the faithful reminds us that God’s care doesn’t guarantee survival, much less prosperity. And that’s the hard truth about faith both as an individual and as a community. But if we attempt ministry in our own power, trusting in our human understanding, claiming the church as our own, rather than entrusting it to God, we risk even more. We risk losing our identity as a community of faith.
At the end of the day, The church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God, even at risk of losing its life.
As a community, we place our faith in the known but unseeable God, and we risk being called into relationships, places and ministries that are hard, uncomfortable or even impossible to do without conflict and pain
We are to be a community willing to do whatever God asks of us, even if it means putting the whole enterprise at risk. In the same way Jesus warned that choosing to follow his way would mean the end of relationships with family, if they asked you to choose between them and God.
Jesus basically said, “I win” over any other relationship with people, with money, with food, whatever… otherwise, you don’t really mean it when you say, “I will follow you”
We must be willing to die, to let the church die, before allowing anyone or anything become more central to our lives or our faith that God in Jesus. If you think about it, we are tempted to deny Jesus in hundreds of ways every day. We are tempted to shift the redemptive work of the cross away from the center of our lives and over to the margins, so that we can focus on the other things… the things that the world tells us are the measure of life and success.
Some of those looking at the church for signs of life or death focus on statistics.
How much money are we taking in?
How many people are in the pews?
For others, it’s all about the doctrine.
What do you believe about human sexuality?
about hell and who’s going? about the authority of scripture?
These are helpful measures in some statistical reports and the questions often provide great fodder for modern heresy hunters. But I’m not sure how well these checklists build community or point us to God… or prepare us to bear witness to God’s love for all who are part of the community beyond these walls.
We follow a messiah who disrupted a way of following God that was more interested in purity and perfection according to the law, than in the actual spiritual health of its community.
He disrupted a religious culture that was overly concerned with ritual, whose leaders were too closely aligned with the rulers and governors of the day. Loving the world enough to heal and forgive the discarded and forgotten was disruptive in Jesus’ lifetime, so much so that it cost him his life.
Loving the world enough to invite the Gentiles into relationship with God was disruptive enough that the apostles found themselves persecuted.
My guess is that Jesus is much more concerned about what we are doing to keep stirring things up, than arguing theology and counting noses.
When Jesus is at the center of our community, when we love him above all other things, when we are walking alongside him in those unforced rhythms of grace, we are transformed. And our vision is transformed so that we begin to see the world through the lens of Christ’s love and compassion.
We begin to see each and every person we encounter as equally worthy, equally beloved. And we act on that clearer vision by loving each and every person the way God loves them – fully, deeply, and fiercely.
As the Body of Christ, the church is to be a community of faith.that belongs to God, and is led by God to be a disruptive force in our world, in our Christian culture, in our neighborhoods and city.
Can you picture it yet? This forgiven bunch of sinners…. entrusting ourselves together to God, being transformed by the love of Christ and being equipped by the Holy Spirit to bring the Kingdom of God to life right here… and out there…
Let’s give it a try.