Whenever I seem to get into a slump personally or professionally I have found great comfort in re-reading the gospels. I fall in love with Jesus all over again. How can I not? The same compassion, love, authority and power present in the gospel narratives of what God was doing in and through Jesus found me at my lowest point in my life, and continues to inspire, encourage, mold me and motivate me today.
Maybe a lot of the problems that that we point out in the “church” are problems we have with Jesus!
Not that we think he is the problem. But I am more convinced than ever that our leadership, our church models, our practice, our theology must be shaped by Jesus. Jesus isn’t just a good moral teacher who patted little children on their heads and put up with the ignorance of the earliest disciples and others. His model of self-giving love, his message of grace, his teaching on the coming kingdom of God, and our place in God’s unfolding story to redeem and restore the world is a message worth re-examining. That’s a message worth dying for. It’s a message worth anchoring everything too!
We would do well to look at who Jesus spent time with? He didn’t just have religious friends. For a lot of good church people, it seems that all we have are other like minded friends. How many non-Christian friends do we have? If were honest with ourselves we probably won’t like our answers. Jesus spent time with sinners and tax collectors (Matt 11:19). These people wanted to be around them. He loved them. He didn’t condone their bad choices, he loved them. He offered them something better and bigger than what they were living for. Wouldn’t it be great if our communities began to know as the church is who is friend of sinners? But, not just a friend of sinners, a community that openly welcomed them and got to know them, that spent time with them, that walked with them through the ups and downs of life and all the while kept pointing back to Jesus and the bigger and better he offers! Wouldn’t it be great if our communities knew us for what we were for rather than what were against? As churches wrestle with issues and things that divide churches, may we keep in mind that those who are on the outside looking in, don’t care about the issues as “we” have defined them. Outsiders are looking for authenticity, integrity and love. I believe we have something to say to the world in this regard.
Jesus talked a lot about the kingdom of God. We must recapture a kingdom perspective as well. God’s reign and rule break into the world in the person of Jesus. In Jesus, heaven and earth come together. Jesus painted a picture for us what this looks like in the teaching we have recorded in the gospels. God is on the move to restore the world to his intentions at creation. The sermon on the mount (Matt 5-7) is a great place to spend time reading, re-reading, and soaking in what a life looks like that allows God’s reign to permeate all areas of one’s life. We will soon discover that the love of God with the totality of ourselves, and the love for our neighbors sums up the law and the prophets. I love how the beatitudes lead us on a journey of downward mobility and an outpouring of the self for the good of the world! The beatitudes are shaped like a mountain, and before we can go up, we have to go down. We start with a recognition of our brokenness before God. We need help. There is nothing we can do to fix our brokenness other than to fully rely on God’s mercy and grace. And as we mourn our sin, our brokenness, we also learn to see the world and it’s brokenness and we long for God to fix it. We struggle with meekness, thinking somehow we are supposed to be weak. Meekness is better understood as power under control. So, the first three of these new directions for followers have to do with the emptying of the self, and the next one is the pinnacle, hungering and thirsting. We like this one. We do this one well in church, but this hungering and thirsting is to be filled with the new life and direction that God is bringing into the world through Jesus, and as we journey back down the mountain to be poured out for the good of others. Mercy, purity, peace, justice. These things are what our world needs. May we climb on board God’s agenda for the world. Jesus’ mention of the kingdom is always tied to the powerful words of the kingdom and powerful deeds. We need the two. Jesus even teaches how his disciples are to pray in Matt 6:9-13. We are asking for God’s reign to be present, for him to make it more like heaven here.
Jesus taught us how not do church. I really believe that early church understood this. They gathered together, they prayed, they taught, broke bread, took care of one another and shared the story of what God is doing in the world. They recognized that church was not a noun, but a verb. They understood church not as a place, but as a people on a mission. Wouldn’t it be great if our congregations began to see themselves as missional outposts of God’s kingdom not just tied to a geographic location, but as dozens, or hundreds of missionaries sent into the world to do good in whatever avenue or work they were called to? What if we got over ourselves and neat and tidy places of worship and allowed ourselves to be governed by a sense of awe and wonder about what God has done and is continuing to do in the world through the presence of the Spirit in the church! Jesus calls us to make disciples, or learners of his way of life, and his teaching. The trouble with some of us is that we try to make disciples purely only on our meeting days. I believe in order to carry out the great commission, we have to go. We must leave the confines of the comfortable and cozy four walls of the church building and engage our communities. Yes, we need time together to lift up our Father in worship. We need to be together as the family of God. However, going entails getting out of the buildings we hide in week in and week out. Disciple making churches seem to be the ones who see their building as a tool, as a resource for developing and teaching disciples not as the one stop factory for all your spiritual needs. Jesus taught us love triumphs. That to be truly great is to become a servant. Wouldn’t it be great if ministries were full of volunteers all the time. Even finding someone to teach middle schoolers, or be in the nursery, of change the batteries in the microphones wasn’t a chore week in and week out. If we want to be leave a lasting impression among the people we worship with, find a way to serve them. Find a towel and bucket and get to work. Humility is Jesus thing.
Jesus teaches us that no matter what we think we know, we have room to grow and much more to learn. Jesus was approached by some of the brightest minds of his day. Experts in the Jewish law, experts in the ways of Yahweh. Yet somehow these same experts missed the heart of Law and the Prophets. These foundation documents of Jewish faith pointed to God’s plan to redeem the world in his coming in Jesus. These experts missed the forest for the trees (Jn 5:39-40). Jesus is the key to hermeneutics. If Jesus continually turned the tables over on the religious aristocracy of Israel, should we not expect the same today? The experts in the Law knew the Law backwards and forward. But somehow in their hermeneutical approach, they would strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel (Matt 23:23-25). What if we thought we knew about church, theology, hermeneutics, etc., as good and useful as we think them to be are sorely missing the mark of God’s intentions for his people, the church? We can get hung up so easily in legalism and putting up fences where God didn’t intend fences to be placed? How do I know? Look at the religious landscape in the Western World. There are hundreds if not a thousand or more supposedly Christian distinctions. How is this so? Because somewhere along the way, we bought into the lie that life is all about us and wants and what makes us comfortable. So, you don’t like what happens at church A, then start a different one of like minded people. Jesus prayed for oneness for his followers (Jn 17). We are not even close. Even in our own unique tribes we fight, bicker and point fingers. Shame on us all. What we need is a healthy dose of time in the gospels. Let them soak into the very fabric our beings, and let the Jesus who doesn’t meet our expectations, a Jesus who is bigger than the boxes we try to place him in surprise us anew at every twist and turn. Let’s not just read the gospels, let’s go out there and live like the Savior we claim to follow!