Can I Be A Christian Without Church?



Have you ever stopped to think about the makeup of your average church? I mean think about it—the church is made up of a bunch of people who under normal circumstances probably would not hang out. Different backgrounds, interests, places in life. In fact, the church is made up of a bunch of people who probably wouldn’t even like each other if we met in a different social setting. But we make it work. Because these aren’t normal circumstances. We are unified by something so much bigger than ourselves. The King of the Universe has brought us together to perform a monumental task. And unless we can overcome our pettiness, our selfishness, our pride, and be unified, we will not succeed. We will not be strong enough to make a difference.

It’s trendy these days to be spiritual but not religious. To be a Christian and not go to church. To say that my faith is a personal mater. To attack church itself. But in pursuing those dangerous trends, we miss out on God’s purpose for our lives. The unity we are to have with other believers. Although I understand that sometimes the negative view of church comes from a place of hurt.


THE ONE THING I WANT TO CONVINCE FOLLOWERS OF JESUS OF

But If I could convince the people who claim to follow Jesus in our church and in this community anything,

I would convince them that the local church matters. The local church is important. The local church is the vessel through which Jesus has chosen to continue transforming the world with. I’ve yet to see any revival anywhere happen outside of a community of faithful believers. And yet, the local church is so often neglected by the very people who claim to love Jesus. And in the process of neglecting the local church, our personal ministries that we are called to wanes. Our influence wanes. And God’s kingdom doesn’t manifest itself here as it is in heaven. All because we neglect the bride of Jesus whom Jesus loves. This bride imagery is given in multiple places in the New Testament. Can you imagine being part of someone's life in a meaningful manner if you hate their spouse? Because to take the local church seriously in today’s age and have a commitment to Jesus through being part of His body, you not only have to have the gumption to go against the grain of secular society, you have to be strong and go against this prevailing trend among many Christians.

I'm currently reading through a book called the Word and Power Church. It's about how great churches can be if they are focused on the word of God and experiencing the power of God. But there is one underlying given that I think is often ignored despite even being in the title. It's a church. It's a group of people experiencing fellowship with one another, living life together, sharing a mission together, and serving together. They study the word together and experience God's power together. These things were designed to be experienced while doing church together.

There are so many different imageries given in the New Testament for the church – the bride as I mentioned earlier, a priesthood, his people, but today, we are going to focus on one that I hope will convince everyone here that church is important. And if you are already convinced, it will hopefully give you a better understanding for when you encounter that person who says, “I don’t need church to follow God.” Because you will.


MANY MEMBERS OF THE SAME BODY


Paul wrote:
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.  For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function,  so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.  Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith;  if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching;  the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. Romans 12:3-8 (ESV)
Paul is describing how the church should work. He is talking about a strength that comes from being united despite everyone being skilled and gifted at different things. But in order for there to be unity, a few things have to be in place. First he mentions humility. It should be easy to be humble when we properly view ourselves through a lens of being a saved sinner. As redeemed children of God who have been blessed in so many ways. And Paul returns to those thoughts here. He says, "Don't think more highly of yourself than you should."

But we often lack humility. For many, they think they can do it on their own. For others, they want to use church to control others. But neither is a proper course of action. We need to view ourselves in the proper light to have a right relationship with others and with God.

In order for us to get the strength that comes from being unified, humility is required. The Christian life, the church, and our faith are not about us. They are about God—his plan, his kingdom, his glory. Yes, we have a part to play. We each have something to contribute. We will in fact be better at something than someone else. But we have to work together. If you think you're better because others don't have the same gifts that  you have – whether that is serving in some capacity, some manifestation of some spiritual gift, or some other ability, then you are going to miss out on working together and we’re all going to miss out on receiving the blessings of all our gifts working together. Because of this arrogance, people become Lone Ranger Christians and leave church. Church unity is tough for a person who thinks their giftedness is the giftedness that matters while everyone else is less faithful or useful than them because they don’t have the gift that the arrogant one has and values. And having a healthy church is impossible if we try to shoehorn everyone into having the same gifts and expression of the faith.


THESE DAYS, CHURCHES ARE FRAGMENTED ON GIFTEDNESS NOT DOCTRINE

What I see, sadly, in the church today is that churches seem to be fragmented less on doctrine and more upon the lines of giftedness because the more charismatic feel the less charismatic are dead spiritually and those less charismatic think the more charismatic are crazy. Those interested in social justice think that the intellectually minded have a stale faith while those who are into study think the social justice people are ungrounded. On and on, people surround themselves with people of like passions and giftedness resulting in a lot of unhealthy churches. The church has an arrogance problem. And everyone just goes off and does church in a church, if they even do church, that has the same passion for their giftedness, but, in the process, the churches are all just hopping around on one leg rather than being the body of Christ -- living, being, and working together to be God’s kingdom. There is no unity. There isn’t something better coming about from everyone doing different things working toward a shared vision. This isn’t happening in most churches.

Paul kind of gives us a check that we can use to inspect ourselves to examine whether we are part of the problem or part of the solution.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;  and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord;  and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit,  to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit,  to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.  All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. 1 Corinthians 12:4-11 (ESV)
The test is whether you are using the gifts and passions you have for the common good of the Body of Christ. The manifestations of the Spirit are given to be shared – for the common good. It’s not about me just growing spiritually. It’s not about me having more spiritual knowledge or spiritual power.

It’s not about me enjoying an encounter with God at an awesome service or retreat and continually pursuing another while measuring church by whether I had another high this week or not. Not every week will have the Spirit move like it did two weeks ago when so many of you publicly confessed your struggles. It’s not about me at all. It’s not about you at all. We’re just a vessel that the manifestations of the Spirit flow through for the common good. So whatever gift you have, use it for the common good.


ASKING THE WRONG QUESTION

And people will be saved without church. I assume that is true because we serve a gracious God, but asking if we can be saved without being part of a church is asking the wrong question. Being a Christian isn’t about the minimum that I must do to be saved. It’s about total surrender to King Jesus. About living out His will totally. About His kingdom and His ways. We don’t ask what is the minimum to be saved. We ask what do I get to do because I am saved. And being part of the church and serving the common good are some of those things.
Pediatrician David Cerqueira shares a story of how a little girl showed his church the honor of serving God. David shares: One Sunday my wife had prepared a lesson on being useful. She taught the children that everyone can be useful—that usefulness is serving God, and that doing so is worthy of honor. The kids quietly soaked up my wife's words, and as the lesson ended, there was a short moment of silence. [A little girl named] Sarah spoke up. "Teacher, what can I do? I don't know how do to many useful things."

Not anticipating that kind of response, my wife quickly looked around and spotted an empty flower vase on the windowsill. "Sarah, you can bring in a flower and put it in the vase. That would be a useful thing."

Sarah frowned. "But that's not important."

"It is," replied my wife, "if you are helping someone."

Sure enough, the next Sunday Sarah brought in a dandelion and placed it in the vase. In fact, she continued to do so each week. Without reminders or help, she made sure the vase was filled with a bright yellow flower, Sunday after Sunday. When my wife told our pastor about Sarah's faithfulness, he placed the vase upstairs in the main sanctuary next to the pulpit. That Sunday he gave a sermon on the honor of serving others, using Sarah's vase as an example. The congregation was touched by the message, and the week started on a good note.

During that same week I (that’s David the pediatrician) got a call from Sarah's mother. She worried that Sarah seemed to have less energy than usual and that she didn't have an appetite. Offering her some reassurances, I made room in my schedule to see Sarah the following day. After Sarah had a battery of tests and days of examinations, I sat numbly in my office, Sarah's paperwork on my lap. The results were tragic.

On the way home, I stopped to see Sarah's parents so that I could personally give them the sad news. Sarah's genetics and the leukemia that was attacking her small body were a horrible mix. Sitting at their kitchen table, I did my best to explain to Sarah's parents that nothing could be done to save her life. I don't think I have ever had a more difficult conversation than the one that night. …

Time pressed on. Sarah became confined to bed and to the visits that many people gave her. She lost her smile. She lost most of her weight. And then it came: another telephone call. Sarah's mother asked me to come see her. I dropped everything and ran to the house. There she was, a small bundle that barely moved. After a short examination, I knew that Sarah would soon be leaving this world. I urged her parents to spend as much time as possible with her.

That was a Friday afternoon. On Sunday morning church started as usual. The singing, the sermon—it all seemed meaningless when I thought of Sarah. I felt enveloped in sadness. At the end of the sermon, the pastor suddenly stopped speaking. His eyes wide, he stared at the back of the church with utter amazement. Everyone turned to see what he was looking at. It was Sarah! Her parents had brought her for one last visit. She was bundled in a blanket, a dandelion in one little hand.

She didn't sit in the back row. Instead she slowly walked to the front of the church where her vase still perched by the pulpit. She put her flower in the vase and a piece of paper beside it. Then she returned to her parents. Seeing little Sarah place her flower in the vase for the last time moved everyone. At the end of the service, people gathered around Sarah and her parents, trying to offer as much love and support as possible. I could hardly bear to watch.

Four days later, Sarah died. I cancelled my morning appointments and sat at my desk, thinking about her and her parents, hurting. I remember the funny stories that my wife told about Sarah. I remembered the sweet sound of her laughter. I remembered that telephone call that brought the sadness.

Tears filled my eyes as once again I struggled not to question the goodness of God in allowing Sarah’s life to end in such a horrible way.

I wasn’t expecting it, but our pastor asked to see me after the funeral. We stood at the cemetery near our cars as people walked past us. In a low voice he said, “Dave, I’ve got something you ought to see.” He pulled out of his pocket the piece of paper that Sarah had left by the vase. Holding it out to me, he said, “You’d better keep this; it may help you in your line of work.”

I opened the folded paper to read, in pink crayon, what Sarah had written:

Dear God,

This vase has been the biggest honor of my life.

Sarah

Sarah’s note and her vase have helped me to understand. I now realize in a new way that life is an opportunity to serve God by serving people. And, as Sarah put it, that is the biggest honor of all.    (source: (source: David Cerqueira, "Sarah's Vase," Today's Christian, March/April 2008, adapted from Evangel magazine, December 2005. From a sermon by C. Philip Green, We Want To See Jesus, 4/14/2011))

OUR CALLING


We can’t encourage one another, serve each other, and serve together if we aren’t meeting together. We are called to be the church. The light of the world. The city on the hill. To serve one another for the common good. Paul illustrates the concept of the body which should combat the idea of Lone Ranger Christianity; it should combat the idea that the local church is useless. He used the metaphor of the body to illustrate God’s intention. He says that we, the church, are one body. And just as the body has many different and unique parts, a church has different members who contribute different things. We have different gifts, talents, abilities and passions—which are gifts of grace, given to us from God. But here's what we often fail to grasp—we extol individuality while failing to see that these individual blessings are supposed to work with one another. To be put together to form the body, so that people see the body without noticing the individual parts.

We aren’t called to be the same. We’re called to be united in mission through our diversity. We’re called to be the church.

Each one must be put into the body and work with other organs to function. And according to Paul, these organs represent each of us. We are different. We all bring different things to the church. We all function differently. But the thing that unites us, is the church – God’s kingdom and His mission. What is best for us, for our talents and abilities, for the church, and for the world is coming together in our strengths so we can become the best body possible.

Because it would be stupid for the liver, the brain, the heart, and the lung to argue about which one is most important to the body. They should work together.
The church is called to be a body on a mission. We’re called to be an example of the kingdom of God. Think about that. The purpose of the church, of the body of Christ, is to be an example of God’s perfect plan for humanity.

Our mission is so big that it requires all the parts working together. The body needs the individual parts. And if we let pride get in the way, or we choose not to do our part, then our mission will continue to be a failure. Evil will continue to win. The brokenness of the world will spread like a virus and overtake our lives.

Paul instructs us on how to live saved lives.. If you can contribute something, then by all means do! If you can prophesy (which actually means proclaiming truth rather than telling the future) then do it with the faith that God will use it. If you serve, teach, encourage, give, lead, show mercy or anything else, then do it! This section of Scripture is sponsored by Nike—Just do it! Don't worry about accolades, about failure, about anything except making the body function at 100%. Otherwise, it's just a waste. Do your part. We need each other. We can't do this without each other. Don't expect others to do the same things you're gifted at and don't neglect to just do it. Don’t look down on others for not sharing the same passion that you have. You have been given that passion to bring about service to others in the church and have it overflow into the world. For this whole church thing to work, we have to be united in effort—all doing our part, filling our role to make it work.

Imagine a church where you and you and you – all of us together – were investing in making church great. Then we would see the kingdom of God here on earth as it is in heaven. I am certain that is what each one of us is called toward.

Give Me Law. Give Me Torah. Or Maybe There Is A Better Way.

We have a tendency to want law.

Let's start this article with some devotional thoughts from the Law.

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them,  then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives,  and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’  Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear. Deuteronomy 21:18-21 (ESV)
So the law clearly teaches that if you have a disobedient child, you should just take them to the elders of the city and kill them. In reading the Old Testament laws, we encounter a lot of strange laws like this one. Often, we, as Christians, like to ignore that the Old Testament has these weird and crazy laws. But you know what? Atheists don't ignore them. Nonbelievers don't ignore them. Typically, when you are talking with them about Christianity, these ridiculous laws from the Old Testament are things that come up. The number one thing that people bring up to me when I’m talking about Jesus with them is these laws. So I think it is useful to have a good understanding of how we deal with the Law.

Here’s another one:

For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or a man who has an injured foot or an injured hand, or a hunchback or a dwarf or a man with a defect in his sight or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. Leviticus 21:18-20 (ESV)
None of those people are allowed in the assembly of the Lord. If we still followed this principle, we would exclude people with those issues from coming to church. But we don't do that. We wouldn’t want to do that, and I wouldn’t want to be the person that has to check on the latter either.

The Old Testament has a lot of laws that seem bizarre, so we are left asking how do we deal with them.



DIFFERENT APPROACHES TO THE LAW

We could take the approach of the Seventh Day Adventists or lesser groups in Christianity who still believe that we should hold to the Law. You will notice that they still honor the Sabbath, literally, as the Old Testament taught and the rest of us don’t do.

Some Christians still believe that we should celebrate the Old Testament festivals. I see some benefit in doing that. I spent one year celebrating each one, yet Christians are under no obligation to do this. It was a good learning tool.

The most popular method, that we are more likely guilty of, is that we pick and choose which laws we want to keep and which laws we want to ignore. We disregard those laws we think are silly. We keep those laws we like. But this is really an intellectually dishonest way to deal with the Law. What is the process for picking and choosing anyway?



THE LAW WAS A GUARDIAN

In all this talk about the Law, I want us to understand that the Law was very important.

Paul taught:

So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian,  for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. Galatians 3:24-26 (ESV)
The Law was the guardian until Christ came. It played an important role.

If you were living in the world before the Hebrews were brought out of Egypt and Moses was given the Law, you would recognize that it was a vicious world. Maybe no more vicious than some of the places in our world today. Places that would benefit from the law just like the Hebrews benefited from the law.

When you encounter a teaching like "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth," it helps to understand the world that teaching was given to. God gave them that teaching to prevent people from chopping off someone's head for stealing something. It was limiting retaliation and would stop the process of escalating violence. The maximum punishment for a crime could not be greater than the crime. This was a law of restraint, not a law of violence.

The Law played this role of guarding society until Christ came. The Law was important. It kept humanity in check. It was intended to shape the people into being the people God wanted them to be, but it didn't always work. The people didn't follow the Law the way God intended.


JESUS FULFILLED THE LAW


Jesus taught:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Matthew 5:17-18 (ESV)
Jesus is teaching that the Law will end when all is accomplished. But it's ending with its intended completion. He uses the word “fulfill.” It’s not ending abruptly or prematurely. The "all is accomplished" in Jesus. The Law is fulfilled. The Law was just a guardian to get us to the point where Jesus fulfilled it. Because the Law could never totally fulfill its own purpose. It needed Jesus to do that.

For instance, the Scribes and Pharisees were people really good at following the Law. They would seek to adhere to the letter of the Law while ignoring the spirit of the Law. That isn't just something unique to their times; we see it a lot in our society. We write law after law to create a just society, but we cannot prevent evil people from circumventing the law. Evil people will abuse the law while good people will honor the spirit of the law.

This is what we see with the Pharisees and the Scribes. They would follow the letter of the Law. When the Law told them to honor their parents, they would claim that they have fulfilled that law without honoring their parents because the honor due to their parents was been given to God. (Matthew 15:1-9).  There are always ways for people with corrupt hearts to avoid following the spirit of laws they don't want to follow. The Pharisees and Scribes found legal ways around all the things they didn’t like that God intended for them to do.

We're not really all that different.

That's the problem with laws. If we think Christianity is a group of laws that we have to follow, then we will figure out ways to legally get around those laws. What is the minimum that I have to do to get saved? Is it law that I have to be part of a church? Who do I have to love? We will fulfill the law to the minimum to enable ourselves to do whatever we want to do with the rest of our lives. That approach to Christianity, despite being prevalent, is so wrong.

Christianity is not a bunch of laws. Jesus came to fulfill the Law and bring the Law to its intended ending. He came to bring something better.


THE LAW IS OBSOLETE

As the writer of Hebrews says:

 In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. Hebrews 8:13 (ESV)
According to the writer of Hebrews, the Old Testament Law is obsolete. But the zeitgeist of modern Christendom makes us feel uncomfortable saying exactly this. The writer of Hebrews is stating that we don't have to follow the Law any more. Repeating this Scripture in the wrong circles will get you strange looks. I once had someone get very stern and irate with me over stating this very thing, although I think they now believe it as a result of that conversation and further study of the Bible. There is something in our American Christian culture that makes us not want to be freed from the Law. Due to this, we are uncomfortable saying exactly what Scripture says. The Law is obsolete. We are no longer under it.

We wouldn't need laws in our society if everyone loved each other. Nearly every law is there to prevent people from behaving in ways that are not loving to each other.


WE HAVE BEEN GIVEN SOMETHING BETTER

So when a nonbeliever asks me about the Old Testament Law and tries to hold me to them. I explain how I am not a Jew. If I was, I would have to defend those laws. I serve a Jewish revolutionary named Jesus who fulfilled the Law of the Old Testament, revolutionized the Jewish faith, and has given us the Holy Spirit in its place.

For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.  For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, Romans 8:2-3 (ESV)
We now have the Holy Spirit guiding our life. In some morphed, albeit true, sense this means that we have more laws to follow, but it’s different now and comes through a relationship based on love and learning to listen to God’s guidance.

The Holy Spirit knows what you should be doing this afternoon, and He is going to prompt you. You need to obey that prompting. The Holy Spirit knows what you should say to encourage your friend, and He is going to prompt you. You need to follow through on that. The Holy Spirit knows what you should tell your spouse, and He is going to prompt you. We must ask ourselves, "Are we willing to listen?" "Are we willing to follow?"

A wife posted on Facebook, "Made honey-do list for my hubby today to accomplish after his dentist appointment this morning. And he did everything on the list and more."

To-do lists are good. The husband excelled with the to-do list from his wife. He jokingly said that he did it because he just wanted to eat.

Likewise, we often want to follow the Law just to get the benefits that the Law brings. The Pharisees followed the Law because they wanted to be God's people. Some seem to follow the Law to prevent under the idea that doing so prevents them from going to hell. We want benefits. And because we are just looking for benefits, we miss out on the blessing of actually being God's children. Of living a life guided by the Holy Spirit, dwelling in the presence and work of God all the time.

God wants us to be more than just people who follow the law. He wants us to be in a relationship with Him. He wants to dwell in us and guide us.

I can't give you a list of things to do to please God like the woman gave to her husband. Many denominations make handbooks with lists of do's and don'ts. But there is always another thing that could be added to their books because we are unable make a conclusive and authoritative list of do's and don'ts. If that is what God wanted, He would have given us a handbook Himself. Instead, he gave us the Spirit.

The gospel can only bring its benefits when you truly surrender your life to Jesus. It's not a benefit if you just want benefits. It is a benefit when you truly surrender.


LAW IS INFERIOR TO TRUE LOVE


It's like when you love your wife. If you bring home flowers for some manipulative reason and she found it out, the flowers wouldn't count. But if you brought flowers home just to show her that you love her - not for any ulterior motives whatsoever - then they have their worth.

It's the same thing with God, except He knows our heart and can't be deceived. If we do what the law teaches and don't give Him our heart, it doesn't work. We may want the blessings of being God's children, but if we don't give Him our heart, then those blessing will not come.

Being right with God is not about checking off a list. It’s about being in a relationship with Him and letting Him guide you. Letting Him live through and transform the world through you.

I had a great high school baseball coach. He would take time to correct me when I would be doing something wrong. He would see my mistakes and take me aside to tell me how to improve. I would be pitching and do something wrong, so he would tell me what to change. One of those times that he pulled me aside he said, "You know, I spend a lot of time correcting you because I believe that you can be better. I don't spend time correcting [and he pointed at a teammate] because he's not going to be better." God spends a lot of time prompting us because he knows we can better. Our lives. Our church. Our towns. Our world. But if we aren't listening, it will be as if He isn't prompting us. We will not become any better. Things will not transform and improve. We believe in a God who does not force His will but waits on the faithful to transform the world through.

And the great danger is that the less we listen to the promptings we hear, the more we shut off the pathways to hearing Him. It's like a person who has had a stroke. They have to work on rewiring everything so that they can once again do all the things that they previously did. They have to develop different neural pathways to laboriously do the things that once came easily to them. Sometimes we are like that with God. We have hardened ourselves to His promptings so much that we no longer hear His voice. He doesn't give up on us though. He will continually try to get past the hardness of our hearts. He is always willing to guide us, but it is up to us to listen to God and be the people that He wants us to be. So pick those scabs off your heart that life has given you and open yourself up to God’s leading.

Be all that God has destined you to be. It is up to you to live the life that God wants you to live. Nobody else can live it for you. No amount of listening to teaching will do that. No amount of singing songs in worship will suffice. You have to be the one listening to His voice, and then acting on it. God is going to tell you what He wants you to do with your life. My role as a pastor is to encourage you to listen to God, help you to test your promptings with Scripture, use Scripture to open your hearts, and challenge you to be who God wants you to be with your life.

No church will be a healthy church unless the people in the church are focused on listening to the Holy Spirit and doing what the Spirit wants them to do with their lives. A church will not receive the blessing that God wants to give it unless it is filled with people who are trying to be who God wants them to be. Likewise, a person will not receive the blessing that God wants to give them unless that person is trying to be who God wants them to be.

Your relationship with God matters.


BRING BACK A SENSE OF MAJESTY AND WONDER


There is a story from a guy named Parker Palmer as told by Dr. Marcus Borg.

It's a story about a three-year-old girl who was the only child in her family. But now her mom is pregnant, and this three-year-old girl is very excited about having a baby in the house. The day comes where the mother-to-be delivered, and the mom and dad go off to the hospital. A couple of days later come home with a new baby brother. And the little girl is just delighted.

But after they've been home for a couple of hours, the little girl tells her parents that she wants to be with the baby in the baby's room, alone, with the door shut. She's absolutely insistent about the door being shut. It kind of gives her folks the willies, you know? They know she's a good little girl, but they've heard about sibling rivalry and all of this.

Then they remember that they've recently installed an intercom system [think of an old-style monitor if you don't know what an intercom system is] in preparation for the arrival of the new baby, and they realize that they can let their little girl do this, and if they hear the slightest weird thing happening, they can be in there in a flash.

So they let their little girl go into the room. They close the door behind her. They race to the listening post. They hear her footsteps move across the room. They imagine her now standing over the baby's crib, and then they hear her say to her two-day-old baby brother, "Tell me about God. I've almost forgotten."

Now, that’s just a story, and I don’t know if there is truth in a newborn knowing God in that way. But the sense of wonder. The desire to know God rather than adhere to the law. Those are all things we would benefit from having more of. The question we are all faced with is whether we are going to continue to grow closer to God throughout our lives or are we going to drift away. The choice is ours. We can cling to the Law and die – and our Law can be some other law than even the Old Testament Law, or we can grow closer to God, learn to listen to the Spirit, and act upon who He is guiding us to be.


Christian culture will continue to try and convince us that the way to do that is through following laws. It's wrong. Laws are not going to get you closer to God. You could be the most moral person around, yet you could be just as far away from God as the most immoral person you know. God wants you to be close to Him. He wants you to be in a relationship with Him. He wants you to be His. There are no laws that if we followed would bring that about. It only comes through a willing heart, a willingness to listen, a willingness to let that Spirit lead you, a willingness to act on His promptings, and a willingness to be different when God wants you to be different. That's what God wants in our lives. He wants you to say yes to Him.

May we grow closer to God through our lives. May we not stray into an unhealthy dependence upon laws. May we learn to listen to Him every day of our life.

The law has been fulfilled. The law has been made obsolete. The Holy Spirit has been given to us in its place. May we learn to listen to Him. May we learn to live in this new life He has planned for us.

Kingdom First. Rethinking Our Approach as a Church to Changing the World




A TIME OF CRISIS

 
Charlottesville.
North Korea.
NFL players protesting.

America seems to be in crisis. And people are starting to act a little passionate or crazy, depending on your perspective.

You know what happens at a time like this? The church is tempted to act like we are supposed to solve the world's problems. Like I want to fix all those things. I want the pain, oppression, and hurt to end. But here is the hard teaching I want us to consider today. That's not our calling. It’s not our calling to solve the world’s problems. Our calling is to be an example of the Kingdom. Doing that effectively will often overflow into the world and transform it as we live it out, but changing the world is not our goal. Changing ourselves is. Striving to be a community committed to following God no matter the cost without hate, violence, racism, or bigotry. A community filled with love toward one another, strangers, and enemies. A community that prays for those who persecute us and prays for those who oppress. The light of the world in the midst of darkness. That’s our calling. And we ask others to abandon their loyalty to the kingdoms of this world and join this better Kingdom.

Is this a cop out? I don't think so. It's focus is on that which we can change and be a part of. It's striving to be an example of a better alternative than what we see around us.

We are to be a kingdom without any forms of oppression where any person can come and experience God. We are called to right the wrongs of oppression in a better way. A way where the means are the end and not justified away to get to the end. A way where we sacrifice to bring it about rather than try to force others to bring it about.

Jesus lived in a time where he could have just done what we see going on in the world today. He could have protested loudly and violently. He could have tried to have the best marketing, the most violent and effective soldiers, and the most political clout to transform Rome. But he didn’t.

Instead, we can look at what Jesus did do. Here is what he said:
Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country.  When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit.  And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.  Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them.  Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’  But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’  And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.  When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”  They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”  Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?  Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.  And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”  When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them.  And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet. Matthew 21:33-46 (ESV)
You see, Israel, the kingdom of God in the Old Testament, was failing to live up to what God had called them to be. So Jesus explained the plan. "Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits."

And this wasn’t anything new. Back in the time of Jeremiah, the prophet, six hundred years before Jesus, expected the same thing.
Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah,  not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD.  For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”  Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the LORD of hosts is his name:  “If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the LORD, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever.”  Thus says the LORD: “If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth below can be explored, then I will cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done, declares the LORD.” Jeremiah 31:31-37 (ESV)
What we see throughout the Old Testament is the failure of Israel to actually be the people of God. A covenant is an agreement, and Israel broke their side of the covenant with God. Yet God's purpose in creating the covenant was so important that he wasn't going to let Israel's obstinance and disobedience stop Him from bringing about His will. God was patient, and time and time again he waited on them to come around. But, as we see in what Jesus taught, the time was up. The time of a new covenant had arrived. As Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.” 600 years from the time of Jeremiah, and the people of Israel still hadn’t got their act together. There were glimpses here and there, but, overall, they were not being the people God wanted.

A DIFFERENT APPROACH


So God came down to earth as Jesus and took a different approach. He assembled a group of disciples and mentored them. Teaching them how to live the life He wanted them to live through example. And this group, guided by the Holy Spirit, did the same to others. On and on, through the ages, until it gets to you and me. People who have been discipled by people who have been discipled in a line that goes all the way back to Jesus. We, the church of today, are part of this community that Jesus established to transfer the kingdom of God to.

Jesus was assembling a group of people who would be who God always intended Israel to be, a better alternative than what we see around us. So when the world says protest and tear down, Jesus gave a different alternative.

I am glad that Jesus didn’t try to change the world through protest and killer memes. Although I do enjoy a funny meme. Instead he chose love, sacrifice, and investing in an alternative community. That radical example is still the call for us today.

Being right with God isn’t about just having the right belief statements; nor the right heritage as the nation of Israel mistook it for at times; it’s about walking the same path that Jesus walked while being guided by the Holy Spirit that Jesus gives. It’s about being God’s hands and feet in a world that desperately needs them. It’s about modeling an alternative way of living in a world filled with selfishness and hate.

This kingdom revolution that Jesus started continues today. It’s not a matter of whether it is happening or not. It’s about whether we are going to be part of it or not. Are we going to live our lives actively participating in God’s kingdom? Are we going to choose the kingdom ways that are countercultural to American ways? Are we going to love our enemies? Are we going to bless those who persecute us and pray for them? Are we going to honor our leaders even when they are on the opposing side? Are we willing to be different?

Jesus didn’t stand up and attack the oppressors. He didn’t argue that his hate is legitimate and then harm the people who opposed him to get rid of their hate. Instead, he said, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" as he hung on the cross being murdered due to their hate. And that radical forgiveness was given to the people who literally nailed him to a cross and mocked him. Jesus modeled love even in the midst of the greatest form of hate.

And I’m not neglecting the story of him driving out the profiteers in the temple. But that was in the temple, the one place on earth out of all places that should have been exemplifying his kingdom. This was aimed at religious people not acting like they were supposed to. They were desecrating that which should have been holy. Jesus had all authority in the Temple to do what he did. It was His place. His house, but it wasn’t modeling His way. Now they didn’t see it that way, and that was actually part of the problem. The temple where Jesus drove out the profiteers wasn't an example of what God’s kingdom was supposed to look like, just like some churches aren't a good example of God’s kingdom today. Maybe they are also dangerously close to receiving the treatment that the nation of Israel received. Revelation has a lot of threats about removing His candlestick, his light, out of churches. Just because we are in the church doesn’t mean that we’re right with God. And likewise, if we are outside of the church, the physical manifestation of God’s kingdom – the outpost, the embassy of God’s kingdom here on earth - we aren’t right with God either.

Instead of being like the world and fighting the battles of the world, Jesus taught an alternative kingdom and an alternative way to live in community with our fellow sojourners. He didn’t try to transform Rome. Instead, He encouraged people to not accept the emperor as their emperor and instead allow Him to be their king. King Jesus.

Jesus transitioned the kingdom of God in the form of Israel to being the kingdom of God in the form of the church. He was shaping a community under the authority of God that exemplified people living in right relationship with one another and with God. This is what we are supposed to be doing. This is how we change the world. This is the vessel through which God’s power flows. Being an active part of the community of God, the church, is our calling.

And it calls for an alternative lifestyle than what we often see around us. I serve a King who tells me to bless those who persecute me, love my enemies, and pray for them. Nowhere does Jesus tell me to try to make them conform to my beliefs or that I should oppress them.

AN EXAMPLE OF AN ALTERNATIVE APPROACH TO CHANGE

We can look around at Christianity and find people taking this alternative approach.

Mother Teresa was one of those. She began her ministry in Calcutta, India in 1950 with 13 people.  By 1996, she was operating 610 missions in 123 countries with 4,000 sisters, 300 brothers, and 100,000 lay volunteers. This wasn’t through government support but through the support of the church.

She exemplified change through church. The world only knows how to bring about change the way they are trying. So, in a way, we can’t blame them for the chaos we are seeing. We know a different way.

Shane Claiborne was being interviewed about her death because he was an American voice to her story as he had done an internship under her. He shared in his book Irresistible Revolution, "To be honest, Mother Teresa died a long time ago, when she gave her life to Jesus.  The joy and compassion and love that the world finds so magnetic are only Jesus, and that is eternal.”

Claiborne goes on:
“Mother Teresa was one of those people who sacrificed great privilege because she encountered such great need.  People often ask me what Mother Teresa was like.  Sometimes it’s like they wonder if she glowed in the dark or had a halo.  She was short, wrinkled, and precious, maybe even a little ornery, like a beautiful wise old granny.  But there is one thing I will never forget—her feet.  Her feet were deformed.  Each morning in Mass, I would stare at them. 

“I wondered if she had contracted leprosy.  But I wasn’t going to ask, of course.  “Hey Mother, what’s wrong with your feet?”  One day a sister said to us, “Have you noticed her feet?”  We nodded, curious.  She said, “Her feet are deformed because we get just enough donated shoes for everyone, and Mother does not want anyone to get stuck with the worst pair, so she digs through and finds them.  And years of doing that have deformed her feet.”  Years of loving her neighbor as herself deformed her feet. (Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution 167-168).
Sacrifice rather than power. Love over hate. Service instead of selfishness.

This is what we are called to. Suffering to make things better. She could have protested and boycotted, but instead she chose love. She started to just solve the problem that she saw rather than expected others to.

THE KINGDOM ISN'T JUST INVISIBLE

But, and here is the dangerous truth today, I think we mess up being an example of God’s kingdom because we think the kingdom of America is more important than the kingdom of God. We may not say it verbally, but we say it with our actions.

If you can recite the pledge of allegiance more easily than the Lord's prayer, you might have an idolatry problem.

If you are more concerned with someone's posture during the National Anthem than their posture during worship or whether they even attend church, you might have an idolatry problem.

Because saying Jesus is Lord is actually a rallying cry in a real, material sense. We are proclaimint that we are leaving the kingdoms of this world and being part of the kingdom of God. Whether you’re an Iraqi, Chinese, Russian, German, or American, calling Jesus King means placing loyalty to the kingdom of God above any other loyalty. It means, when we truly mean it, that God’s kingdom becomes our focus. We will seek it first. I have to make sure God's kingdom is doing things right – not America. I do not have to focus on Caesar's kingdom or Babylon. Instead, I seek the kingdom of God. His place and His ways.

Jesus’ kingdom is both political and spiritual. It’s tangible and invisible. Although we have been struggling against the idea that it is only invisible since the Reformation.

We are still in the world and do not disobey the state except for where it conflicts the teachings of the kingdom. But to then jump and say that we are to try and force the world to adhere to Christian ethics goes beyond our calling. We are not called to force the world to behave like Jesus wants. Instead, we are to spend our times investing in God’s kingdom, the church, so that it models to the world what Jesus wants.

The church is more materially meaningful than most give it credit for. Even Christians.

Together, we are supposed to be the change we want to see happen in the world. We are to live it out. Blacks need to be treated equal, so we treat them equal. The poor need fed, so we feed them. If the education system was bad in our community, I would say that we should start a school. We are called to be used by God to create His kingdom in the church and model His perfect will here on earth. We are to be a place where the wrongs are righted. A kingdom that shows the world what we were created to live for.

THE BELIEF THAT MAKES THIS MAKE SENSE
 
Now, that may seem off a little. If so, it’s because we don’t share the core convictions that shape this idea.

And it starts with the idea that  the kingdom of God has transitioned from the nation of Israel to the Church. America is not God’s new kingdom; the church is. This is why I like to view Jesus’ role here on earth as being a Jewish revolutionary. He took the ideas from the old covenant, that we have in our old testament, and transitioned them into a new covenant, the ideas that we have in the New Testament. The promises that applied to the nation of Israel in the old covenant have transitioned to applying to the new Israel, the church.

As Paul wrote:
For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical.  But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. Romans 2:28-29 (ESV)
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,  and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”  This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. Romans 9:6-8 (ESV)
And then he went on to explain in Galatians:
And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. Galatians 3:29 (ESV)
For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.  And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. Galatians 6:15-16 (ESV)
Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.  And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”  So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. Galatians 3:7-9 (ESV)
Paul is clarifying that the people who are now Israel, God’s kingdom, are no longer included in God’s kingdom based upon whether they are the biological offspring of Abraham. Instead, they are now the people who are the faith offspring of Abraham. People who follow in His faith are the people of Israel now.

Circumcision was the mark of the Old Covenant, and it was an issue of contention in the early church. Paul wrote Galatians to deal with that. People were still arguing that the nation of Israel was the kingdom of God and that people needed to follow the laws of Israel to be right with God. It was necessary to be circumcised to be a Jew, part of Israel. But Paul, in arguing against that point, is also making the point that being part of Israel isn’t based upon the old covenant any longer. It’s no longer about being circumcised. It’s about faith in the heart. It was that time where Jesus mentioned where
“the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.” It’s the realization of the day Jeremiah foretold of where God said he would establish a new covenant and said, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Being a citizen of God’s kingdom is about the Spirit living in us. Being the people together who God wanted humanity to always be.

Paul is pointing out that Jesus was a Jewish revolutionary who brought about the transition of the Kingdom of God from being the nation of Israel to being the new people of Israel, the Church. And this truth, when truly held changes our actions.


RATHER THAN EXPECT OTHER TO CHANGE, WE CHANGE

For no longer do we think the world needs to change. We change. And if it means that we suffer for bringing about good, we do that. And this isn’t just something for the rockstars of the faith like Mother Teresa. It’s for people like you and me.

I think of my friends in Hope 2 Liberia, who were on a mission trip in Liberia and were convicted that this can’t be just a one-off thing. Since then, 1000s of Liberians have been given access to clean drinking water. And they have also started a school that 100s of Liberian children are already getting a better future from. Kingdom living spinning out of their church in Muncie, Indiana, changing the world.

This isn’t the approach of making the world bring about justice. Of us protesting loudly and making the powers that be provide us with the solution. This is the approach of having justice just overflow from who we are as followers of Jesus. We bring about the right through being the right ourselves.

Even little things we have done. When I was at Antwerp Community Church, I had the dream of a soccer league in Antwerp as I felt it was a need that wasn’t being met to provide some community and fun. I left the church, but the league was already a plan and it happened. It still happens to this day.

We started the Kid’s Clothes Closet years back. But a volunteer sort of adopted it a few years into it. And she just ran with it making it a better thing than we dreamed of. So the dream of the Kid’s Clothes Closet providing clothing for people in need in our area is still flourishing.

And the School Supply Project was actually birthed through a book study when we were reading Irresistible Revolution, the book the Mother Teresa story I shared earlier came from. And we still help kids in community with it. Would I prefer the school just provide supplies for kids in need? Absolutely. But they don’t. And we don’t protest or try to make the school or the government provide the things that are needed for all students. Instead, we just do it.

Have their been failures? Yes. The youth center is the most daunting one in my mind, but that doesn’t make us stop just trying to be a better example of the kingdom of God. A place where God’s will materializes in our midst.

We can’t do everything. We’re a small group with limited resources. But we serve a God who sees the big picture and has unlimited resources. So we just need to faithfully be who He is calling us to be. And working together here in the church doing that, we will make a difference by just being the Kingdom of God. And together, churches who respond faithfully to this call in our community, throughout our State, and around the world, we give us glimpses of God’s kingdom making an impact everywhere.

And that’s our calling. To be the better place – the kingdom of God – in the midst of the world. We really already are the kingdom; we just need to live in that truth. We change instead of expecting others to change. We sacrifice instead of protesting. We love even in the midst of hate. We are the new creation Paul was talking about. We are called to produce fruits of the kingdom as Jesus taught. We are living in the new covenant Jeremiah dreamed about. Let’s focus on that rather than the chaos around us. Let us strive to be the community God has called us to be. Let us be the kingdom.