I was talking with a friend of mine about the church the other day and he mentioned how much he had grown to love the church. He said that there were certain people that he and his wife connected with that were really helping them grow and that they really enjoyed spending time with. He said that his experience of the church was great and he really enjoyed it. I was glad to hear it.
Then, a thought hit me. I told him that what he was experiencing was not the church. Or, it was just a small part of it. What he was experiencing was great – it was the love between brothers and sisters in Christ that we get to experience when we are in good relationships and when encouragement is flowing from one to the other in really positive ways. But, that wasn’t really the church – at least not all of it.
I told him that the “church” really happened when he spent time with someone that he didn’t really like, when he gave of himself to others, and when he was with someone who aggravated him, but yet he persevered in relationship because they were unified in Christ. I’m not talking about tolerating sin here. I am talking about being in relationship with those that we don’t have much in common with – except for Jesus.
We experience the church when we forgive, when we overlook an offense, when we love sacrificially, when we give of ourselves. The church happens when we get outside of ourselves and we cross barriers, be they racial, social, economic, or just personality differences. The church really happens when people who are different and would not be together except for Jesus, begin to live life together because of Jesus.
Jew. Greek. Male. Female. Barbarian. Scythian. Slave. Free. Rich. Poor. Impressive. Invisible. Brilliant. Common. Broken pieces formed together to make something beautiful. Everyone and everybody.
That is a broad spectrum that made up the churches in Galatia, Colossae, and all over the known world during the first century. Paul was writing to a diverse people who were only together because of Christ. He was writing to the real church, the “called-out ones,” those chosen by God.
I think that unless there is a miracle – something supernatural – we haven’t really experienced church. It is supernatural for me to get outside of myself and give of myself to others that I might not receive anything from. That takes a work of God in my heart. When that happens, we really have church. When it doesn’t, we are just hanging out with friends and people that we like and calling it the church. There is nothing wrong with that and those relationships can happen within the context of church, but I don’t think that can encompass our church life without us missing what God really has in store for us.
Jesus is forming a new humanity out of the old – one that does not rank or separate according to experiences or prejudices. He is creating a new people who have been saved by grace and who love one another sacrificially, the way that Christ loved us. A miracle is needed here. And, maybe this is how God intended it. Maybe, the church that we have, with all of its problems and inconsistencies, might not be the church we want, but it might be the church we need.
Eugene Peterson, in Practice Resurrection, says it this way (I’ve quoted this before, but cannot get it out of my head): He calls the church a “colony of heaven in the land of death.” He says that life comes from all of the rough edges being refined by the Spirit of God. He says:
We look at what has been given to us in our Scriptures and in Jesus and try to understand why we have a church in the first place, what the church, as it is given to us, is. We are not a utopian community. We are not God’s avenging angels. I want to look at what we have, what the church is right now, and ask, Do you think that maybe this is exactly what God intended when he created the church? Maybe the church as we have it provides the very conditions and proper company congenial for growing up in Christ, for becoming mature, for arriving at the measure of the stature of Christ. Maybe God knows what he is doing, giving us church, this church.
This is a revolutionary thought today. Instead of pushing for the ideal, we burrow down and allow ourselves to be conformed to Christ where we are. It doesn’t mean that we don’t try to make things better – but we do recognize that God is already working. Maybe the church we need is happening all around us in the things that frustrate us, try our patience, discourage us, and cause us to grasp for more control. Maybe, in those instances, God wants to do a miracle to teach us how to love sacrificially, to die to ourselves, to go to those on the margins where Jesus is already working and meet with him there. Maybe what happens on stage and in our programs and in the relationships that we just love is not really where the real transformation and miraculous working of the Spirit takes place. Those things are good – they are even of God, obviously. But, maybe they primarily point to a greater work that God wants to do – the Incarnation of His life in the midst of broken places. Maybe that’s where the church really takes place because its where Jesus is.
Think about the very things you don’t want to do when it comes to the body of Christ – the people you avoid, the situations that stretch you and make you uncomfortable. Think about the messy people and the people who wear you out and the people who try your patience and the aspects of life in your church that don’t really thrill your soul. Maybe, just maybe that is the church that you need to grow up in Christ because it is in those relationships and encounters and ministry experiences that you will actually meet with Christ even more than in all of the environments that you naturally love.
Think about it. We need a miracle.