What is Church? — A Few Thoughts, Part II

Title: What is Church? Part II

Text: Matthew 22:36-40,

Time: September 24th, 2005

Last week I gave a message based on a powerful experience God used to show me how praise and preaching are foundations of what church is all about. I talked about how praise is our heart expressing thankfulness and gratitude to God and him acknowledging it by blessing us deep down in our soul. I then talked about how preaching is God expressing his word to us personally through the preacher, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit. So then, when we go to church we encounter or experience the Living God fresh every week — and that changes our lives every week. I didn’t say this, but that is our vertical relationship with God, up and down relationship: our prayer and praise going up to God, and God’s word to us coming down to our spirit. That’s vertical activity happening in church, and it must happen or else we are all wasting our time, and our souls will remain empty. I feel God is pleased at us learning, remembering and experiencing this important vertical truth about church, but there is something else I didn’t talk about which the Lord God wouldn’t let me omit. I probably would have omitted it, but God wouldn’t let me, and through an experience that occurred last week, again God taught me, and now all of us, another foundational truth. There is a horizontal dimension to church that must exist right along with the vertical dimension — it’s the human-to-human relationships in the church community. Through a series of unfortunate circumstances and misunderstandings that happened last week, some people had their feelings hurt and some walls of resentment, bitterness and unforgiveness developed. Due to insensitivity and carelessness on my part, there developed some hard feelings and some walls developed between people. It was nothing big, nothing major. It wasn’t the thing in itself that was at issue, it was how people reacted and responded and my attitude that caused the problem. But the end result was the perfect peace, love, and harmony that should characterize a church was broken. Now we all know about this kind of thing because it happens in our homes, at work, between friends, family, neighbors, relatives, marriages, and everywhere else people interact with one another. Relationships are the hardest things to fix, and once fixed the hardest things to keep fixed, because unlike machines, relationships can be broken in thousands of ways over thousands of reasons. Your car engine can be fixed and then not breakdown for years, but relationships can break down the next hour, the next minute, because they are so much more complicated than machines. We see relationships breaking down all over the place in society, so much today we become used to it and consider it normal when relationships fall apart. That’s what we see in the world, but that is not how things should be in the church, because the church is a supernatural community made up of not just people but of God. Does the Living God dwell within his church, or is that just a pretty poetic thought? Is Jesus head of the church, or is that a symbolic truth not to be taken literally? People want to know, because if the church is just like the world, if people offend and are offended, join and break up the way marriages do today, the way friendships do today, if the mess the world is in is the same mess we see in the church, then where is God? Or if he’s here, what difference does he make if the church is the same as the world in respect to relationships? No. The church, where we encounter and experience the Living God, as I explained last week, is the place where we can also experience supernatural community as well. And the first thing we must do to experience the difference God makes in relationships in the church community is decide we will not settle for what the world experiences. We will settle for nothing less than what God has intended for us in communion with Him and each other. That’s the first thing. We will not settle for the broken state of relationships the world settles for. We will settle for nothing less than the supernatural community marked by love and truth that Jesus brought first to his 12 disciples, then to the early church, and now available for us today if we commit ourselves to having it. Let me explain.

First, it’s not enough to love God, we must also love each other. Matthew 22:37-39, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. This is the first and most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like this one. And it is, ‘Love others as much as you love yourself.” Now last week I taught about how important it is when we gather for church to experience the Living God. I talked about the importance of praise, how our soul needs to encounter God as we express ourselves to Him. I talked about how our soul needs to hear God’s voice through preaching God’s Word through the Holy Spirit. And I guess I was going to leave it at that, but God wouldn’t let me. Last week, that was the big discovery — God desires to meet with us, to commune with us at church every week, and through that experience we are changed. But I had no plans for talking about our horizontal relationship with each other until God permitted a situation to develop between me and another person that reminded me that church is mostly about God but it’s also about people — and both are important. God wouldn’t let me neglect the horizontal aspect of church. We see here how Jesus in this passage teaches two things: first, our relationship with God is most important, but two, our relationship with other people is also important. One of the reasons why the Christian church isn’t so popular these days is because the people of the world, who are all battered and bruised from broken relationships ranging from casual to intimate, don’t see any difference between the church and the world. And they should see a difference. People say, “You Christians say there is a Living God. You say he lives in your hearts and dwells in your church, ok why can’t you all get along any better than we get along who don’t even make such a claim? You say God lives inside of you, you say God lives inside your church, you say this but where is the proof?” People of the world see the broken relationships in the church and use that as an excuse to reject Jesus. But Jesus prayed that people might see so much love in the church they would accept Him. In John 17:21 he prays to his Heavenly Father, “I want all of them to be one with each other, just as I am one with you and you are one with me. I also want them to be one with us. Then the people of this world will believe that you sent me.” If the church suffers with the same broken relationships as the world, people will conclude there is nothing to Jesus, nothing to Christianity, and reject it all. But if the world sees something different, something better in our relationships, it will also be attracted to Jesus and Christianity. So it’s not enough to love God, we must learn how to love other people in the church as well.

 

Second, loving each other in the church starts with a refusal to settle for what happens in the world. What do people settle for in relationships in the world, out there, in society? They accept that break-ups and divisions and selfishness and dissensions and unforgiveness and resentment are normal. Why are 50% of all marriages ending in break-up, divorce? Why are families splitting up, children living apart from their parents? Why are there so many conflicts, differences, and divisions tearing our society apart? It’s because people accept these kinds of things happening, get used to it and settle for it. Instead of determining to resolve these conflicts, instead of deciding that constant breaking up and dividing is not right and cannot be allowed to go on and on, people just accept relationship splits and move on. Our society, our families, our marriages are being torn apart because people permit them to become torn apart, because many people give up on ever experiencing a loving marriage or a loving family or a loving community or a loving church. But in the church we cannot and must not accept such a low level of existence. The Apostle Paul, writing in 1 Corinthians 3:1, 3, 4 to the Corinthian church which was going through a difficult time with relationship conflicts, wrote: “My friends, you are acting like the people of the world. . . . You are jealous and argue with each other. This proves that you are not spiritual and that you are acting like the people of this world. . . . Isn’t that how ordinary people behave?” Paul is scolding them for acting just like the people outside the church. Why? Because they are supposed to be the salt of the earth, a city on a hill, as Jesus said in Matthew 5:13-16: “You are the salt for everyone on earth. But if salt no longer tastes like salt, how can it make food salty? All it is good for is to be thrown out and walked on. You are like light for the whole world. A city built on top of a hill cannot be hidden, and no one would light a lamp and put it under a clay pot. A lamp is placed on a lamp stand, where it can give light to everyone in the house. Make your light shine, so that others will see the good that you do and will praise your Father in heaven.” We must refuse to live like the world outside the church. Jesus teaches us about how to relate to God but he also teaches us how to relate to each other, and we must learn how to relate to God and we must learn how to relate to each other. It starts with a determined refusal to copy the same junk we see every day out in the world, on the job, in our neighborhoods, on the streets, in politics, on television, in movies, and elsewhere. The world is tearing itself apart; the world is self-destructing right before our eyes. We must decide before God that we are not going to permit that same mess into the church and have a messy church. We must determine we will be different, and if we determine it, it will be.

Third, loving each other in the church takes a willingness to do whatever it takes. We must be willing to work at it, and work hard at it, and try and try hard to make it work. Jesus says in John 13:34-35, “But I am giving you a new command. You must love each other, just as I have loved you. If you love each other, everyone will know that you are my disciples.” We are commanded to love one another, it’s not an option, it’s not a suggestion. We must obey Christ’s command to love, we have to do it, whether it’s easy or hard, whether convenient or inconvenient. Now the world thinks loving is optional, right? In the world if someone is offended, they may or may not ever forgive the other person, depending on how they feel. And the offending person, may or may not apologize or try to make things right, depending if they care enough about the other person, depending if they feel strongly enough about it, depending if they need that other person enough, etc. In the world, it’s all about self and what I want and what I can get or get away with. A person may or may not forgive others depending on whether that person means anything to them or whether they need that person for anything or depending on what is best for self. If I want someone to suffer I may withhold forgiveness and hold their offense over against them to gain power over them if they have a conscience. If there is a break in a relationship, depending on who it is and how much I care, I may conclude they aren’t worth reconciling with because they don’t matter to me, or I don’t want to work at it that hard, or I don’t want to take the time, and besides it may make matters worse trying to talk through things, so the safe way is to ignore the broken relationship. But that is why so many people see psychologists and psychiatrists and visit counselors and therapists, because they bury things down deep, because they just plain don’t want to work hard enough to make things right between people. Jesus — and the Christian faith he taught — teaches us to do whatever it takes to reconcile a broken relationship. Listen to the Apostle Paul, again writing to the Corinthian church over their relationship problems: “When one of you has a complaint against another, do you take your complaint to a court of sinners? Or do you take it to God’s people? Don’t you know that God’s people will judge the world? And if you are going to judge the world, can’t you settle small problems? Don’t you know that we will judge angels? And if that is so, we can surely judge everyday matters. Why do you take everyday complaints to judges who are not respected by the church? I say this to your shame. Aren’t any of you wise enough to act as a judge between one follower and another? . . . When one of you takes another to court, all of you lose. It would be better to let yourselves be cheated and robbed. But instead, you cheat and rob other followers,” 1 Corinthians 6:1-8. Paul is saying do whatever it takes to reconcile, not do whatever it takes to get your own selfish way. In the church, that means if we’ve offended someone, what do we have to do to make it right? Apologize? If so, apologize. What does the other person have to do, forgive? Then forgive. Does it mean there must be a conversation? Then have the conversation, don’t just walk away. The world walks away a lot. Somebody is mad, but doesn’t communicate, just holds it in, then talks to everybody else instead of the person, and sows poison seeds. Walls build up and get bigger and bigger, whereas at first the division could have been easily healed if only a little work had gone into it. Sometimes we need the help of others to patch differences up, if so, others should help. But they also need to have a vision for a loving community different from the world community. But in any case, we must be committed and determined to do whatever it takes to maintain a loving church community. Open breaks and relationship problems can’t be ignored; they must be dealt with quickly. That’s what I’m committed to here at CrossPointe church, and I will try to set a good example of it. If we can all decide that we will not imitate the world, and that we will be different in a good way, there will be people who come and join our church for that reason alone — because we have such a great atmosphere of love. I’m not talking about love without truth, that’s sentimentality. But truth and love together, that’s the kind of church in which God is pleased to dwell.

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