Can You Love Jesus and Not the Church?
Adapted from my sermon on Labor Day weekend, 2012. Thematic influence from Eugene Peterson in Practice Resurrection.
When I was a kid, there would be a good chance that my family would be in church on Labor Day weekend. You could probably label me, “a child of the church.” If the doors were open, we were probably there. There wasn’t any question whether or not we would be going to church on Sunday. We always did. Pretty remarkable for two parents who didn’t come from Christian homes.
I’ve got a hunch that since this is Labor Day weekend and you are here that a good lot of you grew up the same way. But it’s not that way with everyone. In fact, more and more so-called Christians are distancing themselves from the institutional church. In the surprising blockbuster book, The Shack, the Christ character declares that he doesn’t really like religion and he didn’t create an institution. Jesus, in The Shack narrative, claims the visible church is only a man-made system. The real church is “all about relationships and simply sharing life.”
The feeling that the church is irrelevant to authentic Christian faith is pervasive throughout our American culture. Many are dropping out of the local church and assert they can maintain their Christian faith through their own private time with the Lord and electronic media. To the unchurched, the church is very un-cool. One of the leaders in the emerging church movement, Dan Kimball even wrote a book expressing that sentiment called, They Like Jesus But Not the Church. In the book, Kimball explains how the church is perceived by the younger, emerging generation. According to Kimball, they think we are:
· Organized religion with a political agenda
· Judgmental and negative
· Dominated by males and oppressive to females
· Arrogant in our claim that all other religions are wrong
· Hopelessly irrelevant
Church bashing is probably one of the hottest trends in popular Christian publishing right now. I’ve grown tired of it, even though some of their criticism has merit. But such sentiments either from unchurched folks or dropout evangelicals are not surprising. As Americans, we’ve always had a brand of Christianity that focused heavily on “me.” Rugged individualism and independence are deeply embedded and revered qualities in our culture. Having it our way is the American way. (With apologies to McDonald’s!) But it’s not the biblical way.
The Word – Ephesians 2:11-18
11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands) — 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
We do not live by bread alone,
But by every word that comes from your mouth.
Make us hungry for this your Word,
That it may nourish us today
In the ways of eternal life.
Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
As we work our way through Ephesians, we begin to see that the Apostle’s approach is not to just present information, but to amplify and clarify his message through repetition. He began the epistle by laying out the Father’s Grand Story and then praying that the Ephesian believers might grasp the fullness of what they have been given in Christ. He reminds them of their hopelessness without Christ and the glorious wonder of God’s grace which has saved us.
Paul begins to amplify what he had written earlier in vss. 1 & 2 of chapter 2. In the previous verses he reminded them of their former hopeless state without Christ:
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world…
Now he calls them to remember that they were outside the covenant family of God. They had no part in God’s enterprise of salvation and his promises:
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands) — remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.
In the Jewish mind, there was an understanding that they were God’s exclusive and unique people. God called them to be separate from the idolatrous nations, but that separateness eventually degenerated to arrogant superiority. Jews called Gentiles “dogs” and were averse to dealing with them. Paul speaks of a very real wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles in this text. I’m certain, too, that his perspective on the division between the two people groups was colored by the very difficult struggles that he had early in his ministry with Jewish believers who sought to impose Jewish law on the Gentiles. Speaking to Gentile believers in Ephesus, the Apostle is eager to remind them:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.
Here we see clearly God’s plan for the ages – to make a people for himself under the lordship of Christ. In verse 10 of chapter 1 we read:
…and he made known to us the mystery of his will…to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.
The ultimate purpose of God is the New Creation. What was turned upside down when sin and death entered the world is being, and will be made new through the resurrection power of Christ. And how will God do that? It is through the “one new humanity” that God has created in Christ Jesus.
And God has put all things under the authority of Christ, and he gave him this authority for the benefit of the church. And the church is his body; it is filled by Christ, who fills everything everywhere with his presence (1:22-23 NLT).
The Church is God’s Enterprise
Friends, the church is God’s enterprise for the salvation of the world. There is no Christianity without the church. John Stott, pastor and theologian, is a widely revered statesman for evangelicals. He calls the idea of an unchurched Christian a grotesque distortion. “The New Testament knows nothing of such a person. For the church lies at the very centre of the eternal purpose of God.”
We know that the church has problems. Lots of problems. It always has. People like to say that the church is a movement rather than an institution; an organism rather than an organization. Such a view emphasizes life, which is absolutely right and at the core of who we are. But structure in the church is essential. The people of God have always had organization and institution, all the way back to Moses, through the book of Acts, the Middle Ages, the Reformation until now. It is simply naïve and arrogant to try and run away from the church because it has to have organizational structure. Didn’t Paul, himself, teach the Corinthian church that everything should be done decently and in order? (I Cor. 14:40) Nearly half of the content in Paul’s epistles to Timothy and Titus were concerned with organization and structure within the local church.
So where does that bring us? As God’s enterprise, the church is the vehicle by which he will make all things new. Last week, we read that we are God’s masterpiece. We tend to think of that in individualistic terms – that my personal life is a masterpiece of God. That is true. But the Ephesian believers would have first understood Paul’s statement as the corporate body – the church – as God’s masterpiece. That is his clear intent in the passage. In Colossians 1:27 Paul wrote that the mystery of the ages is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” What he literally wrote – and we don’t quite get it unless we live south of the Mason-Dixon line is, “Christ in y’all, the hope of glory.” We, together, are the new humanity, one people created in Christ Jesus. We’ve made lots of mistakes, from the Crusades to contemporary political alliances that have tainted our counter-cultural message. We’ve experienced it here, with power struggles over doctrinal issues that have divided families and friends. We know the heartache of sin and dysfunction in the church. Even this week, a church that is very close to my heart is being torn apart by manipulation and misunderstanding. It makes me want to weep. I know Christ feels the same way.
Have you never cried over your children? If you’re a parent, I know you have. Christ weeps for the church but yet we are still his people, his family, his body. Paul said that, as his body, we are the fullness of Christ who is constantly filling all things. We are the church – the new humanity – God’s enterprise for the salvation of the world.
You can be frustrated with the church. You can be mad at the church. But you can’t love Jesus and not love the church. They are, in fact, the same.