“Church” is a topic of much confusion and frustration for far too many people. Without going into details about why this might be the case, I hope to offer some clarity. First, Church must be understood in the context of God’s story (rather than the context of 21st century American culture). Once again, here’s how the Church fits into God’s story:
Essentially, “Church” is a particular group of people participating in God’s ongoing redemptive mission following Jesus’ death & resurrection and living in anticipation of the renewal & restoration of all creation. In other words, we are the Church to the degree we are taking our rightful places in God’s story.
From the context of God’s story, we know that “Church” isn’t really about being religious. It’s about being genuinely human: as a blessing, in making God known, and in submitting to God’s reign here & now. Additionally, Jesus offers two pivotal scriptures commonly referred to as the Great Commission and the Great Commandment that bring the Church into greater focus. Let’s begin with the Great Commission:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
— Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:18-20)
Naturally, the Great Commission is contextualized within God’s story. First,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to [Jesus].”
- Why does Jesus have all authority? Because he is the King.
- How does this authority extend across heaven and earth? Because in and through Jesus, all creation is headed toward wholeness and renewal.
As we continue into this passage, a defining attribute of the Church emerges – discipleship. While commonly understood in the 1st century, this term has lost its meaning for many people today. To help recover its original meaning, it may help us to envision something of a modern-day equivalent: apprenticeship.
An apprentice is learning to become just like the master. To think like the master. To act like the master. To do what the master does in the manner he/she does it. This is precisely Jesus’ invitation and practice with his first followers. They watched & learned from the master and were then sent out to proclaim his message and continue his ministry (Luke 9-10). This is the pattern they learned from Jesus and continued in the early church. This should still be the pattern of life & ministry in the Church today:
Be a disciple.
Make a disciple.
The pattern is clear throughout the New Testament. And it’s spelled out in the Great Commission: Make disciples everywhere you go. Immerse people in the reality of the presence of God. Teach others to obey everything Jesus taught. In short, learn to be just like Jesus and teach others to be just like Jesus.
Fans vs. Disciples. Unfortunately, many Christians today have a hard time discerning between the multitudes and the disciples. In Jesus’ day (as in ours), thousands of people admired Jesus. They adored him. They appreciated him. Thousands wanted his blessing. Thousands believed that he could heal and restore them. These adoring fans comprised the “multitudes” and “great crowds” that surrounded Jesus in the New Testament. But there weren’t many disciples.
Sanctuaries are often filled with such fans of Jesus today. They adore Jesus. They admire him. They want Jesus in their lives. But like the multitudes, they want him at their own discretion & on their own terms. They haven’t embraced the call to apprenticeship. They’re not disciples.
A silly example. Let’s clarify the difference further with a contemporary example: Imagine you’re sitting at a Patriots game and Tom Brady walks over during a time out. “I’ve been watching you over here. I’d love for you to be my biggest fan.” Patriots fan or not, that would be a pretty cool offer. It would be exciting to be personally recognized by one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. Personally, I’d probably head straight to the store after the game and buy my first Brady jersey before calling most of my friends to tell them about what had happened.
But how much different would this be?
You’re at the same game. Brady walks over during a time out: “Hey you. Come down here. I’ve been watching you. I want you to be my apprentice. I’m going to teach you everything I know about football. I’m going to teach you to do everything I do as well as I’ve ever done it. I want you to become a quarterback just like me.”
This second offer – apprenticeship – is entirely different. It would be exciting to be Tom Brady’s greatest fan and to be acknowledged by him. It would be a great story to tell your friends. But to become his apprentice would be a life changer. Life would never be the same. Before the whole (football) world, you would become a new person – Tom Brady’s apprentice.
There’s a big difference between a fan and an apprentice. Jesus never asked for fans. He made & commissioned disciples. As his Church, this pattern is ours to continue today. Everywhere we go:
- Being disciples.
- Making disciples.
- Immersing ourselves in the reality of the presence of God.
- Obeying everything Jesus taught.
In this way, we carry on our legacy as the Church. We say with Paul and those that have gone before us:
“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1)
“Whatever you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things.” (Philippians 4:9)
As we go about fulfilling Jesus’ Great Commission, we set ourselves apart as the Church. Now let’s add the second GREAT – The Great Commandment:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus (Matthew 22:37-39)
There’s a common misperception among Christians that our knowledge, beliefs, and morality define us and set us apart from the world. But from Jesus’ perspective, we are defined by love. He says that when we love well, we fulfill all of God’s purposes for us (Matthew 22:40). So what does it mean to be the Church? It means we love well. This warrants a deeper look at the biblical notion of love.
While the contemporary notion of love is a sentiment that people “fall” in and out of, biblical love is life-shaping. It’s intentional. It’s active. It’s costly. For example, let’s look at 1 Corinthians 13:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a)
This passage makes for a cute little reading when everyone is dressed up at a charming wedding ceremony. But it’s gritty and challenging in a marriage (and in any real relationship). Patient? Kind? Doesn’t insist on having its own way? Not irritable or resentful? Bears all things? This is not the “love” we hear about in pop culture and social media. This is not an emotion. This is commitment. This is hard work. This is costly. This is the love that should define the Church and set us apart from the rest of the world as a very unique people.
As we conclude the GREAT Church, let’s turn to one more verse in which Jesus pulls everything together:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus (John 13:34)
Long story short – we’re to be like Jesus. And preeminently so in love:
- In loving well, we are a blessing.
- In loving well, we make God known.
- In loving well, we submit ourselves to Jesus’ example and purpose.
- In loving well, we reveal ourselves to be Jesus’ disciples.
- In loving well, we are the Church.
(Excerpt from Reimagining Discipleship)