The witness of a united church

The New Testament has a lot more to say about the kind of community the church ought to be before the world than it has to say about its mission to the world. However, Jesus made it abundantly plain that the reason he wanted his people to develop true community was “so that the world may believe” (John 17:21). This is his ultimate goal. There is no doubt that it is when the church most clearly lives out the gospel in the relationship of its members, it becomes the most powerful force for attracting non-members. It was so in the early church in Jerusalem. Take, for example, the following passages in Acts:

” They all joined together constantly in prayer…” (1:14).

” …they were all together in one place” (2:1).

” Every day they continued to meet together…They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people” (2:46, 47).

” …they raised their voices together in prayer to God” (4:24).

“All the believers were one in heart and mind” (4:32).

” And all the believers used to meet together…” (5:12).

It is no wonder that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).

Dr. Kyung Chik Han, a South Korean Pastor, speaking at the Asia-South Pacific Congress on Evangelism in 1968, said of this early church:

Their hearts were filled with joy, for they were at peace with God and men. They were happy, for they loved God and one another. Such a joyful community attracts people, just as a beautiful flower garden attracts butterflies and bees. Such a church grows daily, naturally and without much conscious effort.

Jesus, the model for ministry

Jesus’ purpose for his followers was that they should be “salt for everyone on earth” and “light for the whole world“ (Matthew 5:13, 14 - italics mine). His final message to his church was that they were to take the gospel to the ends of the earth and he promised them the resources to do it (Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:45-49; Acts 1:8). It seems apparent from these passages that he must have repeated this challenge to his followers many times over the forty days of his resurrection appearances, although in different words and with different emphases. As S. D. Gordon wrote:

There’s a great passion burning in the heart of God. It is tenderly warm and tenaciously strong. Its fires never burn low, nor lose their fine glow. That passion is to win people back home again. The entire world of [humankind] is included in its warm, eager reach.

Jesus also gave his disciples some indication of how they were to go about it. On the night of his arrest he prayed to his Father: “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). Three days later, on the evening of his resurrection from the dead, he said to his disciples, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21). These words from John’s Gospel represent the simplest form of the Great Commission, yet they are the most profound and most challenging. That is probably why they are the most neglected. The Church’s ministry to the world is to be similar to his. As he had been sent, so he sends his disciples.

In considering how Jesus had been sent by his Father I see three important aspects:

1. Jesus’ identity with humanity

First, he had been sent to indentify with us. He identified with us in our human nature by his conception and birth of a human mother. “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity …He had to be made like his brothers in every way” (Hebrews 2:14-17). He knew hunger, thirst, tiredness and the whole gamut of human emotions. He identified with us in our suffering. He exposed himself to temptation, sorrow, loneliness, opposition and scorn. “In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God…should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.” “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:10, 18). He identified with us in our sins. Though without sins to repent of himself, he submitted himself to John’s baptism. In his ministry he mixed freely with the dregs and outcasts of society and on the cross to took the full consequences of “the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

“It is not a matter of Commission or Compassion, but a Commission of Compassion”

So Jesus calls us to identify with those whom we are called to serve. We are called to identify with people in their hopes and fears, and when called to do so, to share their physical conditions. Paul had learned something of this secret. He said: “I am not anyone’s slave. But I have become a slave to everyone, so that I can win as many people as possible. When I am with the Jews, I live like a Jew to win Jews…When I am with people who are not ruled by the Law [of Moses], I forget about the Law to win them…When I am with people whose faith is weak, I live as they do to win them. I do everything I can to win everyone I possibly can. I do all this for the good news, because I want to share its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). At the World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin in 1966, John Stott stated, in a Bible Study on John’s version of the Great Commission:

By his birth, by his life and his death, God’s Son identified himself with us. He did not stay apart from us or aloof from us. He made himself one with us…Now he says to us “As the Father sent me into the world, so send I you.” I personally believe that our failure to obey the implications of this command is the greatest weakness of evangelical Christians in the field of evangelism today.

2.Jesus came at personal cost

Jesus’ coming involved a cost. Part of the cost was in leaving the comfort and joys of heaven for the harsh realities of life on earth. However, the greatest cost was in that “he humbled himself and became obedient to death - even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8). He was willing to die for our salvation. Now his challenge to us is: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). In those days someone took up a cross for only one purpose - to die on it. Not many of us are called to give our physical lives for the sake of the gospel, though there have been more martyrs for Christ in this century than in all previous centuries combined. But we are all called to surrender our lives unreservedly to him as Lord, or, as Paul puts it, “to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). No doubt the greatest cost for many of us is the willingness to let go of our own petty plans, and allow him reveal how we can best serve him and humanity in this short life he has given us.

3. Jesus deals with us as whole people

Christ was sent by the Father to minister to both our physical and spiritual needs. I can never get enthused about arguments as to which should have priority, evangelism or ministering to people’s physical and emotional needs. Jesus did both. He healed the sick, the disabled and the demon possessed, as well as preaching about the kingdom of God whenever provided with the opportunity. He “went around teaching from village to village” (Mark 6:6) and he “went around doing good and healing” (Acts 10:38). He sent out his disciples to do the same (Matthew 10:7, 8). Even in the midst of incredible suffering on the cross he forgave a thief his sins and showed practical care for his mother. Not only in his actions, but in his teaching he gave this double emphasis. His two most loved parables are The Prodigal Son (which highlights conversion) and The Good Samaritan (which highlights social action). John Stott, in The Contemporary Christian, points out some remarkable similarities between these two parables.

God gives his people differing gifts, and none of us can do everything, but in some way all Christians are called to be witnesses (Matthew 10:32), and all are called to love their neighbours in practical ways. Jesus declared that it would be the fact that we had fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick and visited the prisoner, that would prove our identity as true believers on Judgement Day (Matthew 25:31-46). It is not a matter of Commission or Compassion, but a Commission of Compassion.

Love focuses outwards

“The reason the early church grew so fast in the first three centuries is that they out-thought, out-loved and out-served their contemporaries”

Human beings were created to love as do the members of the Trinity. The love that exists between members of the Trinity spills outwards. As Archbishop William Temple pointed out, all the activity of the Trinity in the New Testament is for our benefit. With our rebellion against God our love has become inverted, centred on ourselves. One of the expressions of this today is the excessive preoccupation with such things as my rights, my life, my liberty, my pursuit of happiness. Religion becomes a means toward self-realisation with the interest being on self-esteem, self-fulfillment, self-identity, the human potential movement and possibility thinking, leading to either the nihilism of post-modernism or the neo-gnosticism of the New Age Movement which identifies the self with God. E. Stanley Jones, in The Unshakeable Kingdom and the Unchanging Person, gets to the heart of the problem:

The most miserable people in the world are the people who are self-centred, who don’t do anything for anybody except themselves. They are centres of misery with no exceptions. On the contrary, the happiest people are the people who deliberately take on themselves the sorrows and troubles of others. Their hearts sing with a strange wild joy, automatically and with no exceptions. We are structured for the outgoingness of the love of the Kingdom. It is our native land.

Part of God’s purpose for our lives is to turn this around so our love is focused outward. “Christ’s love compels us…he died…that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Corinthians 5:14, 15). And what he wants to do for us individually, he wants to do for his church. When we first join a church, often it is because we are looking for something for ourselves. We have taken a step further when our motivation for being involved is that we want to develop a true community that is pleasing to God, using our gifts to serve others. The church has taken a further step towards maturity when its members can plan and pray together to support one another in ministries to those who are not its members. Paul writes to the Thessalonians: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else…” (1 Thessalonians 3:12). It has been said that the reason the early church grew so fast in the first three centuries is that they out-thought, out-loved and out-served their contemporaries. I like the mission statement of one church, which is:

to be a loving fellowship of committed believers worshipping together, seeking to reconcile persons to Christ, mature them in him, and involve them in ministry to one another and the world*.

*First Church of God, Toledo, Ohio

“If we have experienced the blessings of the gospel and don’t pass it on, then we are denying them that which is rightly theirs”

The church whose priority is focused on its own existence and rituals is still in its infancy, or to quote Bonhoeffer, “an authentic church is one that lives for others.” Harry Boer wrote, in Pentecost and Missions:

When the church tries to bottle up the Spirit within herself, she acts contrary both to her own and to his nature. For it is the nature of the church ever to be enlarging her borders, and it is the nature of the Spirit to transmit his life to ever-widening circles. When the church does not recognise this law of her being and of the being of the Spirit, the Spirit is quenched and he withdraws himself, and the deposit of religiosity that is left becomes a putrefaction in the lives of those who have grieved him.

Or to put it a little more succinctly, evangelist Luis Palau has compared Christians to manure. Where they “pile up” in one place they begin to stink, but when they are spread out, they fertilize the land! In Emil Brunner’s often quoted phrase: “The Church exists by mission as fire exists by burning.”

In Romans 1:14 Paul says, “I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel…”. The Greek word “obligated” is literally “a debtor”. There are two ways you can be in debt to someone. They can give you something which you then owe them, or someone can entrust you with something to pass on to the person to whom it really belongs. It is in this latter sense that Paul considers himself a debtor to others. He had been entrusted with the gospel to pass on to others. If we have experienced the blessings of the gospel and don’t pass it on, then we are denying them that which is rightly theirs. Paul also talks about sharing our faith as a necessary step in our growth in spiritual understanding. Writing to his friend Philemon, he said, “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ” (Philemon 1:6).

One of our motivations for seeing men and women, boys and girls coming to trust in Jesus is that they should share in the blessings of this great family. “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). However, our greatest motivation should be our desire for the glory of God. In 2 Corinthians, chapter 4, Paul speaks of both his faithfulness to the truth of the gospel and his sufferings in the work of sharing it with others. He then declares: “All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God” (v. 15).

A story

Gilbert Bilezikian, in Community 101, tells a story that is worth repeating. It happened in the Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. This is a church where ministry is recognised not as the privilege of the few, but as the divine call for all to invest themselves fully and joyfully in the work of the kingdom. Under the broad ministry umbrella of the church, more than a hundred subministries are in place, functioning around the clock or ready to respond to emergencies at a moment’s notice. Most of those ministries were started because someone in the congregation saw a need, gathered a team of believers with similar gifting and passion around herself or himself, and, under staff coordination, launched a new dimension of outreach or community care sustained by volunteer lay workers.

One Sunday, as Bilezikian was standing at the back of the auditorium watching worshippers making their way out of the building, someone tapped him on the shoulder. Turning, he saw a shy, plain-looking woman with two small children standing quietly beside her. She said, “Dr. B, I want to thank the people of this church. It saved our lives.” Intrigued by her statement, he asked her what she meant. In a flat monotone voice, without show of emotion, she told her story.

She had attended the church with her children and they had loved it. As a result she had received Jesus as her Saviour. Then, eighteen months previously, her husband had left her for another woman. He took the car and they had two months rent due on her apartment. There was no money and almost no food. She didn’t know who to go to for help and all her neighbours went to work every day. She sat alone in the empty building crying all the time. She became sad and could do nothing. All that came in the mail was bills and letters from lawyers asking for money. She thought they might die and hoped that all three would die at the same time. Eventually she had the idea of going out in the middle of the night and searching her neighbours’ garbage bins for food. Then, she said, a miracle happened:

One evening, the buzzer rang. When I opened the door, an angel of the Lord was standing there. She came in, saw my predicament, and left. That same evening, some people came in and brought a beautiful hot meal. A man and his son brought bags of groceries and children’s clothes. They said it was all from the church’s food pantry. Two people came with a little stack of twenty dollar bills and said the money was ours. I couldn’t believe my eyes, for they were complete strangers to me.

The next day, the rent was paid and the phone reconnected. Two ladies came in, put a set of keys on the table, and said there was a car parked outside that was provided by the car ministry of the church and that it was mine. In the following days, they arranged for child care and gave me leads so I could look for a job. I did find a job and now we’re standing on our own feet. I know we’re going to make it. You see, Dr. B, this church saved our lives.

Bilezikian made a discreet inquiry and found out that the “angel” in the story was none other than the Sunday School teacher of one of the children. She had noticed the child’s absence and had tried to reach the family on the phone. Upon learning that the phone had been disconnected, she assumed that they had moved away and removed the card from the file. But it was her habit to pray through the roster of children periodically. Each time she came to the name of this child she felt a strange unrest. Finally, she got up one morning, pulled out the family’s address, located it on the map, and in the evening, after work, drove over - just in case.

Here we get a glimpse of a church, in a memorable phrase of Miroslav Volf’s, “created out of a ‘rib’ of the triune God and the ‘wounded side’ of the Crucified.”

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