Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Heaven on Earth: The Church

Before we left for Indiana, God made it clear that we weren't to attend a local church here. In so many ways, this development knocked me off my feet a bit, wondering how we'd plant a church while we didn't have any other relationships here. I struggled with worry about being isolated and about not having other believers to meet with and pray with.

As I shared with Andy what God had told me, he agreed. "I think we'll get too caught up in spending all our time with Christians if we start going to a church. We'll want to get involved, but then our life won't be spent reaching out to people who don't yet know Jesus." I hadn't thought about that - how Christians feel like home to me and how easy it is just to spend all our time with them, but in doing that, we have missed out on relationships with people who don't know Jesus.

You see, while at one time, I struggled to love the church at all, God so radically changed my heart over the last 10 years that I find myself wishing to spend all my time with other believers - talking about God together, praying, worshiping, and growing together. It feels like home because it is the only picture on earth that is actually even close to my future home with Jesus in heaven.  God has placed a longing in me for heaven, and the church is the closest place on earth where we'll find that. True, the church is affected by sin and that used to be all I saw, but when God changed me, it changed how I saw the church. Now I see these beautiful people that God has created and He has given me vision to see them as they will be when we are all finally home; He's given me vision to see them as they truly are: redeemed saints.

And so to ask me to temporarily set aside my little heaven here on earth was like asking Abraham to give up Isaac. My heart and passion is the church. My home is the church. My life is about building God's church.And yet, God was asking me to set this on the altar too.

I tested the request a bit, bringing up verses like "Don't forsake the gathering together of believers." And His gentle spirit reminded me that we weren't - we may be a small gathering of believers, but we are still gathering and meeting and praying and learning and growing as a family of missionary servants. We are still holding up God's word over our life and even meeting with believers during the week and praying with believers over the phone. We hadn't forsaken His church, we'd committed ourselves to building it. And maybe from the outside that distinction isn't obvious, but it is a clear difference in our hearts and purpose.

We aren't disillusioned with the church. We are not bitter or angry or resentful. We are not exploring our identities separate of Christ and His church. We are missionaries walking in faith in a new environment, choosing to set aside the cultural norms of religion to reach people with the gospel: that the God of the universe has provided a way for people to know Him and talk with Him through His Son, Jesus.

Many leave the church because the sin in the church is too much for them. How can you love something tainted by sin? "There are so many hypocritical christians." "I was burned by this church or that church." "I was burned by these christians or those christians." Sin in the church is real. Sin in me is real. Sin in all people everywhere is real. It's a painful reality - the very reality that draws us to the foot of the cross. It's a reality the church needs to start from because it is the very place that leads us to cry out for Jesus' forgiveness. We cannot ignore the fact that there is sin in the church, Jesus certainly didn't, but we can follow Jesus' example and give our lives for that same church. We can choose to see people who are tainted by sin as people who are worth loving and giving our lives up for; it is the example set by our Savior and if we are a people who are remade to be little "christs" (christians), our lives will take on the same theme as His life. Besides, like Paul, we know our hearts and can likely cry out with him that we are the chief of sinners. We know that it is only His grace and strength that enable us to be anything other than a slave to sin.

As a christian, the church isn't something we flee. It is something we labor alongside Christ to build.

So what is the church? It's the collection of God's people everywhere. The Church isn't an institution. It's a family. It's a people-group. So, perhaps many have rejected the institution of christianity called the church, and I can hardly blame them. Religion has never been the means to knowing God and never will be. Jesus is the means to knowing God and He alone is able to bring dead hearts to life. Jesus is the one who ignited the first church (in the book of Acts) and He alone is able to keep our fires burning.

We build this church upon the rock of Christ and we labor over it like a child we've given birth to. Paul uses this terminology throughout his epistles because when God gives you a heart for the church, you cannot abandon it anymore than a mother could abandon her child. You labor over it in prayer and in love because the very heart of God labors over his church in love and sacrifice. In fact, the bible says that Jesus intercedes for us (Romans 8:34). Isn't that an amazing thought? Jesus is laboring over us in His own intercession even now!

The church is the body that Christ fills. Picture it in your mind with me now: a human body filled with God's Spirit; then expand your imagination - the person of Christ filled with all of us. It boggles my mind, but in John 14:20 Jesus says, "In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you." Wow! Jesus in us and us in Him and all in God - made possible by the work of Christ on the cross and the filling of the Holy Spirit.

This is a glimpse of abiding in Christ. Him in us and us in Him and all of us in God. It boggles my mind and yet, at moments, makes perfect sense. It's above my understanding and yet God makes it a reality that I can understand and experience! This, my dear sweet friends, is the Church. Us in Him and Him in us and all brought together in love of Jesus.

How can we abandon the church when the Church lives in us and us in it?

We may be a small church gathering right now, but we are the church. Church isn't something we do, it is who we are - a people filled by the Spirit of God. And as His people, we devote not just a gathering to Him, but our very lives. We devote time day and night to pray and worship, to laugh and encourage, to challenge and rebuke (especially our children, but often our own hearts also), to teach and train in the Truth, to build up and strengthen. Our lives are characterized by the work of the church and it's size does not determine its function. The number of people gathered does not determine the strength and value of the work that God is doing among us.

"For where two or three are gathered, there I am in there midst." (Matthew 18:20)

We may only be two or three gathered, but He is here in our midst.

Perhaps what matters most is not how many gather or where they gather, but that we are a people gathered together filled with Christ and centering our days and lives around His person, purpose, and praise - giving Him glory for all that He has done for us and in us & surrendering ourselves to His work in us and in the world around us. 

To Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever.

Photo by Jeff Patterson of our Church family in Oregon City: Renew Church
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