We have briefly sketched the story of one segment of believers over the past 200 years in their search for their vision of the ideal church. This story has been repeated numerous times with different groups with only the names and places changed.
Being a new group does not necessarily mean rebellion against God’s order. Not every new group is insisting on having their own way. Most of these groups are made up of sincere people who believe they have discovered a better way of “doing church.” Most people in these groups only want to follow Jesus and be true to their vision of what he desires for human beings. Sincerity doesn’t make us right before God, but it ought to humble us and cause us to realize that we, too, are no different from those whom we think to be so unlike us. We think we are sincere seekers after the Lord who have everything figured out. But we don’t. Not even I have everything figured out so that I can sit in judgment of other sincere seekers. I don’t know anyone who does.
The sad part of all this is that by maintaining a rigid separation there is not only a duplication of effort on many fronts, but a failure to cooperate leaves many areas of work neglected. Such a focus on getting the church right has caused us to miss the real purpose for our existence. That purpose isn’t to be a perfect reproduction of the original church. It is to be in the world today what Christ was when he was in the world. It is to carry on and advance the mission he established when he was here. That mission is to further the interests of the kingdom of heaven. It is to help the will of God to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
We are not expected to accomplish that all by ourselves, but we are expected to work – together – toward that end. We are expected to show what it will be like when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. It is to live and work as though heaven had already come down to the earth. We do not do that by judging and condemning everyone except those who agree with us on every detail of religion. In fact, religion is the greater part of the problem we have in this world at the present. Religion was a major problem in Jesus’ day.
Jesus didn’t come to establish a religion. He came to call people back into a relationship with God. People who had been separated from God by sin. People who were lost and wandering in the world. People who were in darkness in their ignorance of God. The greatest opposition Jesus faced when he was here was from the most devoutly religious people among the only people who knew anything about God. The Pharisees were those religious people who gave Jesus such trouble. Very religious, but very, very wrong.
They condemned Jesus because he did not fit their image of the Messiah and because he did not share their idea of what was required to be acceptable to God. He ate with sinners and tax collectors and let women – even prostitutes – touch him. He healed people on the Sabbath day. He and his disciples did not wash their hands according to the prescribed ritual of ceremonial cleanliness. He did not fast like they did. So they accused him of being a drunkard and a glutton, having a demon and of casting out demons by the power of the prince of demons.
Followers of Jesus – disciples – are expected to be just like their master. A true disciple wants nothing more than to be just like him. Disciples of every rabbi wanted to learn the secret of their rabbi or as it was called, his yoke. If we are to be disciples of Jesus that ought to be our desire. Jesus, in calling people to himself put it this way …
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”1
In the preceding verse Jesus was talking to his hearers about knowing the Father as he was showing him to them. Such a knowledge of God is what mankind most urgently needs. They needed it then and we need it now. That knowledge is not all that complicated. Look at Jesus and you will see what the Father is like.
Look at Jesus and what do you see? You see one whose heart is filled with love for God’s handiwork – human beings who were made to be in the image of God but who had gone far astray from that ideal. You see one who was moved with compassion for people when they were hungry, when they were sick, when they were in sorrow, when they were lost in sin. You see one who did not condemn a woman taken in adultery but in mercy simply urged her to “Go and sin no more.” To put it succinctly, you see one whose heart was characterized by love. That is what the Father is like. That is what we are to be like. That is the “yoke” of Rabbi Jesus.
When asked about which commandment was the most important, Jesus replied,
“… you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”1
To love God and to love one’s fellow man is what will make disciples perfect, Jesus said… “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” At the end of this saying he added, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” To be perfect is to be complete, to reach maturity as a child of God. It is to become like God. This is what God is looking for from us.
Will we ever love perfectly? No. Even after we have loved as much as we can we will never love as God has loved us. This is something in which we are expected to grow. The longer we live and the more we experience the closer we will come to that ideal, but we will never reach the perfection of love that is God. God is love, John said. We will never become God, but we can reflect, however imperfectly, the image of God so that people can see his glory. That is what the church is expected to do.
The church is just a bunch of forgiven people on whom the light of Jesus’ love shines and reflects the glory of God’s love into the world. His glory is seen in a million ways through the reflections of both individuals and as gatherings of believers. When one forgives others, a shaft of light is beamed from the Father in heaven and reflects out into the world. Other reflections will be seen when we attend to the needs of the hungry, the sick, the dying. When we comfort the sorrowing and when we restore the erring we reflect God’s glory. It is seen when we plant a flower, tend a garden, paint a widow’s house, drive our grandmother to the doctor or when we sit with a sick child. It is seen when we do a simple act of kindness or when we lend a neighbor a hand in repairing his car or mowing his lawn when he is away. It is even seen when we write a poem, sing a song, tell a story or paint a picture that tells something of the loveliness of God and his creation. It is seen when working as an educator as a profession, teaching elementary, special education, high school or on the university level. It may even be seen in being a coach of a little league team. It is seen when we help a single mother bear her load. It is seen when one decides to be a scientist, a lawyer or a doctor for the purpose of helping and healing people and not to make one’s self rich or famous. In all these and in a million other ways we can show the glory of God to the world. And when millions of believers are committed to that same purpose of glorifying God, wonders can be wrought in this sad old world and the kingdom of heaven will be brought nearer to it’s full expression.
Being a child of God or being God’s family isn’t just about doing religious things like “going to church” or getting the details of worship right or even about getting the church right or getting in the “right” church. It isn’t about how much money we give to the church or to charitable causes. It isn’t just about reading the Bible or praying so many times a day. It isn’t even about going to heaven when we die. As good as these things may be, this isn’t Christianity. It is about being the child of a loving, forgiving Father. It is about being like God. It is about doing his will on earth as it is done in heaven. And that covers a lot of ground. It is simply about being the church.
What is the church, then? It is people just like you and me who are helping one another give ourselves to God – living sacrifices whose only purpose in life is to serve and to glorify God by being like him. It is people whom God through the Holy Spirit has gifted for these tasks. It is people who are still looking for the ideal place, but who realize they will never find it this side of eternity when the Lord comes again to be with his people forever in that new creation that is in process of becoming at the present time. The new creation that was begun when Jesus rose from the tomb.
So let us not merely wait for it to come sometime in the future. Let us work for it in the present until God himself comes and finally and fully establishes the kingdom and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. After all, isn’t that what heaven is? Where God is and where his will is done? That is God’s restoration. That is the utopia I am looking for!