How many churches are there in your local town or city? There are probably around 50 in mine, and we all think we know the right way to do church! What is God’s idea of church, though? Probably something quite different.
There are objective truths we should all stand for, but the way we actually live is of immense importance. The right way to live won’t be found through comparison with one another, but by looking up, listening to God in scripture and prayer, and then thrashing things through together. We need to be genuine. We need to forge a solid common understanding by questioning our own assumptions, wrestling with ideas, thinking together and by arguing well. Then we must be bold enough to readjust our way of life toward God’s idea of Church.
When we look to the gospels for a guide on church, we find that surprisingly, Jesus didn’t really say a lot about it. His big topic was the kingdom of God.
Jesus’ big kingdom teaching started with the sermon on the mount. Mountains and high places were always linked to holy and historically significant moments. They acted as geographic markers that highlighted events to be remembered.
Israel was in a state of agitation; radicals wanted to overthrow their Roman oppressors with force. People were looking for their own ideal saviour. Jesus was becoming a major celebrity with many flocking for healing. Many were glory-seekers, few were followers.
Jesus knew what was in people’s hearts. In his mountain sermon he went against the grain of people’s expectations, he brought a challenge. God wanted to establish something different. Signs and wonders are a pointer but the important thing, what they point to, is the king and His kingdom.
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy…
Read especially Matthew 5:3-17
Jesus opened his manifesto with these supreme blessings (often called beatitudes). They describe God’s kingdom as something upside-down to what we’d expect, counter-cultural to the wonky ways of this world. Our way of church needs to embody the sermon on the mount, and perhaps especially the beatitudes. Human nature wants to be on top and to be strong, but God’s way is radically different.
When we start with what we know of church, we just get church as we’ve always known it. When we start where Jesus started – with who God is (and isn’t) and by exploring what the rule of God’s kingdom looks like, then we can start to become the church God intends.