Just when we are tempted to think these times are unique, the Scriptures remind us that people of every generation, every race, and every society have had to cope with fear and uncertainty. That’s because these are the weapons of the god of this age.
The excellent news is we can receive the right relationships, deep peace and inner-spring of joy conferred upon subjects of the King by his Holy Spirit. These are gifts of the Kingdom, and they are more real than the fears and doubts sown into the everyday messages of this age. To live in these three realities is actually a signal to the Adversary his methods are passing away, and being replaced with a resurrected people living in the age to come even now: “Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel: in no way alarmed by your opponents—which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God.” (Philippians 1:27-28)
The answer is always the same: there is a King in Heaven who will return to earth, and we can participate in His Kingdom right now, even before he returns. In the on-going mission of God’s people living in this present age, there is no such thing as a “non-combatant.” The only question is whether I’m aware of the conflict raging around me.
Meditate: Have I ever thought of my life as the battleground between two kingdoms?
EDITOR'S NOTE: I run this article each spring because I'm so committed to it's message. So far--in four years of blogging--I've grown to embrace this message more and more, although I've modified the language, softening it here or there an an attempt to dialogue with others. If you've commented in past years, let me know if your thoughts have developed.
After 40 years of walking with God I have met plenty of unhealthy Christians who belong to a church, but I have never met a healthy Christian who does not belong to a church. What are we to do with this? The currently popular solution is to hang out informally with our believing friends and declare, ‘This is my church. These people know me and love me. I receive nothing from organized religion.’”
I wrote these words three years ago, and after thinking about it for a year, I have only one revision to make: After 43 years of walking with God I have met plenty of unhealthy Christians who belong to a church, but I have never met a healthy Christian who does not belong to a church.
It’s difficult to stand in defense of the church when the church is so screwed up. It’s a helluva a way to run a railroad, but apparently the Father thinks it’s worth the risks. We were designed for community, but also something beyond mere community, we were designed for the church.
Many will object, and I invite you all to tell me gruesome tales of hypocrites, self-righteous blowhards, and sexual predators. I get it. The North American church is desperately sick, and in many cases the church hinders the spiritual growth of believers. But before we all decide have coffee and croissants down the street with the cool kids and call it church, I’d like to suggest that God has given us a few clues about what He thinks makes up a church. The bottom line is: church is God’s idea, and we ignore it at our peril.
It’s a book-length discussion--a life-length discussion, actually--but here is one man’s list of at least six vital parts of a real church:
- The church meets together regularly: Sunday morning isn’t the only possibility. In fact, Acts 2:42-47 suggests they met together far more than North Americans might find comfortable. In a variety of settings, for a multitude of reasons, followers of Jesus meet together regularly and share their lives together. I don’t give a rip when or where, but regular, habitual gathering is a mark of the church.
- The church has a defined structure: Structure is built into God’s order of creation. Single-celled organisms reveal astonishing complexity of function; in the human body there is individualized function. Without the structure of a skeleton, the body cannot stand. These physical realities point toward spiritual truth. Amazingly, the scripture seems to endorse a variety of church structures, but every New Testament church had a recognizable structure. We can disagree on what that structure may look like, but it’s not possible to read Acts or the Epistles without recognizing it’s importance.
- The church provides authority: Authority! Just mention the word and people tense up. Abuses abound, guilt is common currency, and the church in North American differs little from any business down the street. Yet we all must personally come to terms with passages like, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.” (Hebrews 13:17) Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus could be considered all about authority! Nearly everyone has a horror-story about abuse of authority in the church. Here’s my take: authority without compassion and relationship makes a sham of God’s Kingdom, but compassion and relationship without authority misses God’s Kingdom entirely.
- The church is a proving ground for love and forgiveness. “Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3: 12-14) These words are impossible to live out in isolation. I believe the Father designed families and churches as the venues for love and forgiveness. How can we live out these words apart from our families, or the church--which is the family of God?
- The church equips God’s people. Christian maturity requires a nurturing family atmosphere. Gifts of the Holy Spirit and the development of Christian character thrive in a healthy community. Entertainment apart from equipping is antithetical to God’s plan for the church--there are plenty of churches that amount to nothing more than TV shows. But fellowship and community without equipping also falls short of the mark. If there's no equipping going on, it's not fully the church. Jesus is into lab, not lecture. And it's not recess, either.
- The church provides a unique corporate witness: There have been exceptional individuals throughout history. Saints and geniuses appear larger than life, and because they are are so exceptional, they are easily dismissed as individuals, even freaks. But who could dismiss an entire community of faith? “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” said Jesus in John 13: 34 “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” The early church would either get you healed or care for you until you died. Widows, orphans and outcasts of the first century knew there was a refuge called “the church.”
Object if you will: it’s easy to do. The church has failed in every area. Today’s post is not a defense of the way things are. The church in North America is desperately sick.
Some things should change--and I believe the change begins with us as individuals. If you must leave your current church, then go. But where? If you can find a group of believers attempting to fulfill these six ideals you will land in a safe place. Leaving a sick church may be the best decision. Ignoring God’s plan for your personal growth as a disciple never is.
Each year at Easter millions of people sing the popular chorus from Handel’s Messiah, “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.” This chorus is drawn from Revelation 11:15, where the seventh (and last) angel declares the final victory of God. Why does the angel use “kingdom” singular when throughout history there have been so many kingdoms? Ultimately there are only two kingdoms: darkness and light. To fully embrace God’s Kingdom means we must ask ourselves where our citizenship lies.
Kingdom citizenship is made stranger still because Jesus spoke as if there are only two ages in earth’s history: “this present age” and “the age to come.” Citizenship in God’s Kingdom also means we come from another age—another era. This is not a harkening to some past age; we are the people of another Kingdom from another age—the age to come. Dr. Who has nothing on us.
Let’s layer in one more strange detail: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood . . .” (1 Peter 2:9-10). We are not simply citizens in God’s Kingdom, nor ambassadors from another time, we are also priests. Some people might think the title and task of priest is presumptuous. Yet it’s exactly how God’s word describes us. Simply put, here’s what priests do: they represent God to men, and men to God. This means heaven and earth intersect in every follower of Jesus. God’s Kingdom is filled with priests, living from one era into another, acting out daily roles as schoolteachers, businesspeople, parents, and students. Here is a worthy meditation: do I see myself in this way—and am I comfortable in that role?
Back in another life I was a salesman, and not a very good one at that. I was trained in techniques designed to close the sale quickly and effectively, and—if necessary—against the customer’s will. During these years I learned people don’t always reveal their true reasons for resisting your pitch. If they complained my product didn’t come in red, it meant they thought the price was too high, or they didn’t trust me. Red was simply a convenient excuse. The real issues were almost always price or trust.
Other than the benefit of nearly going bankrupt, my salesman days also taught me something about my walk with God. I discovered that I, too, deal in convenient excuses with the Master of the Universe. The convenient excuses are usually big picture things: "The church is full of hypocrites,” I protested. It allowed me to remain in isolation. When I declared, “The Bible is a flawed book,” it gave me an easy way out of navigating the tension between God’s ways and my ways. I was free to take my pick: “God hates women. Or gays. Or he’s too violent.”
And because I was educated beyond my intelligence, I loved to discuss the pressing social issues of the day in relation to Christianity. I’d take up the discussion with anyone who would listen. At the coffeehouse. On Facebook or Twitter. At some else’s blog, or at mine. They became my favorite hiding places from a daily, intimate walk with the Father. Discussing the failures of others or debating the current cause célèbre served me well. It became a game of hide-and-seek where I devoutly wished to be found by everyone except God. It’s much easier to talk about God than to walk with him. Should we be surprised we do not hear his voice when we are busy chattering away?
It turns out the Holy Spirit can play hide-and-seek pretty well, too. The Holy Spirit's favorite hiding place is inside a simple act of obedience. I can only seek him by being willing to do what he says. Understanding, insight, and revelation come from hearing his voice and doing his will. I can hold any traditional or progressive opinion and still hide from him. He does not come to talk about God’s Kingdom, but to establish it in my heart.
During my manipulative sales days, we had a method of cutting to the chase. When I prospect asked, “Does it come in red?” we would respond with, “If it comes in red, are you ready to buy it?” The crass, in-your-face approach had a way of separating the buyers from the browsers. Who knows? Perhaps the Spirit asks me the same question: “If Jesus agreed with all your social and political opinions, would you then be ready to kneel and obey?”
This is a sneak peek at Day One from a new Devotional, 50 Forgotten Days: A Journey Into The Age To Come. It's designed to take you forward from Easter to Pentecost.
The Resurrection of God ~ DAY ONE
A Preview of Coming Attractions
Resurrection makes all things new: Jesus, in a physical, resurrected body is operating under a whole new set of rules. He is physical enough to eat and drink with the disciples, and “spiritual” enough to appear behind locked doors or disappear before the eyes of the two guys on the road to Emmaus. This resurrection is the hint of what is to come for all of us. We will not simply come alive in the old way. Resuscitation is resuming the old life; resurrection is entry into a new kind of life.
Ask Yourself: Have I merely added Jesus to my menu of choices and then simply resumed the old life?
Live Into It: What would a resurrected-kind-of-life look like in my home, my job, my school, and my life?