Let’s jump right in with today’s quote from the final chapter of Simply Jesus:
The church is not supposed to be a society of perfect people doing great work. It’s a society of forgiven sinners repaying their unpayable debt of love by working for Jesus’ kingdom in every way they can, knowing themselves to be unworthy of the task. The moment any Christian, particularly any Christian leader, forgets that — the moment any of us imagine that we are automatically special or above the dangers and temptations that afflict ordinary mortals — that is the moment when we are in gravest danger. Peter’s disastrous, humiliating crash came an hour or two after he had declared that he would follow Jesus to prison and even to death.
— Tom Wright, Simply Jesus
You might well read the above paragraph and think it says nothing that isn’t perfectly obvious. However, there is a big implication for the church.
If you asked many non-religious folks their opinion of Christians, you would undoubtedly get a wide range of answers. However, a good chunk of those answers would surely be along the lines that Christians are a bunch of holier-than-thou do-gooders, people who consider themselves morally a cut above the average Joe or Jane and who spend their lives looking down their noses at the moral inadequacy of those not so enlightened as they are. This view may appear to be based on a caricature, but it’s the view that a lot of people hold, and one has to assume that they mostly have at least some reason for holding it.
Jesus spent his time hanging out with people who were transparently bad and/or messed up in a variety of ways. When he was referred to as the “friend of sinners”, this was not a compliment. Furthermore, the twelve men he chose to be his closest associates and into whom he poured his life and teaching were a motley band of liars, hot-heads, deniers and betrayers.
And so we seemingly have a major disconnect. On the one hand, the Jesus of first century Palestine kept community with all manner of social misfits, outcasts and ne’er-do-wells; on the other hand; the community of Jesus in the twenty-first century (the church) is largely seen as being made up of self-important morality police.
In view of this widespread faulty view of what the church is meant to be, I’d like to share a couple of thoughts:
1. Churches should ceaselessly preach and teach the biblical gospel of the kingdom. (This, of course, should go without saying, but many churches really need to get back to basics when it comes to what exactly the gospel is.) It is only the word of the cross, which is foolishness to the world, that can circumvent and cast down all our lofty ideas and pretensions about holiness and morality. God wants us to be holy and, dare I say, moral, but the moment we try to achieve holiness or morality through any other means but the cross, we refuse the gift of God’s grace and place our trust in our own ability, inevitably fuelling pride.
As Tom’s quote above suggests, pride is a deadly foe – perhaps our deadliest. Preaching and teaching the gospel means constantly reminding us not what wonderful people we are, but how wonderful the grace of God is in embracing sinners like us and transforming us from ugly, formless lumps of clay into beautiful vessels fit to hold God’s treasure.
2. There is an urgent need for churches to foster and facilitate genuine community. This means moving from being an institution where everyone is expected to look as respectable as possible to being an organic body where transparency and authenticity are much more highly valued than image and presentation. Churches that encourage people to hide behind masks for fear of misunderstanding or judgement are setting themselves up for future falls. Only by pursuing true community will we both encourage incarnated love and guard ourselves and each other against pride.
Now, I know words like “transparency” and “authenticity” are somewhat overused these days; and I know that embodying such values in a real life community is far easier said than done. But I don’t really see any other way for the church to genuinely be the embodied community of Jesus.
(I also realise that complete transparency and authenticity do not necessarily comport with basic order and organisation. There is a need for order at a church’s main Sunday morning service, and this places some limits on what can and cannot be appropriately expressed at such a gathering. This means churches have to look not only at their main service but at what else they are doing and encouraging outside of that to build genuine community.)
I have a hunch that the reason we often shy away from pursuing genuine community is that we’re afraid that unbelievers will be put off by the level of vulnerability such a community would require. I understand this fear, but I think it’s misguided: on the one hand, there are few things so attractive as genuine, open-hearted, brokenness-embracing community; and on the other hand, if what people are attracted to is all image and presentation, how real is the resulting relationship anyway? When life gets difficult and trials come, will it be enough to hold them secure within the community?
I don’t want to be part of a society of perfect people. I want to be part of a community of brothers and sisters who know me as I am, warts and all, a family that knows the worst things about me and still accepts and loves me. Is that asking too much?
[ Image: graffiti*is*your*friend ]