What's the point of church?
On 17th January 2008, which was coincidentally just a few days before HTG opened, there was an article published in New Statesman magazine. The author, who wasn't a Christian, tried to answer this question, 'What's the point of church?' He described a church he'd visited. He wrote,
'Arriving in 1999 to find a dilapidated church, [the clergyman] raised money for a multi-purpose new-build centre offering Barnardo's daycare, meeting and counselling rooms, and even a kitchen devoted to nutritional best practice. The centre has proved especially beneficial to youths excluded from school and victims of domestic abuse. It might look as if temporal concerns outweigh the spiritual there, but the locals all call this place "church". I would defy any visitor not to be moved by the whole endeavour, which seems to me the very best of what the Church can do.'
On one hand it sounds great, doesn't it? It's the Gospel and the City – ministries of compassion and change to the local population. But is the author right to say that this is 'the best of what the Church can do' ? If he's right, couldn't we just volunteer with local charities instead? Aren't we just competing with them and thereby denying them our resources?
And if it's the gospel that we're concerned for, we can still ask 'what's the point of church?' Aren't we all saved as we individually turn to follow Jesus? Don't I have everything I need in his word? Don't churches cause divisions and problems? Can't I just worship God at home?
We're in week 4 of the Gospel in Life series, looking at The Gospel and Community. In case you haven't had a chance to do the home reading yet, 'community' refers to the local Christian community, i.e. the local church. This session is effectively 'The Gospel and the Local Church'. We're going to think about this using Romans 12, so please look that up on page 800 of the blue bibles.
As we look at this chapter we're going to discover that the Christian community is created by God himself in his mercy; the community is united like parts of a physical body; and the community is an attractive model of the future society of the new creation.
1. Community – created by God's mercy (v1-2)
You might remember from our series in Roman 12-16 earlier in the year that Romans 12 marks a gear change in the letter. In chapters 1-11 the author, the apostle Paul, has been explaining the gospel, the good news about Jesus. That starts in chapters 1-3 which is all about the bad news: God is angry because of human sin, and we're all guilty before him. …all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. In chapters 3-8 he explains God's grace: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. In chapters 9-11 he puts it all in the context of God's sovereignty: Oh, the depth of the riches of the knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!
In short, chapters 1-11 are all about our understanding – seeing the gospel as it is: our guilt before a God who cannot tolerate evil, Christ's sacrifice in our place on the cross to take the punishment we deserved, the free offer of forgiveness and new life simply by trusting in Christ's sacrifice. Chapters 12-16 are different because they're about the practical outworking of this simple faith – how we are to live in response to what God has done. The big clue to that is in verse 1: Therefore, in view of God's mercy … this is how you should live.
If you've never heard that before or that's a strange concept to you, please understand that the heart of the Christian message is grace (God mercifully intervening in our lives even though we don't deserve it). Because of that, the heart of Christian behaviour is gratitude. I don't try to live a good life in order to please God. It's the reverse of that. God is already pleased with me because of what he's done through Christ, therefore I try to live a good life out of gratitude for his grace.
So, in view of God's mercy, we are to offer our whole selves, our whole lives, all our resources and relationships, attitudes and ambitions, to God in grateful service of him for making us right with himself through Christ.
In other words, God's mercy is transforming. Look at verse 2. We aren't to live the selfish way that we once lived – the way the world lives. We aren't to conform to the way of the world, pursuing power or craving comfort or yearning for relationships or serving ourselves. We are to be transformed from within. As we grow to understand God's grace, gratitude will change our behaviour.
It's like a balloon. You don't blow up a balloon by tugging at it from the outside. It's got to be blown up from the inside. Likewise I can't change my behaviour from the outside, turning over new leaf after new leaf to try to please God. Rather, I am transformed from the inside, by gratitude for his mercy that I so desperately needed.
As individuals we experience God's saving power as we place our trust in Jesus' sacrifice on the cross to deal with our sin that cuts us off from God. We are the proof that it is God's good, pleasing and perfect will to save sinners. But what is God doing with all these individuals he has saved? What's the bigger plan? That brings us to my second point.
2. Community – united as a body (v3-8)
God's mercy unites us. We are united because we had nothing to offer God. We are united because we deserved death from him. There are plenty of dividing lines between people in the world and many apply here at HTG. We're divided by age, race, wealth, accent and more. But all who follow Jesus are united because we each stood before God in complete helplessness and each received the free gift of his grace. We are united in the sobering and humbling reality of grace. It's the measure of our faith, in other words the measure of our understanding of this free gift of salvation that allows us to think of ourselves with sober judgment, as we realise just what a leveller God's grace is.
Yet in v4-8 we see that despite our unity in grace, which overcomes dividing lines like race and education, we are still different from one another. We are not conforming to some new way of life that produces identical drones all buzzing away doing the same things. We are different and we are to deliberately work together to help each other to play to our individual strengths. Paul compares the community to a body. It would be crazy to build a body using only one type of body part, although someone could then genuinely claim to be all ears… It would be just as crazy to take different parts of a body and make them all perform the same function. Rather, for the good of the whole body, each part must be present and each must do its own job. The parts need each other to be present and to function. More than that, Paul says that each member belongs to all the others (v5). The lungs have a duty to the rest of the body to do their work. Likewise the kidneys and the feet. One body, many members, many functions but all with the duty to pull together so that the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts.
I've been watching a bit of American Football recently. It's a strange game, but also strangely compelling. When the camera pans to the home fans, you can see that they are united. Their unity is expressed by conforming, so they wear the team colours, they sing the same songs, they eat the same chilli hot dogs. They all turn out the same – they're fans. The team members on the pitch are also united. Their unity is expressed partly in conforming – so, they all wear the team colours, for example – but their unity is also expressed in their overall purpose and their individual functions. Their overall purpose is to beat the opposing team. But they don't do that by all playing together as outside line-backers. Can you imagine how hopeless that would be? Well, trust me – it wouldn't work at all. Each player needs to be enabled and supported by all the others to perform his own function. Only then will the team succeed.
So in the context of Christian community, verse 3 is about right thinking. As we understand that as sinful people we are all equally guilty before God and as we understand what a leveller God's grace is, we will think correctly about ourselves and about others. Right thinking (v3) leads to right serving (v6-8) – individuals using their different gifts to serve the whole community and further its overall purpose.
3. Community – a model society (v9-21)
Let's take a few minutes to scan through this section. Look at what characterises this new society. More than that, look at how we are commanded by God to live.
V9 - Love your brothers and sisters sincerely, as God has loved you. Reject evil and be steadfast in what is good – like God.
V10 - Love your brothers and sisters sacrificially, like Christ. Literally outdo one another in showing honour.
V11 - Live with zeal and fervour, in other words with eagerness and enthusiasm for serving the Lord, because of what he's done for you.
V12 - Be joyful, not in circumstances now but in certain hope for the future. Be patient in difficult times and don't despair. Be faithful in prayer, that humble expression of weakness and reliance on God, and that desire to talk to him personally and intimately.
V13 - Contribute to the needs of other Christians and show kindness and welcome, even into your home. Not just the dinner party that everyone enjoys but the sacrificial use of your home for others and for the gospel.
V14 - React to those who mistreat and harm you, not just with forgiveness but with genuine concern for them and goodwill to them
V15 - Get alongside others and focus on the other person rather than yourself.
V16 - Live out that realisation that grace is the great leveller. Imitate Christ's humble attitude to those less valued by society.
V17-18 - Don't retaliate when hurt but live out the gospel in front of everybody, if possible, living at peace with everyone.
V19 - Trust God to judge justly, just as Jesus did when he allowed himself to be killed.
V20 - behave towards your enemies in a way that demonstrates to them both God's love and your trust in his final judgment.
V21 - Do not give up in the face of evil, or try to overpower it, but rather overcome evil, disarm evil, with good.
If you found a village full of people who lived like that, you'd head straight for the estate agent to try to move in. It sounds great – the ideal society.
About fifty years ago a professor of religion called Thomas Molnar wrote a book about the notion of an ideal society. He wrote this:
From time to time the belief spreads among men that it is possible to construct an ideal society. Then the call is sounded for all to gather together and build it: the city of God on earth. The dream (utopia) leads to the denial of God and self-divinization [self glorification]: the heresy.
From 'Utopia: The Perennial Heresy' (1967), Thomas Molnar (1921-2010)
What marks the community of Romans 12 out as different is that it is a community created by God through his mercy on sinners, and it is a community with a profound unity because it is unity in the gospel and for the gospel. It's completely impossible to build an ideal society without God's grace at work in human hearts and without Christ's example to lead us and without the sure hope that God will put all things right when Christ returns.
However, if you found a village full of people who lived like that and you moved in, you'd very quickly find that it's hard to be part of this community. Living like this goes against the grain of human societies out there in the world and living like this goes against the grain of sinful human nature in here in our hearts. We don't live perfectly like this yet, and that's why we're still hard to live with. But as God transforms us by his Spirit living in us, enabling us to live more and more like this, we grow into deeper understanding of the gospel. How does that work? Well, as we forgive others, we grow to know how great God's forgiveness of us is. As we humble ourselves get alongside those of low position, we grow to appreciate how much Christ humbled himself to get alongside us. As we hold back from retaliating when others do us wrong, we see more clearly the loving restraint of the Son of the Almighty God who prayed for those who wrongly accused him and had him killed, trusting God to judge justly.
It's a community that sounds ideal and it's a community that is nonetheless hard to be part of. It's also a community that points forward. The overall purpose of the sports team is to beat the opposition. For the Christian community, we are to model to each other and to the outside world the transforming power of the gospel and we are to point forward to heaven when the transformation of our hearts and our community will be completed.
In fact the church is the final act in a great story of God restoring our community with him and with each other, from the broken community of Adam and Eve to the defective community of the Israelites who failed in their commission to be a light to the nations, to the church, a people called from darkness into light to be the light in the world that Israel never was. By the distinctive living that we see in this passage and others like it, the Christian community is to point forward to the perfect, heavenly community.
So, let's keep working hard to build the body here at HTG. If you haven't already read it, please do read the Gospel and Community home reading. Tim Keller describes nine body-building practices that draw on this chapter of Romans and lots of other New Testament instructions on how we are to live in community. I'm not going to explain them in any detail, but let me list them to finish because together they make up a helpfully rounded summary of the commands of God's word.
So to build the community:
- affirm one another's strengths, abilities and gifts
- affirm one another's equal importance in Christ
- affirm one another through visible affection
- share one another's space, goods and time
- share one another's needs and problems
- share one another's beliefs, thinking and spirituality
- serve one another through accountability
- serve one another through forgiveness and reconciliation
- serve one another's interests rather than your own
I think we're on the right track with a lot of these here at HTG, as we should expect as the Spirit does his work in us, but we must press on urgently to do them more and more, especially as we welcome new people into this community and as we live as salt and light in Gateshead.