‘WHAT ON EARTH IS THE CHURCH FOR?’

The Christian religion is not to be equated with the Christian Church: because there is a very real, essential-to-life difference between the two.
 
Throughout the gospels: Christ did not speak of founding a religion of any sort: not even what we now call ‘Christianity’; perhaps because it was the ‘dead hand’ of religion, with its complex and demanding requirements; as practiced by the Jews; that virtually cut the people off from their God.
 
Nor did Christ give the slightest hint that his followers would, one day, become known as ‘Christians’. In the days of his earthly ministry: the Lord’s followers became generally known as ‘disciples’.
 
At six places in the gospels, Jesus referred to his close followers as ‘my disciples’. Three of them relate to a message, from Jesus to a householder, saying: ‘This day, I will keep the Passover at your house, with my disciples’.
 
The other three; directly attributed to Christ, in John’s gospel record; are very different, and of great importance; in that they contain binding provisos, that cannot be set to one side, or ignored. 
 
John 8:31 says: ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’.
 
John 13:35 says: ‘By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’.
 
John 15:8 says: ‘By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples’.
 
These three texts, along with others of a similar nature: tell of a spiritual relationship that the Lord offers to all who believe in him: a relationship that has very little, directly, to do with the practicalities of religion.
 
Christ does not call us into membership of a religious organization, ruled by practical considerations: but into belonging to him, within a spiritual organism that is ruled by divine love.
 
He named the spiritual nature of the ‘organism’: into which born-again Christians are built. However: Christians have greatly diminished the power of that name, by applying it practical, non-spiritual ways.
 
On the small, local scale: Christians tend to define themselves, collectively, as congregations, meetings, assemblies and so on.
 
The wider aspects of collective belonging: are made to relate to historical denominations; or are expressed in terms of broad divisions; such as Evangelical, and Pentecostal.
 
Most collective-belonging terms: are no more than practical labels: that describe something of the physical places where they gather; and touch on the personal reasons why they meet under this roof, rather than that one.
 
Such descriptions do nothing to define who they actually are in God’s sight. They fail to point to the fact that Christ has given his followers new life, through his historical actions; …that he has called them into his service, in the present; …and that he will enable them to fulfil their calling.
 
What do we believe that Christ meant, when he said: ‘Upon this rock, I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it?’
 
He gave his followers a new, collective name; ‘church’; and set it within the heavenly and spiritual realm: from which they could undertake spiritual ministries, within the practicalities of the needy world.
 
When Christians remove that Christ-given name from its heavenly setting; and use it in mundane ways that deplete its spirituality: they reduce it to a dull, practicality that the Lord cannot have had in mind, at the beginning.
 
Today, we apply the name ‘church’ to buildings, to places of worship, and the physical practicalities of running them. We speak of churches: and of church funds to be put to one side, against future church repairs. We ring church bells, which are set within church towers; that also carry the church clock. There are many graves in the churchyards; the church path needs to be swept, and the church accounts require proper auditing, and so on.
 
Probably more often than not: the name ‘Church’ is applied to buildings and systems; rather than to the people to whom it properly belongs, the Christians using those facilities.
 
What about us? In relation to services of worship, we speak of attending a church, rather than of actually being a Christ-appointed part of the Church.
 
Largely; Christians see ‘Heaven’ as a place; to which they have no recourse, in the present: but upon which they set their hopes of a future, spiritual home, within which they will, one day, experience ‘heavenly rest’.
 
In the gospels, Jesus gave a wider and more powerful teaching. Without decrying or diminishing the hopes of his followers: he required them to see that they were called into his service, in the urgency of the present; and to leave their future in his divine keeping. He gave them to understand that they must see ‘Heaven’, not so much as a ‘future home’, but more, as a present, home base: from which born-again Christians set out upon their calling; and to which they make recourse; for enabling gifts and graces; and in thanksgiving, for blessings received.
 
It has been said that: ‘Some Christians are so heavenly minded, as to be of little earthly use’. Too much in one direction: is as bad as too little in another. God appears to call us into some sort of balance.
 
For a while, God’s Christ became the human Jesus: eternally part of the heavenly realm, yet fully involved in humanity and its needs.
 
When he had accomplished certain, needful things; he appeared to go away: but there is a very real sense in which he has stayed – and continues to work; in and through the spiritual Church that he founded, and commissioned.
 
Jesus remains fully involved with humanity, and its needs. Because the gospels pre-date Christ building his Church: they give no more than a hint about how such involvement works.
 
Acts 9, tells us that Saul, who became ‘Paul’, at his conversion: was referred to by Jesus as: ‘My chosen instrument, to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings; and before the people of Israel’.
 
At Galatians 1, Paul writes that he received the gospel of salvation, direct from Christ, through spiritual revelation. With such credentials belonging to him: we gladly turn to Paul for his teaching, about how the Lord works through his spiritual body on earth – the Church.
 
Taking a firm grasp upon the matter: Paul uses simple images to teach something about Christ’s intentions, and requirements.
 
Just as our human minds, direct the life and actions of our bodies: so with the divine mind of Jesus Christ; as he directs the life and actions of his spiritual ‘body’, the Church.
 
At Ephesians 1, we read of God the Father appointing Christ to be head over everything, for the sake of the Church, which, as said, has become ‘The Body of Christ on earth’ – but Paul goes far beyond that point alone.
 
At verse 23, he writes of the ‘Body’ containing (not reflecting, but containing) ‘the fullness of him who fills everything, in every way’.
 
Such fullness cannot exist within the ongoing division, disunity and disharmony that has become part of the religion, that we call ‘Christianity’.
 
Nor can such fullness have direct relation to the physical places that we call ‘churches’, within which denominational divisions and practices cut against the ‘one-ness’ that Christ called into being, long ago.
Throughout his ‘Letters’: Paul writes of a spiritual, binding together that creates, not only a commonality, a ‘one-ness’ among Christians, and a sharing of the best qualities and attributes of human life: but also something of a commonality, a ‘one-ness’ with the indwelling Christ; and a sharing in his divine qualities and attributes.
 
At John 8:31 Jesus said: ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’.
 
He did not speak these words about a religious system; with its complex and demanding requirements; within which the truth can easily become obscured. Instead: Jesus spoke to living people, who were being commissioned to become his ‘Body on Earth’, in the very near future.
 
At John 13:35 Jesus said: ‘By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’.
 
He did not speak these words about the lifeless fabric of places and buildings that would, one day, be established in his Name. Instead: Jesus was speaking to living people, whose lives were in the process of being spiritually enhanced with divine gifts and graces.
 
At John 15:8 Jesus said: ‘By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples’.
 
He did not speak these words about a well-modulated code of religious practice which, when carefully and regularly undertaken, could become an example that others might accept, and follow.
 
Instead: he spoke to people within whom the ‘dead-hand-of-religion’ had no place at all: because the Spirit of the Living God dwelt within them, and showed forth through their lives with a meaningful attractiveness, that would encourage others to enter into divine mercy, love and grace.
 
Long ago: Jesus gave his followers a new, collective name; ‘church’; and set it within the heavenly and spiritual realm: from which they could undertake spiritual ministries, within the practicalities of the needy world.
 
‘What, on earth, is the Church for?’  It is for a far greater purpose, than many Christians have even begun to consider; let alone completely accept.
 
It is that the Church should actually be, the spiritual ‘Body’ of Christ; through which he, as the divine ‘Head’ of that ‘Body’, may continue to work out his holy purposes of love and redemption, within the world that he continues to love.      Amen.