Facing the questions that will shape the church in the 21st century
Outreach - Part A
How can the church change the world through its actions?
In Chapter 2, I described the church as a dynamic, healthy, intentional community that arises when people who follow Jesus come together to become the kingdom of God. This kingdom continues the work of Jesus on this Earth. This community and kingdom has potential to do great things, things that define us, give us opportunity to grow and thrive, and have a great impact on the world around us. This naturally leads us to questions about our goals. What great things should we do? How should our amazing potential be directed? How can we best follow Jesus in the 21st century, not only as individuals but through partnerships with others? What’s next after Community? What does it lead to?
In short, this chapter attempts to answer this question:
How can the church change the world through its actions?
It’s clear that this question is also vital to the question in the previous chapter, and cannot be separated from it. Our success as a community depends on an outward focus, a posture of welcome to all people, and a clear mission to be generous. We share what we have been given with others and are spiritually generous, offering forgiveness and acceptance. Think of the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, the Great Commandment, and the Great Commission: our community is defined by a mission to love and share. If we attempted to define a community that just takes care of it’s own, provides a comfortable space, and protects those inside from the world outside as a safe haven for Christians, we see that the mission to love and share would wither on the vine. Like Jesus taught, the nature of God inside us is revealed through action. As the local church and as the global kingdom of God, what do our actions say about us? What do our actions reveal about what is in our hearts? How does our community look from an outside lens? The actions that people see should represent what is happening on the inside. The God-nature that lives inside the church, the community and kingdom of God on Earth, must naturally show itself through its actions.
Viewed from within, this is also the nature of healthy community. It’s true that if we do nothing useful, we will wither. On the other hand, we learn, grow and thrive through putting into practice what we believe. We learn from others in the community that have more experience. We learn by cooperating with others. We find value through teamwork. We find ourselves appreciated for our good ideas and contributions, our bright smiles and ready hands. We make friends, we challenge each other, we build trust, we embrace relationships. We connect. Where connections would have seemed forced and awkward if all we do is meet and greet each other, when we work together, these connections form naturally and with little effort. Even the most socially awkward person will make friends with people if they are having fun together doing something useful. As humans we have a strong need to be useful. Community gives us that.
In this way, the phrase “practicing our religion” takes on a particular meaning:
Practicing our religion, means putting what we believe into practice.
This is the cure for religious institutionalism. This is the sign of true transformation. This is the thriving kingdom, with God’s nature within and God’s generosity demonstrated to those outside. The church is seen and heard through its actions. God is seen and heard as well.
With this understanding of the implications, we need to carefully ask the question in this chapter. What fruit? What actions? How do we demonstrate generosity? How do we have the greatest impact? How do we put what we believe into practice?
How can the church change the world through its actions?
I don’t think my answer will surprise you. Jesus taught us to:
Love God by Loving Others
As I discussed in the previous chapter, this was the key message of the sermon on the mount in Luke 6 and so many of Jesus’ other teachings. It is inconsistent to claim to love God but not represent the love of God. When Jesus said “follow me”, this is what he meant: love God by loving others, as I will teach you and show you.
What we call the Great Commandment was already understood by the Jewish audience. In Luke 10 we have this conversation:
25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.” [Luke 10, CEB]
Jesus simply affirmed what the man said as being the correct understanding of the law of God. No matter how you break down the laws and history of the Old Testament, you come up with this primary interpretation of the “Law”. It’s no law at all -- it’s not even a commandment -- it’s a truth that transcends our need to understand and evaluate what’s right and wrong in thought and action -- it simply talks about a concept called Love that we are to embrace and our right thoughts and actions will follow. It essentially says “Love wins”. Where laws and commandments fail, love wins. Jesus says that if you do this you will live. Life is found where love wins. Follow your heart, follow God’s heart, follow me. You will find life, and life is all about love. Through his teaching on compassion and the kingdom way vs. the selfish way, Jesus taught that love for God must be revealed through love for others. We take on God’s nature, sharing generously with others as God does. Jesus said:
6 Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate. [Luke 6, CEB]
In his first letter to the churches, John also states this principle:
7 Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. 8 The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him. 10 This is love: it is not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as the sacrifice that deals with our sins. [1 John 4, CEB]
He fully explains how love for others and love for God are the same thing, starting in 1 John 3, and continuing through 1 John 5.
James also tackles this concept in his discussion of “faith” vs. “works”. This famous passage, below, is clearly trying to explain that we must put our faith into action, we must show our love for God by loving others:
14 My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? 15 Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. 16 What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? 17 In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity. [James 2, CEB]
If we continue to keep our religion separate from community, with only a small overlap where we put them into action together, then we will continue to separate faith and works. We believe one thing, and do another. Occasionally these two things come together. If we separate our love for God from our love for others, then we work hard to satisfy both sides. We work to please God through our individual spirituality and through our religious activities, while we work hard to love others through our own efforts. Apparently James saw this as a dilemma that early Christians were facing: faith was embraced as an end in itself, leading to a closer relationship with God. Actions of love and kindness were seen as competing for attention with faith. But what James, John, and Jesus all were trying to explain is the convergence of the two. Faith and works are NOT in tension. They only work when they are the same thing. Love for God is Loving Others. Faith is Works. We cannot separate them. Or if we do separate them, we are leaving God behind and creating our own kingdom. God’s heart is not in it. God’s heart is compassion for others. If we love that heart, we will have that heart.
Jesus and James also defined “true religion” as compassion and a kind heart. In James 1, James says:
27 True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us. [James 1, CEB]
And in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells the famous parable of the sheep and the goats, where he explains that what Jesus will value in your life is your generosity:
40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’ [Matthew 25, CEB]
Read the full passage if you are not familiar with this parable. Clearly the point is that we should not have two separate concepts for spirituality and generosity, for faith and works, for loving God and loving people. These concepts only work when they converge.
Spirituality is generosity, faith is works, and loving God is loving people.
This doesn’t mean that we fail to love God, or that we fail to purify our hearts. Rather, it means that we become fully transformed by our encounter with God who purifies our hearts. This transformation is visible on the outside, revealed as the fruits we produce. Sin is selfishness and the opposite of God’s nature, whereas our righteousness and our true worship is heart transformation.
The transformation I am describing applies exactly the same for the church as for the individual.
As we become the kingdom of God, we act like it! Our heart must be transformed as a community. It should show in our mission, our actions, our message, and even our reputation. The kingdom of God should represent all that is good in the world, and the world should at least be able to acknowledge this goodness, even if they don’t agree with our beliefs.
Finally, I want to provide one more thought-provoking example. We have the opportunity to hear a 1-on-1 conversation that Jesus has with a Samaritan woman in John 4. After some discussion, Jesus tells her that the Messiah will reveal the true nature of worship:
21 Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you and your people will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You and your people worship what you don’t know; we worship what we know because salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the time is coming—and is here!—when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way.24 God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one who is called the Christ. When he comes, he will teach everything to us.”
26 Jesus said to her, “I Am—the one who speaks with you.” [John 4, CEB]
Interesting, the role of the Messiah was already of understood by the woman, before she knew it was Jesus -- the role to “teach everything to us.” And Jesus stated what he would teach: how to worship God in spirit and in truth.
Isn’t this what we really want? Isn’t this our heart’s desire? As a church isn’t this our core mission? We expect Jesus to teach us everything about how to worship God in spirit and in truth. How to be spiritually insightful, accurate in our understanding of God, wise in our sensing of spiritual things that we cannot see or touch. And we want to know the truth, accurate in our understanding of life, and our role in it. If we shine the light of Jesus on our lives and on the world around us, we will see the truth. If we allow the Holy Spirit to take charge in our spirits, we will sense spiritual truth and spiritual life. We will be the fulfillment of Jesus’ claim in John 4, that he would change things so that people would worship God in spirit and in truth. He’s talking about us, when we are the ones that put Jesus’ words into action! He says that the Father is seeking people who will worship him in this way. Will we respond?
People worship God in spirit and in truth, by putting into action the teachings of Jesus.