Ever wonder why, from a first-century perspective (as opposed to a theological one) that Jesus went to the cross and rose from the dead? Every story has a back story, and the message in this gathering from John 11.45-57 helps us understand it. It also helps us consider the importance of comparing any new movement against Scripture, keeping our preferences in check, and being mindful of healthy unity. (The whole service is here; you can skip ahead to 35:50 to watch the message.)
The tragedy in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, and its politicization, has illustrated the reality that Christians are under attack, being persecuted and executed in these days, and often, the western media don’t even mention it.
It’s not getting any easier to be a follower of Jesus in our time. Even as little as 50 years ago, the church still enjoyed a privileged position, in our country and in many western nations. But that is no longer true. As time rolls on, our relationship to the culture is looking more and more like the church of the first century.
And in many ways, that’s actually good news.
The church that experiences cultural privilege is less likely to rely on God. The church that experiences cultural persecution is more likely to rely on God, because he’s all there is to rely on!
And the church that experiences cultural persecution has a greater tendency to grow if it’s being faithful to Jesus and his Word.
So don’t worry about persecution; remember that Jesus is greater than any persecution we could face.
“Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16.33, NLT).
Normally, on Good Friday, I write about the crucifixion. And make no mistake: the fact that Jesus died is an important fact on which to meditate, and for which to give thanks in worship today. (You can do so at St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton, at 10:00 a.m. if you are able!)
But a big event from last Monday prompts me to go in a different direction.
Last Monday, a serious fire occurred within Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France.
The outpouring of emotion on social media was palpable. To be sure, it is profoundly sad that this icon of religious architecture would be nearly destroyed by fire. It appears that the structure may be saved, and French leaders, with large donations from wealthy people, are vowing to rebuild what has been lost. (That in itself has caused no small amount of controversy.)
What I’m left wanting to ponder with you, though, is the reality that though a building may be destroyed, the church is not.
The church is not a building: the church is people.
Every time I say or hear that, I am reminded of a very old radio ad I used to hear as a child for Dofasco, a steel fabrication company in Hamilton, Ontario. I couldn’t tell you a thing about the commercial itself, but the tagline has stuck with me for well more than forty years: “Our product is steel. Our strength is people.”
The company knew that while they would be known for producing steel products (among those with which I’m best acquainted are the side frames for Canadian-built locomotives), they could not produce those steel products without the employees who make it happen – everyone from the people who heat the molten material to the people who sweep the floors to the people who keep the books in the office.
The same is true of the church – almost.
When we think of the church as bricks-and-mortar, we have only an imagined product. A church building in and of itself is only a tool. The building does not preach the gospel. The building does not care for the sick. The building does not feed the hungry. The building does not advocate for justice.
It’s the people who do that. We are the church.
So yes, be sad for the significant damage done to a magnificent church building which has stood for almost nine centuries as a testament to the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But be resolved to be the church. Some of the most effective gatherings of God’s people in the world do not worship in an architectural masterpiece; some of them don’t even have a building to call their own. And while people may be inspired by the incredible architecture of great church buildings (and there are many), let your inspiration be channeled into a deep and abiding faith in Jesus, who died and rose again for us, that we would be his hands and feet in the world – preaching the good news, caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, and advocating for justice.
When the church loses these characteristics, we ought indeed to mourn.
But you and I aren’t going to let that happen, right? It doesn’t matter if we have a building or not: we are the church.
Jesus said, “For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them” (Matthew 18.20, NLT).
In his book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, Richard Foster writes about various facets of the gemstone of the Christian life that is prayer. Among them is “authoritative prayer”, in which Foster suggests that God’s people are too often too timid about exercising their God-given abilities in prayer.
He cites all kinds of times when Jesus spoke authoritatively in prayer, and then he writes,
“Certainly I should not be expected to do those kinds of things. But then I came upon Jesus’ shocking words: ‘Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father’ (John 14:12)….In my concern over falling off the deep end, I realized that I just might fall off the shallow end. My desire to maintain religious respectability could easily result in a domesticated faith” (pp. 234-235, emphases mine).
Re-reading this book always challenges me, and on this go-round, it was this section that slapped me ‘upside the head.’ Am I more interested in religious respectability than I am about doing the work God has intended for me to do?
It’s as if I would sooner sit in the cold than get up and turn on the furnace.
Now, what might be running through your mind certainly courses through mine, and that’s this: What about the sovereignty of God?
Foster would remind us that any prayer we offer authoritatively must come not from any authority of our own, but from the authority of the Holy Spirit working in and through us – and the Holy Spirit, as the third Person of the Trinity, is sovereign and ultimately decides whether a prayer should be granted or not.
Yet, I want to suggest, too often we don’t even bother.
Instead of shrugging our shoulders and saying, “There’s nothing we can do,” what if we were to speak to the sickness in our loved one, in Jesus’ name?
Many of us are reluctant to do such things because we don’t own a white polyester suit, or a personal jet; we don’t want to be lumped in with those Christians. To be sure, any authoritative ministry we exercise does not happen for our own self-aggrandizement, but for the glory of God. But if God were willing to heal, willing to cast out, willing to aid – if we were simply to ask – would that not be worth the risk of losing religious respectability?