What Church Would Jesus Belong To? – Rev. Henry Brinton
What Church Would Jesus Belong To?
May 21, 2017
Here’s a funny thing about the religions of the world: They don’t often resemble their founders.
Think about Islam and Muhammad. Buddhism and Buddha. Christianity and Jesus. The dots don’t always connect. Muhammad raised the status of women, yet today some Muslim leaders bar women from driving. Buddha would probably be horrified by what Buddhists in Myanmar are doing to Muslims. And although Jesus was a radical who challenged the establishment, Christianity is so successful in many places that it has actually become the establishment.
Nicholas Kristof makes these observations in a column in The New York Times (September 4, 2016). I think he is absolutely right. Religions don’t always resemble their founders. Former pastor Brian McLaren takes this even farther. In his book The Great Spiritual Migration, he writes that “our religions often stand for the very opposite of what their founders stood for.” Yes, the opposite.
Why is this? The founders of religions are usually bold and charismatic visionaries. They inspire people with their fresh insights and moral imaginations. But over time, their teachings are preserved by religions that are run by bureaucracies. Instead of being bold and visionary, religions become obsessed with money and power. That’s why there was a popular video produced a few years ago called, “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.”
Because Christianity has become disconnected from Jesus, many people are getting sick of the church. People want a church that is true to Jesus, aligned with his ministry and mission. So we have to ask ourselves, as McLaren does, “What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith?” What would it mean for us to rediscover Christianity as “a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion?”
As I listened to the statements of faith given by the members of our Confirmation Class, I realized that this is exactly the kind of church that they want to be part of. One that is just and generous. One that senses the presence of God in nature and in Christian community. One that expresses the Christian faith in acts of compassion.
For us to rediscover this kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren says that we need to move from one way of life to another. In particular, he challenges us to move Christianity from a system of beliefs to a “loving way of life.” This is a migration away from religious bureaucracy and back to the vision of Jesus Christ. Away from pointing fingers at the sins of other people and back to using our hands to alleviate human suffering. Away from modern church programs and back to living like the first Christians described in the Book of Acts.
A just and generous way of life. Rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion. That’s the kind of religion that Jesus founded. And it’s the answer to the question: What church would Jesus belong to today?
In the first chapter of the Book of Acts, Jesus tells his followers, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth” (1:8). Then he disappears from their sight. His words become true in the second chapter of Acts, when the Holy Spirit comes upon them — Acts tells us that “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (2:4).
Immediately, the followers of Jesus become witnesses. They begin to speak about “God’s deeds of power” in languages understood by the international crowd that is gathered in Jerusalem (2:11). Then the apostle Peter begins to speak about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and his words inspire about three thousand people to be baptized and added to the church. That’s a really big Confirmation Class! We would have to set up 1000 kneeling benches.
Back in first-century Jerusalem, the power of the Christian message was communicated by deeds as well as words. Acts tells us that the members of the church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42). The church members shared everything — in fact, “they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (v. 45).
This was a just and generous way of life, rooted in prayer and expressed in compassion. Because of it, the Christian church had “the goodwill of all the people.” It continued to grow, day by day, as “the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (v. 47).
Clearly, this is the kind of religion that resembles its founder. It is precisely the kind of church that Jesus would want to belong to — one defined by a loving way of life. So what does such a life look like — right here, right now, in 21st-century Fairfax?
First, it is a life that is not attached to material things. I heard the story of a pastor who was met by a church member at the door after worship. The pastor complimented the man on the great tie that he was wearing. The man smiled, thanked him, and immediately — right there at the door — took it off and gave it to the pastor. Everyone seemed shocked and a little embarrassed by such a radical act of public generosity.
Still, the gift of the tie was a lovely gesture. Jesus wants to be part of a church that is generous and is not attached to material things. A church of this kind existed in Jerusalem, where members “would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (v. 45). Such congregations today put church mission ahead of church maintenance, and they give generously to programs that feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, welcome strangers, rescue vulnerable children, and visit people in prison. Today, we are being such a church here at FPC through our spring food drive for the hungry.
There is a punch line to the story about the extravagant generosity at the door of the church. After the pastor received the tie from his church member, he had a conversation with his associate pastor. The associate was impressed by the gift, but couldn’t resist asking the pastor a question: Why didn’t you compliment the man on the car he was driving!
Second, a loving way of life is open and receptive to others. Jesus is a model of receptivity, and he challenges us to be open to the needs of others. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus gets out of a boat and immediately receives a request from a leader of the synagogue to come and heal his daughter. As Jesus is going to her, he is interrupted by a woman with a bleeding problem. Instead of being annoyed, Jesus attends to her, and then finally makes it to the leader’s house, only to find that the little girl is dead. But Jesus is not discouraged — he tells the synagogue leader to keep believing, and then he raises the little girl from the dead (Mark 5:21-43).
Jesus shows us that the power of God is seen in a life of openness and receptivity to the needs of others. In Jerusalem, “awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles” (v. 43). Here in Fairfax today, many of us will be taking part this afternoon in the Fairfax Interfaith Friendship Walk, to show the world that we care for our community and all of its residents. In both Jerusalem and Fairfax, Christians care for the people around them, and the result is gaining “the goodwill of all the people” (v. 47). If you want to be part of the walk, arrive at Fairfax United Methodist Church no later than 2 p.m.
Third, a loving way of life is marked by spiritual maturity. In the Jerusalem church, the members “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (v. 42). They made sure that they were nourished by teaching and preaching, Communion and prayer. Spiritual feeding was needed before church members could go out and feed the hungry around them. Acts tells us that “as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (v. 46).
Jesus wants to be part of a church that is spiritually mature, rooted in prayer and contemplation. Out of these roots come the good fruits of compassion and generosity. Such a life is described well by the apostle Paul in his first letter to Timothy, where he challenges his fellow Christians to “do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share” (6:18). The result, says Paul, is “the life that really is life” (v. 19).
Jesus wants us to enjoy this kind of life — the life that really is life. It comes from a lack of attachment to material things, by openness and receptivity to others, and by spiritual maturity. Jesus wants us to build a community of justice and generosity, one that is rooted in contemplation and committed to acts of compassion.
When we do, the Christian church won’t be hated. Instead, it will receive the goodwill of the people. “It is not the bureaucracy that inspires me, or doctrine, or ancient rituals, or even the most glorious cathedral,” writes Nicholas Kristof. Instead, inspiration comes from a missionary doctor in Sudan treating bomb victims, or a Christian physician doing great work in rural Angola. They “fill me,” he writes, “with an almost holy sense of awe. Now, that’s religion.”
That’s a church that Jesus would be proud to join. It’s the kind of church that I want our Confirmation Class to help us create at Fairfax Presbyterian, right here, right now. Amen.
Kristof, Nicholas. “What Religion Would Jesus Belong To?” The New York Times, September 4, 2016, www.nytimes.com.