If Jesus planted a church, what would it look like?
There’d be lots of miracles and plenty of cryptic sermons, I guess.
And clergy from traditional churches would drop by to tsk-tsk about what he was doing and to ask him curly theological questions.
And you’d never run out of bread at the potluck suppers.
But, seriously, what would a church planted by Jesus look like?
Maybe one way to think about this is to ask if we only had the four canonical gospels to go by, what would the church look like? I don’t ask this to reduce the importance of any part of the New Testament, only as a mental exercise in thinking about what our founder Jesus had imagined the redeemed society of his followers would look like.
Is there enough in the gospels themselves for us to distil the raw material the other New Testament writers draw upon when addressing the church?
While it’s true that Jesus does talk about the church, his primary topic is the kingdom. And not just as subject material. Sure, he teaches about the ethics of the kingdom, and he tells scores of parables to reveal certain facets of the kingdom, but his whole life and ministry points to the kingdom and his kingship. He didn’t just preach about it, he was the bearer and the inaugurator of the kingdom of God.
On this, Timothy George writes,
“[Jesus] despoiled the reign of Satan through the exorcising of demons, he offered forgiveness to sinners and celebrated the eschatological banquet with them, and he asserted divine moral authority in many ways including the striking “but I say unto you” sayings of the Sermon on the Mount. Thus, from the beginning, the content of early Christian preaching was neither a new philosophical worldview nor a code of ethics to improve human behavior, but rather Jesus Christ himself: Jesus remembered in his words and deeds, Jesus crucified, buried, and risen from the dead, and Jesus yet to come again in glory—all of which is included in that earliest of Christian confessions, ‘Jesus is Lord!’.”
So, if we’re thinking about the church that Jesus would plant, it would have to be all about the kingdom. And what exactly is the kingdom of God, as Jesus revealed it?
In their book Kingdom Ethics, David Gushee and Glen Stassen explore the central message of Jesus’ ministry – the kingdom of God – by examining all the references to Isaiah in Synoptic Gospels. As you probably know, the Gospels refer to Isaiah a lot, either by direct quotes or allusions. As Gushee and Stassen say, Isaiah was the primary background of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom. So they line up all of Jesus’ references to the kingdom and all of Isaiah’s prophecies about the coming Messiah and derive what they call “the seven marks of God’s reign.” Those seven marks are:
- Deliverance/Salvation – from being oppressed to being set free.
- Justice – whereby everyone has enough.
- Peace and Harmony – no more hatred and deception.
- Healing – no more sickness and disease.
- Restoration of community as a new family.
- Joy – people filled with life.
- The experience of God’s presence.
Here’s what the church that Jesus built looks like – a people who acknowledge him as their king, offering all of their lives under his authority, working on living out this constellation of values:
If we only have the four gospels to go on, this is what a Christian church should look like. Indeed, the rest of the New Testament should be understood as the working out of the implications of this truth – the Messiah has come and his kingdom is at hand and the redeemed society of his followers are a sign, instrument and foretaste of his beautiful reign. God has spoken through the rest of the New Testament to help us see the fullness of all that a community of Jesus’ followers should look like.
In the church that Jesus planted, the love feast (or Eucharist or Lord’s Supper) would be central. It would be a meal that commemorated the deliverance or salvation we have in Christ. But more than that, it would be a convivial feast (joy) that reveled in our newfound family of faith (restoration) at which everyone was fed (justice) and during which differences and disagreements would be set aside (peace) while we found healing together. And as Jesus himself promised, wherever two or three gather in this way, he is very present among us. Every gathering of believers would reinforce our understanding of God’s kingdom among us and propel us out into the world to find God’s kingdom unfurling there as well.
Of course, we don’t only have the four gospels to go by. Paul’s advice to the Corinthians about how to conduct this feast emerge from the gospels’ teaching about Jesus. Paul’s explanation of the good news to the Romans adds contextual color for a predominantly Gentile congregation. And his pastoral epistles detail the implications for a congregation seeking to live out their salvation by committing to being just, joyful, reconciled, healed, restored family that experience the abiding presence of God.
My point is that there is no disjunction between Jesus’ example and Paul’s ecclesiology. One is the outworking of the other. It’s all seminally there in the gospels themselves. The church is the gathered community of the kingdom.
Not that everyone has always seen it that way. Back in the 19th century, the liberal Catholic scholar Aflred Loisy was famous for drawing the distinction between church and kingdom in his well-known observation, “Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom, and what we got was the Church.”
It’s like the British spy novelist, John le Carré, who, when asked what it was like having his books turned into Hollywood movies, quipped, “It’s like having your prize ox turned into a bouillon cube.”
Is that what Loisy meant? That Jesus’ grand vision for the kingdom got turned into something small and second-rate called the church? Well, yes, in fact, that is exactly what he meant and many people have tended to agree with him. I’m not one of them, however. Sure, some churches can be mean-spirited, small-minded, and exclusive. I’ve never been backward in criticizing the church when it falls short of all it should be. But is the church a second-rate version of what Jesus had in mind per se?
The church is the gathering of those who have joined together to bend their knee before Christ their king and who are being shaped into citizens of his realm.
The renewal of the church in our time is dependent on the renewal of our understanding of the gospel. And the renewal of the gospel requires the recovery of the centrality of Jesus for life and faith and thought.
We must reJesus our theology as well as our churches.