One of the comforting realities of church life is that Jesus said, “I will build my church” rather than saying, “it’s your responsibility to build the church.”
Whenever we are disillusioned, frustrated, anxious or dissatisfied with church life, it is good to remember the church belongs to Jesus and not to us, and he has taken responsibility to build it.
It is so easy to slip into thinking that the Church is ours, and we are responsible to make it work. Yet, Jesus made it clear that our task is to abide in him for “apart from him we can do nothing” (John 15:5). When it comes to building the church, it is not a matter of what we can do to make it work, but getting out of the way and allowing God to do it through us. That does not mean there is nothing for us to do, but that work is different to what we might think.
In his letter to the Ephesians Paul takes three chapters to explain what God has done for us in Jesus, and then he turns his attention to the practical outcomes and implications of our church life. And what does he say? “Live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).
Of all the things Paul could have highlighted about church life, he gets to the heart of the matter – relationship. Humility, gentleness, patience and love are at the core of what church life is all about. Despite our programs and our planning, our worship and our service, it is, as Eugene Peterson describes it in The Message, pouring ourselves “out for each other in acts of love, alerting to differences and quick at mending fences” (Ephesians 4:4) is how we are called to live.
Hobart Baptist Church, where I am the Senior Pastor, is a diverse church. We have people with different backgrounds, languages, cultures and experiences. We have different ways of being and doing church. We have different expectations of how we should live, act and worship. Yet, Jesus has put us together and called us to work alongside each other. In doing that, he is expecting us to be patient with each other, humble in our approaches, bearing with each other’s differences, failing and sinfulness, and making every effort to stay in unity together.
It is a sad indictment on the church that throughout our history we have not been very good at loving each other. Rather than “bearing with one another in love” we are quick to blame and accuse. Rather than be gentle, we are often violent with each other. We may not get physically violent, but we can certainly hurt in the way we gossip and talk about each other. It is much easier to go about mumbling under one’s breath about what someone has or has not done, than to forgive, be at peace with, and confront them in love if needed. Jesus has an expectation that the church will be above that. We have a “worthy calling,” as Paul puts it, and we are implored to live up to it.
Jesus has an expectation that the church will be above that. We have a “worthy calling,” as Paul puts it, and we are implored to live up to it.
In God’s wisdom, there are a number of different groups of people that come together to form Hobart Baptist Church. We currently meet as three different congregations—at 10am, 11:45am and 2pm. If our endeavours focussing on youth and young adults bear fruit we may have a fourth. Early next month we will have our first “combined service”. This will be an opportunity for all us to meet together in the one place at the one time to celebrate our diversity in a demonstration of our unity.
In a very real way Jesus has put before us a challenge that begs a question, “are you willing and committed to be a church the lives and works in unity despite our obvious diversity?” Before we are quick to answer yes, we need to be alert to the costs involved.
That cost, as Paul describes it, in borne in humility, gentleness, patience and love with one another. It requires much grace and much forgiveness. This is a big ask. And often the church has failed. May God grant us the courage, will and strength to say “yes”to this call and to “live a life worthy of the calling we have received,” as we allow Jesus to build his church.
Stephen L Baxter