Jesus Didn’t Come to Found A Church!
Bishop C. Christopher Epting
Assistant Bishop of Chicago
Sunday, July 7
While I was serving on the Presiding Bishop’s staff as ecumenical officer, I ran across something called the “Emergent (or Emerging) church.” This is a kind of movement initially started by young, evangelical pastors who were trying to relate to the post-modern, post-Christian, post-nearly-everything-else world of the 21st century, and to discern what – if anything – the Holy Spirit might be trying to say to the churches in our day.
Many of these young people had been involved in big, evangelical “mega-churches,” those big box structures with the full parking lots one can see on the outskirts of most American cities these days. And, they had become disenchanted with all the hype and the manipulation and the “marketing” of Christianity as well as with the notion that the whole Christian faith revolves around nothing but personal conversion, and being saved from the fires of hell by “accepting Jesus Christ as one’s personal Lord and Savior!”
They began noticing, as they talked and studied and prayed together, that the Bible really has very little to say about that…when compared to its evolving message about liberation for the oppressed, justice for the poor, and peace and harmony for the whole world! They began noticing that – far from what they had been taught – Jesus did not come to found a Church. He came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God -- To announce the ultimate Reign and Sovereignty of God. They began to discover that evangelism and social action are really two sides of the same coin. And, if the Church has a message in our day, this may be part of it!
I think today’s Gospel (Luke 10:1-11, 16-20), with Jesus sending out 70 disciples on what looks very much like an “apostolic” mission, may have something to say to all that. Let’s take a look at it. First of all, Jesus sent them out in pairs. That says something about the essential nature of Christian community for our mission. You can’t really be a “solo Christian” and being part of the Christian community is absolutely essential -- whether that community is a large one like All Saints or just “two or three gathered in Christ’s name” in a household or a cell group. Community is central!
Secondly, Jesus tells them to go out in a spirit of vulnerability and humility – “like lambs in the midst of wolves.” In contrast to a kind of triumphalist, muscular Christianity we see so much of today, these disciples are to be humble and even vulnerable as they interact with the world. Not to have all the answers, but perhaps at least asking the right questions!
Third, they are to “travel light.” “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals, and greet no one on the way.” They were to be itinerant preachers and evangelists, not encumbered with a lot of “stuff,” and single-minded in their purpose, not getting distracted. Well, the Church of today – whether big box evangelicals or gothic mainstreamers – has a lot of “stuff!” And one of the things we are going to have to figure out in a day of economic stress, and changing priorities, is how we are going to deal with our “stuff.” Can it be used for mission and ministry? If not…do we really need it? How do we keep “the main thing, the main thing” in our mission?
Fourth, they are to be peacemakers: “Whatever house you enter, first say, Peace to this house.” There should be a peaceful, centeredness in our Christian discipleship. Whatever situation we walk into, we should bring something of “the peace of God which passes all understanding” with us. In a conflicted society and a violent world, what more important message is there than the message of peace?
Next, Jesus tells them that, while they are itinerant preachers and evangelists, they are not to “move about from house to house” but to “remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide.” In other words, they are to build relationships! And sometimes you do that by letting other people serve you! Sometimes, we are to provide hospitality to others, but at other times we need to be humble enough to let others provide hospitality to us! “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you… (and) cure the sick who are there.”
Cure the sick. Healing! Another essential ministry for Christian disciples: we are to bring healing. That may come in the traditional forms of prayer and the laying on of hands or sitting with people bringing counsel and spiritual direction. Or it may entail the healing of society – working to end gun violence, or for just immigration reform, or marriage equality for all God’s people. However we do it, just as it is incumbent upon Christians to be peacemakers, so we are also to become healers.
Then, the last step: “Say to them: The kingdom of God has come near you!” At some point, we have to make the connection that it is God who “has given us the will and the wisdom to do all these things!” And, just as our evangelical friends have often failed to engage in the work of peacemaking and justice building, so we have often failed to make the connection for people that the reason we are about those tasks is not because they are “politically correct,” because we are in the service of God’s kingdom – we are about the task of cooperating with the Reign and the Sovereignty of God in this world!
Once again, what the emergent church folks are learning is that Jesus did not come to found a Church. Jesus came to inaugurate the Kingdom, the Reign, and the Sovereignty of God in the world. We need to learn the same thing.
Years ago, the evangelism office of The Episcopal Church put out a rather colorful poster. When you first looked at it, it appeared to be a chalice. But, it was an optical illusion and, when you looked at it more carefully, you could see that it was two faces, in profile, talking to one another. And there were three words beneath the picture: Go…Listen…Tell.
That was an attempt to articulate a simple, but effective, evangelism strategy for Episcopalians. A strategy which, I believe, is based on our Gospel story today of the sending out of the Seventy. Go – outside the doors if this church after we are dismissed at the end of the Liturgy. Go, into your homes and neighborhoods and schools and workplaces this week. And…
Listen. Don’t talk so much, but listen! Listen to your family and friends and co-workers and people you meet on the street. Listen to their pain and their struggles, to their joys and their celebrations. Listen deeply like those first disciples sharing meals in the homes of their new acquaintances. Then…and only then…
Tell. Tell them your story. Tell them about how God helped you when you were going through something like what they are going through. Tell them about how the Church – this church – has been there for you, in the good times and the bad. And then invite them here…
…So that they can discover for themselves the peace which passes all understanding, the healing of body, mind, spirit, and relationships that you yourself have experienced. For, when you’ve done that, they – like those first disciples’ hearers – will know that “the kingdom of God has come near…”