Witness: An Alternate City
For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, … Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
Katelyn Beaty is the managing editor of Christianity Today magazine. Earlier this year she published an article titled An Open Apology to the Local Church: Though much have I attended you, late have I loved you. “I'm writing to apologize,” Beaty wrote, “While claiming publicly to have loved you as Christ does—like a spouse—in spirit I have loved you like an on-again, off-again fling.” “Here's where I need to confess my true feelings about you, Church: The romance of our earlier days has faded. The longer I have known you, the more I weary of your quirks and trying character traits. Here's one: You draw people to yourself whom I would never choose to spend time with.”
“It hasn't helped that you have made growing demands of me, something I also confess to resenting. Truth be told, it strikes me as a bit clingy. I've now served on the church board, played piano at Friday night worship services, taught Sunday school. You also want me to give you money every week… I am there not to be served but to serve, of course. But I do wonder when these investments of time and energy will pay off.” At the end of the article she describes herself as “a worshiper who (on Sunday morning) in truth longs to get back under the covers.”
1. Encouragement is needed for Christian community. I think that most believers go through periods of weariness; weary of the load we carry to be the church. The Apostle Paul understood well the way that everything from cultural distractions to out and out hostility takes a toll on a believer’s persistence. “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up,” wrote the Apostle in his Galatian letter (Galatians 6:9). The writer of the New Testament letter Hebrews has the same intuition; “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:25)
It is hard to stay consistently fired up. Even professional athletes paid millions of dollars to play a game find lucrative salaries insufficient motivation to play every game at your very best. Sports teams hire psychologists to help players to consistently bring their “A” game to each outing. The Apostles knew that believers need encouragement which means that the Spirit of God who inspired their writings also knows we need encouragement. Listen again to Paul’s commendation of the Thessalonian Christians: “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, … Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”
The picture the New Testament paints of the church is a people with a foot planted in two worlds or in two kingdoms. One foot is planted in that place where God has destined us “for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” That kingdom that broke into the world in Jesus Christ which looks forward to the time when God will decisively deal with sin and wrong; that time when there will be no more crying, pain or death. That future where nothing will inhibit love and human flourishing; where love will give way to only more love.
Our other foot in planted in this world where we are to be that community of people anticipating this other world. The church is that community of people of God where the kingdom of Christ is breaking into this world. Our Lord cast the vision this way: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
It is a lofty and compelling vision. A community of people living this love for one another so gloriously that people just know they belong to Jesus. But the reality on the ground seems to fall short of such vision. There is little doubt that the present age pressures Christians to abandon their calling and forget that they are citizens of the age to come. Then there are pressures within because no particular congregation is perfect. Truth be told, we find that need to forgive one another, bear each other’s burdens. We need the encouragement of each other to persist in the faith; not to abandon. It is true that some days we come to worship and don’t feel much like singing; it is a good thing that we all don’t feel this way at the same time.
“Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” It is a timely word for us just as it was for the Thessalonian Christians of the first century.
2. Scripture everywhere presupposes community. The Apostle writes “encourage one another and build each other up”; this only makes sense in the context of community. We don’t find in scripture six chapters of Book Such-and-Such dealing explicitly with community. But the fact that scripture doesn’t expound the topic of community shouldn’t be read as scripture’s indifference to community. On the contrary, scripture everywhere presupposes community. In the same way scripture nowhere advances an argument for the existence of God. It doesn’t see any point to such an argument. God, for Israelite men and women, is the reality with whom they collide; God is the reality who can never be escaped. Just as the presence and truth and significance of God is part of Israel’s consciousness, so is the presence and truth and significance of community.
It is a startling paradox that the more closely people live together, the more isolated they become. In rural villages everybody knows everyone else. The larger a city becomes, however; that is, the more densely people are concentrated, the more anonymous they are and loneliness is intensified. That sense of loneliness, and the fact that we don’t like it, tells us we were meant for something else. Simply put, community is where we are cherished and every last one of us needs affirmation and affection. We need to be cherished.
It should also be pointed out (though this may seem obvious) that community always means meeting people face to face. We crave the physical presence, the bodily presence, of others. There is never any substitute for physical proximity. The people we call or text the most are the very people we want to be with bodily. There is never any substitute for bodily presence.
In the story of the founding of the Thessalonian church the Apostle Paul was driven from Thessalonica by a mob incited by some Jewish leaders. (Acts 17:1-8) Paul referred to it this way: “when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face.” (1 Thessalonians 2:17) Between these lines you can read the implication that there is no substitute for “face to face.” Consider how often Jesus touched people (physically) in the course of his earthly ministry. The apostle John concludes his second and third epistles with “Though I have much to write you, I would rather not use paper and ink; I hope to come to see you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” (2 John 12)
3. Christian community is based in Jesus Christ. As much as we need to see each other, and as much as we need to be cherished, our need isn’t the basis of Christian community. There’s one basis to Christian community and one basis only: Jesus Christ, and our common fellowship with him. The basis of the community found in a service club is the service the club is designed to render. The basis of the community found in a bridge club is the enjoyment the members get from playing bridge. But the basis of Christian community is never an inclination we have or an activity we enjoy or a service we wish to render. The basis is always and only our common fellowship with our Lord.
Paul implies as much when he says of the church that we share a common destiny in our Lord Jesus Christ. In the Christian community we are individuals individually united to our Lord. At the same time, because we are individually united to Jesus Christ, we are corporately united by him. Be sure to note the order. United to him individually, we are corporately united by him.
Note in our Lord’s vision of the church (referenced earlier) that our love for one another is predicated on first knowing ourselves loved by him. So our gaze is riveted upon him, for in seeing him we shall see each other as someone he has given us. If we our gaze drifts away from him and we no longer see each other in him, we are left looking at each other immediately – i.e., unmediated. Once we are looking at each other apart from our Lord we are quickly going to see all these quirks, irks, and oddities we have difficulty abiding. Instead we must see each other through the lens of our Lord himself.
4. Christian community is witness; witness to the world of the good news of Jesus Christ. We are to cultivate a great community because that is a crucial way to show to the world that we are truly followers of Christ.
Being a witness makes many believers nervous. We live in a digital world that encourages individuals to cultivate your personal brand. Suggesting that hope is found in submitting ourselves to Jesus Christ runs counter to the culture of creating yourself; making your own meaning. Conversations about God are ruled out of bounds for much of public discourse.
And if you add the word “evangelism” alongside “witness” people in mainline churches are found running for the tall grass to hide. Reaction is often visceral. It may be because of associations with preachers who us emotional manipulation and exploit guilt-feelings. Further evangelism is associated with anti-intellectualism. Simple solutions are offered to complex questions. While it is true that we should never pander to intellectual pride, we must always accommodate intellectual difficulty.
But we shouldn’t cringe at the word “evangelism.” The word is noble. The English word “evangel” comes from the Greek word “euaggelion”, when the Greek word simply means “good news”. Strictly speaking, it means not merely “good news”, but also “the announcing of good news”; “evangel”, then, is good news announced, good news making hearers joyful.
Why do we evangelize? Because the good news is good; in fact, the good news is the best news there could ever be. In everyday life wouldn’t we rejoice at the good news of someone, sick unto death, who had been restored to health? Jesus says that the spiritually healthy don’t need a physician, but the sick do; and he is that physician whose cure is sure.
Surely we would all describe as “good news” the announcement that a blind person — particularly someone born blind — was finally rendered able to see. Then to come upon someone who has been made able to see the kingdom of God, and to see it shine more brightly and more invitingly than the kingdoms of this world; this is good news magnified one-hundredfold.
What better news could there be than the news that someone, deaf to the living God for decades, has heard him, and heard him call her by name, and heard him speak truth that she had always regarded as antiquated religious opinion? She will spend the rest of her life in a dialogue that isn’t presumptuous chatter but is rather an ever-increasing fusing of her heart to God’s.
There are many different kinds of lameness that are made good in the kingdom of God! What news could be better? The long-term grudge; envy that has clung to us like fly-paper; a quest for social superiority that amounted to an obsession; bondage to a besetting sin that has been so well hidden that no one else has even suspected — and then release!. The gospel offers nothing less, promises nothing less, delivers nothing less. Good news? It couldn’t be better!
We evangelize because we are stewards of the priceless good, the gospel itself. Like Wesley of old, we can only say, “We must offer them Christ.” We evangelize too inasmuch as we aren’t merely persuaded of its truth; we are possessed of him whose gospel it is. This isn’t to hold ourselves up as spiritual giants; it isn’t to indulge ourselves in a spiritual snobbishness as revolting as it is ridiculous. But it is to say with a man born blind who is now sighted, “I was blind, I can see, I know who did it for me.” At the end of the day evangelism is one beggar who has found bread telling another beggar where there is bread; it is inviting anyone at all to join us on a venture.
Christian community (church) is good news lived and announced. (It is the alternate city Keller speaks about in our small group study). If we welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us – that is to say, welcome all sorts of people without qualification or reservation or hesitation; such community witnesses and welcomes for our Lord’s sake.