This message was offered at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday, April 19, 2015.
Reading: Mark 12:28-34
This morning we’re beginning a new series on purpose of the church. So that you know where we’re going, you can find the reading for each of the weeks in this series in your bulletin. You’ll also find there a question to “think about” this week: a question that goes along with the reading for today.
What is church? The church is a drawing that, I think, can best be described with a drawing.
Gracious God, in the moments to come, give me the words to speak and they the ears to hear that together, we might be inspired to not only speak but to live your Word in the world starting today. It’s in that most holy Word’s name—Jesus the Christ—we pray. Amen.
There are many ways to describe the church. To our children we teach the simple rhyme with motions: “here is the church/here is the steeple/open up the doors and here’s all the people.” Some have described the church as a hospital for sinners: a place where the broken go to be healed. Personally, I’ve never liked this metaphor because it makes the church a destination that people only go to when they need something.
Scripture provides us with several varied images and ways to understand the church. Perhaps the best known image is one of the body. The apostle Paul used this metaphor in several of his letters. Writing to the church in Ephesus, Paul reminds the people, “You are one body” (Ephesians 4:4a, Common English Bible). “We have many parts in one body,” he continues to the church in Rome, “but the parts don’t all have the same function. In the same way, though there are many of us, we are one body in Christ, and individually we belong to each other” (Romans 12:4-5, Common English Bible). “God has put the body together,” Paul explains to the church in Corinth. “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it. You are the body of Christ and parts of each other” (1 Corinthians 12:24b, 26-27, Common English Bible).
The church, biblically speaking, is sometimes referred to as a flock of sheep (see John 21:15-17, Acts 20:28-30, 1 Peter 5:1-3). In 1 Corinthians 3:16, Paul describes it as “God’s temple” for “God’s Spirit lives in you.”
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul describes the church as the bride of Christ: “marriage is a significant allegory” (Ephesians 5:32a, Common English Bible). This is an often misquoted passage used to subjugate women. But to read the passage this way misses Paul’s point. Paul uses the first century understanding of marriage to illustrate Christ’s love for the church and the need for the church to submit to Christ’s commands. It’s an allegory for Christ and the Church not a commentary on marriage in the 21st century.
The church is sometimes referred to as the family of God (see 1 Timothy 5:1-2, 2 Corinthians 6:18, Galatians 3:26) where God is portrayed as a father, Christ as the oldest brother and we as the rambunctious younger siblings. Perhaps a lesser known image of the church is found in 1 Peter 2:5 where it is referred to as a “royal priesthood” called to “speak of the wonderful acts of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light. Once [writes Peter] you weren’t a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you hadn’t received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9b-10, Common English Bible).
Jesus described the church as a vine with branches. The church is called to remain in Christ who is the true vine. We are called to grow forth from the vine as branches that we might bear fruit for the kingdom (see John 15).
There are many other passages we could look at: passages that draw a picture to help us better understand what the church is called to do and be. But, the image I find myself drawn to the most: the image that I resonate the most with is found in our reading for today.
Jesus was teaching in the temple just days after having arrived to waving palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna.” The religious leaders were flocking around Jesus asking him questions. Jesus answered and debated with them. One of the legal experts was intrigued at Jesus’ composure and wit. He approached and asked: “Which commandment is the most important of all” (Mark 12:28d, Common English Bible). Jesus responds, and I’m paraphrasing: love God and love neighbor.
I would just like to point out that Jesus’ interaction with this legal expert is recorded in all three of the synoptic Gospels—Matthew (22:34-40), Mark (12:28-34) and Luke (10:25-37); however, there are some interesting differences in the story that I would encourage you to think about on your own. Each gospel writer uses this story to further his agenda in filling out the drawing of who Jesus is. In Matthew’s Gospel, to love God and neighbor, are not only the greatest commandments but a summation of all the law and the prophets (see Matthew 22:40) different from our reading for today which says these commandments are better than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices (think rituals) on can offer. In Luke’s Gospel, the legal expert pushes Jesus even further and asks, who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan and a command to “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37d, Common English Bible). In Mark’s Gospel, to love God and neighbor is the greatest command and Jesus’ airtight response to the legal expert makes the religious leaders realizing that they won’t be able to argue Scripture with Jesus. “After that, no one dared to ask him any more questions” (Mark 12:34b, Common English Bible).
He had drawn such a clear and perfect picture that there was no point in arguing with him. And, it’s a drawing that I’m drawn to too. If a picture’s worth a thousand words, then this picture described in five words must be simple. “Love God and love neighbor.” It’s a drawing of people drawing closer to God and one another. The drawing looks something like this…
At the center of the drawing is God. God, the Creator of all that was, is and will be. Around God, people—God’s creation. Notice that as we move closer to God, we move closer to one another. Or conversely, as we move closer together, we get closer to God. This very simple drawing depicts well, I think the purpose of the church.
Jesus said that the greatest two commandments are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31, Common English Bible). For this is what the followers of Jesus are supposed to be about. If we’re expending our time, money, and energy on anything other than this (or things that facilitate this process) then we’ve got to question whether or not we’re being good stewards of our time, money, and energy.
This very simple drawing depicts the drawing that we’re called to be a part of: a drawing closer to God and closer to one another. In the coming weeks, we’re going to begin unpacking what that means. Next week, we’re going to be talking about what it means to draw closer to God, the following week we’ll look at how we are called to draw closer to our neighbors, and on May 10 we’ll wrap this series up by looking at the marks of a community where everyone is living into this drawing.
What is church? It’s a drawing: a drawing closer to God and neighbor in love. But, be warned: knowing about the drawing isn’t enough. Remember the legal expert, he knew the drawing well. Knowing the drawing doesn’t bring about God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Living it does. Over the next few weeks we are going to explore how we might take this drawing and make it a reality that brings about the fulfillment of all our lives and the world.
O God we all too often make following you way more difficult than it needs to be. Jesus reminds us that our entire faith including the way we are to live it in the world is summed up in five words: love you and love neighbor. O God, let charity and love prevail that we might draw near to you and neighbor. In your most holy Love’s name we pray. Amen.