Jesus established a church. He was not completely anti-institutional. But he wore sandals and had long hair! Paintings from fifteen centuries later show him with long hair. Sculptures and paintings from the first century show that most men had short hair. And everyone wore sandals back then. Jesus dressed like a traditional Jewish Rabbi. He had fringes on his garment as specified in the Torah.
I was a little too young to be either a Vietnam warrior or a hippie. I had uncles and cousins who served their country in Vietnam, and I respected them for that. But I was also a teenager and would have let my hair grow longer if my dad had let me. I listened to rock and roll. I liked to think of Jesus as a rebel. And there was some truth in that. The truth is he followed the will of his father wherever it took him.
But Jesus established a church. His band of disciples was somewhat organized. They collected funds for distribution to the poor. And they had a treasurer to manage the fund. Jesus had a house in Capernaum. It’s true he said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” I don’t know if he is referring to his traveling ministry, the many days he was away from home–or if he means what John said, “He came unto his own and his own received him not.” He may have had a home but he was not at home, not welcome in this world. But his band of disciples were organized into what would become his church.
We have four ways of thinking of the church.
1) The first is the church building, the house of worship, we may even call it the house of the Lord. My father made sure we understood that the church was the people not the building. He always referred to the church building as the church house, or inside where the pews were as the sanctuary. And he was right. But it’s also true that we need a place to gather, to worship, to fellowship, to do the church’s business. And it is also true that it is good to have a place that is beautiful and makes us look toward heaven.
Have you ever visited a medieval cathedral? You can’t help but feeling you are in a holy place. People sometimes say, “But couldn’t they have taken the money and given it to the poor?” Who do you think built those cathedrals? Craftsmen, carpenters, masons, skilled and unskilled workers who either were poor or would have been poor without the work. Some of the cathedrals were jobs programs for hundreds of years.
The early Christians met in the homes of those whose homes were spacious enough to host the church. In the Roman empire people who could afford it often had a room in their house dedicated as a private chapel for their favorite god or goddess. They also made sure to include a shrine for the worship of the emperor. They might would invite their close friends on occasion to participate in prayers or ritual worship.
Christians who dedicated their houses as centers of worship and fellowship welcomed all, rich and poor alike. Their fellowship also included meals in which the poor were included as equals. Think of the generosity of those who allowed their homes to be used multiple times each week as the gathering place of the church. Many of these homes eventually became what we think of as “churches.”
2) We also think of the church as an institution. We like things that are spontaneous. We like things that are new and fresh and not bound by tradition. Then we say, “that was great, let’s do it again!” And by the second time we do it, we already have traditions. Anything new and exciting and important will quickly fade away unless there are some kind of institutions to preserve it. Jesus proclaimed something absolutely new: The Kingdom of God is coming. God is going to rule on this earth. His Will, will be done here, as it is in heaven. Jesus entrusted the work of the kingdom to his church, to his disciples. And disciples need discipline.
3) The church is not just an institution. It is a family, a community. That’s what my father was trying to teach us. And he was right. When I was a child I used to wonder why my parents would take so long after church talking to everybody. Now I understand. That was family they were talking to, and they might not see them again until next week.
We’ve been talking here about the men’s fellowship. We already have a good women’s fellowship and a good everybody fellowship–but there is something about a men’s fellowship. It was important to my dad when he was a young father trying to bring his kids up right. He played on a church softball team. That had area men’s meetings. I know there was some serious teaching at those meetings, but I especially remember my dad telling about the fun they had. Once they played a joke on an area preacher at a fellowship meal. They served steak and baked potatoes. There was nothing wrong with the steaks, but they gave brother Keith a raw potato wrapped up in aluminum foil.
They also did service projects, helped widows and elderly people with repairs on their homes.
Jesus called his disciples to be a community, a family. He gave us the task of sharing his love with those around us.
4) When we say we are going to church, we usually are thinking of the worship service. The church is a community that gathers for prayer, praise, fellowship, the study of God’s word, celebration of the sacraments, seeking God’s presence and his grace. When we “go to church” we are the church gathered for worship.
The church also gathers at times to make decisions. I find it fascinating that the Bible chose the Greek word ekklesia as the name for the community of followers of Jesus. The word comes from Athenian democracy. In Athens every citizen had the right to speak freely in the public assembly. Every citizen had the right to vote on any important matter.
The Church is a community that has authority to enact decisions under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. In Matthew 16, Jesus gave that authority to Peter, the Rock. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” If that seems like a lot of authority to give to one man, look what Jesus says in Matthew 18:19-20. He gives the same authority to any two or three of his followers gathered in his name.
Obviously this could be misused and misunderstood. In the immediate context Jesus is talking about what we sometimes call church discipline, or excommunication. He is also talking about the authority to forgive. The purpose of disciplinary action is redemption and reconciliation. The same community that may exclude also has the power to forgive and restore.
If I can share one more story passed on from my dad, he had a friend that belonged to another church. This church had some rules they took very seriously. One was that Sunday was observed as a strict Sabbath with no work, exertion, or worldly pursuits. My dad’s friend went coon hunting one Saturday night. This was a popular sport in the Ozarks. I used to think it was cruel since the game was not hunted for food; I changed my mind when a raccoon got into our friend Margaret’s chicken coop and tore the heads off about 18 hens. Anyway, the church was fine with hunting, but the man made the mistake of staying out past midnight when one of his hounds got on a hot trail. They put him out of the church for breaking the rules.
Jesus does give his followers authority to withdraw fellowship from a brother or sister who persists in harmful behavior after being counseled. It’s important to notice a couple of things. The purpose is reconciliation. Excommunication, is the end of a long process that begins with private communication. And, as soon as the person repents, he is to be forgiven and welcomed back.
This kind of church discipline is almost never seen in church today, and for good reason. We all have faults and failings and don’t want to think we are better than someone else. We would rather be merciful than judgmental.
I think there is one area where we should enforce church discipline, and that is domestic abuse, and especially child abuse. It is interesting that Jesus gives this teaching after saying it is better for a person to have a giant millstone put around his neck and be cast into the sea than to harm a child. That’s a pretty harsh teaching. But children are pretty important to Jesus.