In the last post we highlighted the importance of defining the church properly by exploring the claim that what we believe about the church determines how we coordinate its life together. Today we’re going to dig further into the definition of the church rooted in teachings by the fine folks at Missio: The church is a networked family of gospel communities on mission.
This definition requires further definition if it’s going to be helpful. What is the gospel? What is community? What is mission? Today we start with the gospel.
We start with the gospel because the gospel announces what God has done behind and before any of our doings. And what God has done is save the world through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, Jesus of Nazareth. At its core the gospel is the declaration that in spite of all appearances, Jesus is Israel’s Messiah and the World’s True Lord. We could articulate the same basic thing from a different angle using the verbiage of Jesus himself: the long-awaited kingdom of God has arrived in Jesus. This kingdom-Jesus story forms the heart of the gospel. But why exactly, we may ask, is this news good? (We should never assume this answer is obvious either to ourselves or other people.) I would flesh it out in four ways.
- Resolution of God’s Story – Anytime you hear a presentation of the gospel that makes little of Israel, just remember that God devoted two-thirds of the Bible to his interactions with this particular people. They were always his chosen vehicle for saving everyone else, a mission he sought to achieve through them in many ways, most of which crashed against the rocks of Israel’s disbelief and rebellion. But God always keeps his promises, and in Jesus – who was not just any Israelite but rather her promised King, a position from which he representatively summed up the entire history and mission of Israel in himself – God keeps his promise to save the world in this particular way. The Old Testament ends without an ending, but in Christ the story has found resolution. Therefore salvation has come through Israel to reach the rest of us.
- Redemption of God’s World – God’s original design involved the entire universe working in harmony to the glory of God. So when human sin jeopardized this dream not only ourselves but for all creation, God began working to put the whole thing back together again. Because God is cosmic, the gospel is cosmic. And what God accomplished in Jesus not only put people in right relationship to himself (see below), it also set in motion the liberation of all creation from corruption and bondage to decay.
- Reconciliation of God’s People – Within and standing at the center of this cosmic rescue mission stood humanity – alienated from God, others, and self because of our own decision to worship something other than the One Who Made Us. No plan to save creation stood a chance without covering our guilt, healing our brokenness, and renewing our calling to bear God’s image by ruling the world on his behalf. By dying as a sacrifice for sins, Jesus took God’s wrath upon himself and removed the basis for any accusation against us. We are forgiven, we are re-friended, we are cleansed. We are, as we say, washed in the blood of the Lamb. In a word, we are reconciled to the God who loves us ridiculously.
- Revelation of God’s Nature – In all this we see the clearest possible picture of the nature and character of God. Clearer than we saw the God of Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, or Isaiah. No one has seen God but his One and Only Son, and this Son has made him known. God is good. God is for us. God is holy cruciform love. And following this revelation of essential love came the slow and reality-altering realization that God is more than just a solitary monad; he is what we call a “Trinity,” which is our best attempt to catch the glory of a night sky or the Rocky Mountains in a 35mm camera (only a kajillion times moreso). God is communal to the core, “love” is something that exists within God’s own complex-yet-paradoxically-simple person, and it is into the enjoying, sharing, and extending of this great love that we have been invited. (I would suggest saying “yes” to the invitation, by the way.)
This is the gospel, and without this there is no church. We should not begin our definition of the church with anything related to anything we have done, are doing, or must do. We do not begin with our responsibility before God, ourselves, one another, or the world. The church is not inaugurated by worshipping, gathering, or preaching; it doesn’t start with evangelism, discipleship, or justice; it isn’t foremost about vision, mission, values, or strategy. We are not a social club, a corporation, or a mechanism for the maintenance of an archaic but still conscience-soothing and/or society-supporting way of seeing and being in the world. We are the church. And the church begins with God, with what God has done in Christ, with the gospel.