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Please enjoy these thoughts from my beloved, John Standridge, associate pastor at Christ the King Cambridge. May you be encouraged to love the church more and more!
It’s not often that a chapter title will give you nearly as much to think about as the actual contents of the chapter itself, but Leslie Newbigin pulls off this rare feet in his excellent book The Gospel in A Pluralist Society. Toward the end of the book, he has a chapter entitled “The Congregation as the Hermeneutic of the Gospel.” “Hermeutic” is a $5 word simply meaning “a method of interpretation.” In other words, the local congregation of the church is the method of interpreting the gospel. What’s the best way to understand the gospel? What is the lens you put on that will bring the good news of Jesus Christ into crystalline focus? According to Newbigin, it’s the congregation of the gospel-preaching local church.
That’s quite a claim. Most of you reading this blog have been around some of these places. You might even be a member of one. You might even have a bit of rap sheet when it comes to the church. Maybe you’ve checked out churches and have been variously bored, offended, indifferent, or even angry. You might feel justified in saying, “but the church is such a mess!” Even if the church isn’t a mess, you might think, “Really? What’s the big deal? We show up for a few songs, hear a sermon, maybe have the Lord’s Supper and then we’re off to Chili’s.”
But let’s stick with the assertion: if you want a clear view of the gospel, look at the congregation of a gospel preaching church. Let me just say, I don’t disagree with your view of the local congregation. The church can be mess. At the very least, the church is rarely the place that will dazzle your senses or strain for your attention with all the glitter and glam of Madison Avenue (beware of the church that does that!). You’ve gotten to know your pastor, and he’s a good enough guy, but you’re starting to wonder if this guy is really the best billboard for piety and wisdom that Christendom has to offer. You’re getting to know the people, and you’re finding that try as you might, there’s a bunch of them you aren’t that crazy about. To top it all off, the coffee stinks.
But there’s the glory. It’s among this rag-tag collection of people, all of them – from the parents that don’t keep their kids as quiet as you would like during the service, the close talker with the coffee breath, the lady who always sits behind you and sings off-key at the top of her lungs, and the pastor who is batting below .500 on the exciting sermon average – that Jesus delights to dwell. Augustine put it bluntly, “The Church is a whore…and she’s your mother.”
I read years ago about a phenomenon called ERP – estimated relationship potential. This describes what nearly every human being does when they come into contact with another human being. With blinding speed (usually in under 3 seconds), we size people up and make a determination of whether there is any relational potential there. By the time 3 seconds have passed, our judgment (though unconsciously) is made, and rarely reversed. The Church gives us the glorious opportunity to reverse those verdicts that the kangaroo court of our sinful souls so easily renders. In the church, we come to the gathering of the saints (yes, regular old Christians are properly called “saints”) who have been redeemed by Jesus. They are His and He is theirs. And we are each other’s.
In the local congregation the gospel becomes comprehensible because that is the place Jesus promised to show up for sure. By His presence, the gospel becomes comprehensible because He is praised there. The gospel comes into view because we gather stripped of any claim to worthiness apart from Christ, all the striving comes to an end, all the credentialing that earns us a place in the esteem of the world falls to the ground with a thud. We gather as passive receivers, ready to be fed. We come ready for Jesus to show up, because He promised He would…and He does! We come singing songs to the only One who deserves all glory, laud and honor. And we begin to find that we are being changed by the gospel, and by God’s grace we start to think of other people differently. We push beyond the liking (“like” is just a button on Facebook after all) and are actually freed to love really love people, because we’ve known undeserved love in Christ, and it has worked in a gratitude and a godly sympathy in our hearts that has to propel away from self-concern and protectiveness. And we are even able to see the world differently. Our non-Christian friends and neighbors are not an offense to us, but those with whom we have a lot in common. We remember what it was like to not believe, and consider the grace that created faith in us quite apart from any effort of our own.
God does this is ways that are more ordinary than we might like to believe. We ought to quit looking for the glory or the next-best-thing that is being spun out of the Christian-industrial complex, and just look to the local congregation. Jesus shows up there…and that is a glorious sight indeed.
This is the 30th part in a series. Go here to read the series from the beginning. Go here to read over 700 other 31 Day series on all kinds of topics.