Jesus said nothing about how we should organize our churches or church services. But he did explain his vision for his followers, and it is beautiful.
Jesus talks about “the church”.
According to the Gospels, Jesus made only two references to the church. Both are recorded in Matthew, and it is not clear what Jesus meant on these occasions when he said “church”. It is likely that he saw his church as a family, or community, composed of people who were dedicated to serving God, “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Matthew 12:50; see also Luke 8:21). A better translation of the Greek word, which is translated “church” in our bibles, might be “family” or “community”. Jesus’ church is people who serve God. It is not a particular denomination. Members of Jesus’ church will probably be found in every denomination.
The first time Jesus talks about church is while he is talking to Peter:
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…” (Matthew 16:18)
For hundreds of years, experts have held deep and learned discussions on what Jesus meant by these words and, so far, they have not reached agreement. I would only say that, whatever the role to be played by Peter, it is Jesus who is going to build his church.
On the second occasion Jesus is speaking to the disciples and gives some very clear instructions about how we, his followers, are to behave if we have a problem with someone else in the church.
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17)
This is simple and it works. Jesus said that if you have a problem with a brother or sister in the church, the very first thing you should do is talk to that person, and that person alone. This is treating your sister or brother with respect and love. This is treating them the way you would like to be treated yourself. If they won’t listen to you, you should take one or two others with you and talk to them again. If they still won’t listen to you, you take the matter to the whole church community. This is what Jesus tells his followers to do. The conduct required by Jesus is so different to what usually happens when we feel that we have a problem with someone else. So often, our first reaction is to look for sympathy and support from others – so we talk to people who, we hope, will see things the way we do. This is how conflict starts in a community. This is how factions form.
Experts also disagree on what the reference to “a gentile and a tax collector” means.
Jesus wants his followers to understand, and focus on, truths that are much deeper and more important than organizational structures. Rather than telling his followers how to organize themselves, Jesus’ teachings focus on how his followers should behave towards God and each other. When we follow the teachings of Jesus we become part of a community of people who behave differently, very differently, to normal worldly behavior. Jesus teaches us to love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us. He teaches us to love our neighbors the same way that we love ourselves. He says that it is by our love for each other that outsiders will know that we are his disciples. He teaches us to be humble. He teaches us not to judge each other.
Jesus teaches us to be a radically different sort of community.
Jesus’ vision for his church
Jesus’ vision for his church is set out in his prayer, just before his arrest, in John 17.
“I ask not only on behalf of these (that’s the disciples), but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word (that’s us), that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23)
Let’s pray the same prayer as Jesus. Let’s pray that we will be one with each other and with God. Let’s pray that we will play our part in bringing on this oneness. And let’s live it. Let’s love each other, encourage each other, listen to each other, pray for each other and focus on the things we have in common – not the things that divide us.
Jesus is Lord.