I put out the question a few days ago: What does the church have to offer than no other organization can? I attempted to set the context for this thinking in the field of ministry specifically, but even that field is pretty much creation-wide. But really, I aim to get us to think more critically about church, worship, and mission. And I am driven to the question because I keep finding 501c3’s (and other organizations too, actually) stepping up to fill the void the church is leaving unattended.
In my city we have a Methodist hospital. Up the road in a neighboring city not too far away, they have a Baptist hospital and used to have a Catholic hospital too. These are in addition to the county hospitals both cities also have (as well as a dozen communities in between). But it is clear that church is behind some of these healing institutions and in competition with others that are not faith-based. And it is clear that even the faith-based hospitals are not in fact churches themselves, though they represent churches.
I think this is odd. In the New Testament, Jesus heals a lot of sick people and even suggests he is the Great Physician. Sick people come from far and wide to be touched by him – or even just to touch the hem of his garment (or even just to lie under the shadow he casts). There is no sense that Jesus establishes hospitals to do this healing for him; he does it himself. And then the same New Testament depicts the church (not a building, but the assembly of his followers) as his very Body. We, the church, now represent him, who represents God.
If 2 + 2 = 4, then 1 + 0 = 1. This is simple math. The theology is just as simple. If Jesus + nothing = healing touch of God, why are we running around building hospitals and 501c3 organizations to do mission work in his name?
Jesus very, very, very nearly = God. He certainly is a clear representation. He is the IMAGE of God.
The church very, very, very nearly = Jesus. We certainly are his very Body. We are the IMAGE of God.
But what image did the waiting world expect when God sent Jesus, his image-bearing Son? Did the Jews of the first century expect a peasant from Nazareth in Galilee? Did the Jews (the experts on all things God at the time) expect this Galilean prophet who represents the Creator God to disregard Sabbath, Kosher diet, and circumcision (the very things the Creator God specified set his people apart and marked them as his people)? Did these experts (on all things God) expect their Savior to disregard all claims to power, wealth, and glory and do his saving action by dying as a criminal among criminals?
No. Of course not. But we Christians have looked into every aspect of these ironies and found God there – or so we say. We found the very IMAGE of God there in all that unexpected paradox. In fact, the more we sit with all of it, the more divine it clearly is!
My question got one really interesting response
And I had one respond to the question with the answer whispered to him from God: “Me”. The one thing the church has to offer the waiting world that no other organization can is God himself. This means that for all the wonderful things Baptist Hospital, Methodist Hospital, Catholic Hospital and every 501c3 and para-church ministry and every faith-based organization offers… they do not actually offer God. There is some prayer down there at Baptist Hospital alright. They have a Catholic chaplain at our county hospital too, and he has a crew of chaplains from lots of churches working with him to pray and give faith-based counseling to those who are sick. So, really, for all it’s efforts, Baptist Hospital is not different from the county hospital – but it is different from the church. I mean, Baptist Hospital has the latest medicine and techniques in treating cancer and diabetes to offer, but they do not offer the same healing touch as that Galilean peasant. Once you are discharged from their care, the finance office does not send a note to their patients that says, “Your faith has made you well”. No. They send you a bill.
Keep in mind, I am not writing here to get you to stop using hospital care. I think my words here might well beg such a question, but that is actually beside my point. I asked what the church has to offer that the hospital and other such organizations do not. And the best answer I have so far is: “Me”!
I am a homeless minister. I am part of an organization called Fat Beggars School of Prophets. We are not a 501c3 organization. We have accepted a few donations here and there, but we do not raise money for anything. (That is an important distinction for tax purposes.) Most of us belong to The Church (in its various expressions – which is a shame since the church is not actually ONE like God is ONE). We speak first to the church (though obviously we are happy to have anyone listen over the church’s shoulder). We are part of the church – a mostly unfunded part at that. But we don’t seek money because we really don’t need it (not much anyway), and when we get it we dispose of the filthy stuff just as fast as we can. We do not employ or deploy the latest or greatest technology in anything. We do not seek political advancement. We are not anything you, probably, would expect in a prophet. We disregard ambitions to house, clothe, and feed the homeless, even though we support those things in other organizations.
So, what is it that we actually do???
In shunning all ambitions involving money, technology, politics (power and glory in various aspects), we seek amid humility, shame, pain, and despair to illuminate “Me” in both the poor and the church! We rely on the Scriptures for our very reason to be. Jesus says those sick, poor, and imprisoned people ARE him (Matt. 25). Wanna see Jesus? Go look, really LOOK, at the poor, the sick, the stranger, the prisoner. That’s him!
But wait, the church is the Body of Christ (see St. Paul in Romans, I Corinthians, Ephesians, and Colossians).
Yeah. So, what if we said the poor and sick are the very face of Jesus and the church is the hands and feet of Jesus? And what if we got the Body all put together? (Hear, O Israel, The LORD, YHWH, our God is ONE!)
Well of course the idea that WE could put this Body all together might just be a bit arrogant, but if we LOOK, really LOOK, for Jesus in the poor and sick and in our church, then a certain kind of LOVE takes hold there that is actually divine!
But we have hospitals and homeless shelters doing this for us already… NO???
No. They are not doing THIS. They are out there fixing problems instead of illuminating “Me” in our midst. They fix problems with all the power, wealth, technology and political will they can muster – and send a bill for their trouble! And yes, they do amazing things, but not THIS.
Now, if you wanna see God, you gotta think small. I mean if first-century Jews (experts on all things God) can miss God’s answer to all the world’s problems because he shows up as a Galilean peasant from Nazareth who disregards Sabbath, diet, and circumcision AND THEN dies a horrible death beneath their contempt, AND IF we Christians can so plainly see what they did not… then we are probably blinded by our own contempt too.
How can a worship meal – a party – BE the answer to all the world’s problems? Well, how can Adam and Eve’s meal be the start of all the world’s problems???
Yes. Come to the meal. The party! Luke 14 is throwing a party, and you are invited. It is a worship party. And in the Luke (24:30-31) meal/party illuminates Jesus for Who he REALLY is to us! This same Jesus says, “Behold! I stand at the door and knock. If you open up, I WILL COME IN AND PARTY WITH YOU!” (Rev. 3:20).
Here at Fat Beggars School of Prophets, we are hoping that the church will open up! The party is coming! If you would but read your Bible and TRUST it, you will find this party is displayed all through it. Recall Abe and Sarah encountering three STRANGERS and hosting the party of God with God – “Me”? (Gen. 18). The verse in Hebrew 13:2 is for your church!
I really don’t want to overly complicate this message. In fact, this is what I love about the “Me” answer. It is so simple and poetic. But it needs unpacked, like all good poetry does. The answer is carrying HUGE freight. So is the worship party that only the church can bring. The un-expectation of it buried beneath the contempt of the world is divine.
But you really must consider this your invitation! Don’t be like all those Luke-14 guests who found themselves too busy to come. Don’t be like those guests who thought too highly of themselves (Baptist hospital is a good place, but they don’t host this party!) Don’t be a host that invites only those who can repay the bill you send them later (not even like those 501c3 that house you today with the ideal that they can brag on how good they are at saving people and thus turn and raise some more money!). No. Find Jesus in the poor. Find “Me” in your church and love him for all you are worth. The Spirit of God yearns to raise this Body up from the ashes of our fallen world!