In his 1999 book, The Bible Jesus Read, Philip Yancey sets out to explore the Old Testament for modern day Christians to consider again more closely since that collection of sacred texts is the one Jesus used in his “earthly ministry.” Too many Christians today shortchange the Old Testament or even ignore it, but this is to shortchange or ignore the very texts Jesus found important. It is to under appreciate the very things Jesus appreciated, and that surely is a damaging irony.
At a stroke, Yancey frees our Christian imagination with the mere title of his book, whether or not his thesis and exploration are of any value. Just calling the Old Testament “The Bible Jesus Read,” already, and without further comment, causes thoughtful Christians to reevaluate their own care and appreciation for roughly three fourths of the Bible. It is that crack in the prison wall behind which our imagination is locked up that I wish to exploit with this post as I take us into another sacred realm – the assembly of God’s people.
Right off the top, we must deal with the term “church.” “Church” is an English word which translates a Greek word we find in the New Testament and not the Old. Literally, the Greek word for “church” translates as “those called out.” And with just these words in this paragraph, I am highlighting numerous complexities which will take us too far afield in this single blog post to iron them all out. Therefore, I will over simplify, and openly claim here at the start, that I use the word “church” rather loosely, and not in it’s technical sense as regards linguistics and theology. I am stretching the word to cover for, and stand in for, “synagogue,” “assembly,” “multitude,” and especially “temple” even though in specific technical and theological uses, those terms are in fact quite distinct from the “church” we find in the New Testament. It might be more accurate if I used terminology such as “place of worship” instead, but I will ask more thoughtful and careful readers to grant me this slack as the word “church” will more readily open our Christian imagination (I think)..
I don’t believe this exploration is going to cause any real confusion at that level. But if you see it differently, I invite your feedback.
So, where did Jesus go to church? What was his relationship with the religious leaders there? What was his interaction there? And what was the interaction of his closest followers with the church Jesus attended?
Just couching the notion in this language exploits, I think, the same cracks in the prison which Christian imagination has so long been incarcerated and that Yancey makes famous with his book. Right off the top, we know that Jesus did gather with the people of God for preaching, prayer, healing, eating, – worship. And we know that while on a few occasions he met in the officially sanctioned places of worship, those experiences are heavily marked by conflict and confrontation to the point that “church” leaders (“religious leaders of their day” as they are more commonly known), have Jesus killed. This simple observation is right at the heart of the New Testament. Jesus gets into confrontations and conflict when he goes to church and when the sanctioned leaders there send delegates to pay him a visit at the places of worship he shares with followers in unofficial and unsanctioned places. In fact, these events form a very substantial portion of the Gospels.
Demons in church?
As early as Mark 1:21-28, we find Jesus in Capernaum, entering a synagogue on the Sabbath only to be confronted by a demon! As my old partner in street ministry, Special Agent D, is fond of saying, “Whoa! Demons in church?”
Well, the synagogue is a precursor of sorts for the church, and functions very similarly, so yes, it does seem quite surprising to find demons there! This observation is fair, but it is not a narrative necessity to Mark’s plot. Mark takes it so matter-of-fact, but perhaps it is worth being alarmed by this feature nonetheless. For Mark this scene is the first of several where the demons correctly testify to the true identity of Jesus where all the mortals fail to recognize the days of their visitations. Perhaps the mortals see just a bum, but the demons see “The Son of God.” But for our purpose presently, this happens among the assembly of God’s people gathered for worship! And it is surprising, come to think of it, to find demons speaking up in church! Apparently this is a regular feature of Jesus’s ministry throughout Galilee (Mk. 1:39).
Stirring up TROUBLE at home church
It seems the demons confront Jesus nearly every time he attends church. In the next chapter, Jesus is retired to (presumably Simon’s) house again in Capernaum where a multitude gathers and Jesus breaks into a sermon. This is not the officially sanctioned place of worship, but to the studious eye, we see Jesus transforming this fisherman’s hut into the very temple of God! He is, after all, God incarnate in there, AND he is forgiving sins – something good Jews typically expect at the temple in Jerusalem, not a fisherman’s hut in Capernaum!
So this scene kinda counts. It’s a deeply theological twist to get here, but the text itself points us right to it. And sure enough, after making headlines around Galilee for a while, there is a delegate of scribes there at the fisherman’s hut that day keeping tabs on developments which seem at the very least curious, but perhaps more ominously disturbing to the establishment (the church). Yet notice that the scribes don’t say a word. They launch no critique of Jesus. Jesus, though, can see what they are thinking privately written all over their faces, and HE calls them out for it.
Oh yeah, their private thoughts are very critical, but Jesus ain’t letting the sleeping dogs lie. He pushes the issue and shows them up. He is not ingratiating himself with “church leaders” here. He is calling them out, putting them on notice, even giving them ammunition to use against him. And while it is not a deadly confrontation, YET, Jesus firmly sets us on this trajectory and takes the initiative to carry his cross long before the idea occurs to his opponents.
I want to take care to point out the more powerful underlying observation here that is easily missed when studying this passage. Sure there is a lot of joy and a marvelous healing. Yes this passage says something about the persistence of the faith of the men who tear open the roof and lower their paralyzed friend through the opening. Yes, we can see relative importance of the forgiveness of sins over the healing of the ailment. All of that is there to be had, and usually that is about the depth of insight we take away from this passage. However, put in the first century context of Jesus vis-a-vis temple, we see that Jesus is upstaging the temple in Jerusalem quite purposefully and therefore is upsetting the Jewish establishment and the elites in charge of it. And he is doing so as a feature of his worship and ministry. It is, thus, very prophetic!
When the hometown crowd wants to KILL the preacher!
Let’s move to the mission-launching sermon Jesus preaches according to Luke 4. In the passage we find in vv. 16-30, Jesus goes back to his hometown synagogue. He goes to his hometown church. This is the place of worship he presumably is most familiar with and the people there most familiar with him. He launches into his inaugural sermon which will define his whole mission and ministry. It is a powerful sermon and seems to be a real crowd pleaser! In fact, if he had stopped at v. 22, then we would call his preaching experience there a great success! He preached a moving sermon which clearly and rightly divided the Word of God for the flock gathered there that day, AND they loved it! They all spoke well of him and marveled at his message.
But then comes v. 23 and the rest of the passage. The sermon elicits conflict very quickly and doesn’t end until his own hometown family and friends attempt to kill him for the fantastic sermon changes gears and confronts the people there with a level of spiritual examination they would rather not face. All of this at Jesus’s own initiative. It’s not like the crowd comes looking for trouble; it’s like Jesus is. And boy he finds it. He found the nerve and hammered on it until he had to leave town with everyone upset having tried to kill the preacher after church!
THROWING TABLES and TALKING SMACK
By now you should be thinking that going to church with Jesus is not about comfort. That is, however, the measure I (and so many of my brothers and sisters) reportedly use in deciding where we will attend. We actually “shop around” for a church where we “feel comfortable” and think that is “where God calls us.” But that doesn’t seem to be the case with Jesus – at least not where church leadership is concerned. If you are a cripple, a blind man, a beggar or bum and you follow Jesus to church, then you might not feel the heat coming off his confrontations, but if you are in leadership there, it seems you are probably in the wrong seat!
I could trace our theme through several other vingettes, I think, but for brevity’s sake (this is a blog post, not a dissertation), I will jump ahead to the main attraction – when God comes to his own temple.
You do know… don’t you?… that we Christians believe Jesus represents God in a very special way – in a way so very special that most of us claim Jesus is God in the flesh! This means that when Jesus comes to the temple in Jerusalem, we have the truth to which passages like Exodus 40:34-38; I Kings 8:10-11 and Ezekiel 43:1-5 point. God is moving in to his own house! He is gonna be noticed!! The temple elites set the tables this way, but God wants them that way instead!!! (He can be funny that way about arranging the furniture.)
But how does Matthew portray this event? Open up to Matthew 21:1-17 and watch, with Ezekiel, the glory of the Lord show up at church!
The event starts subtle enough. Jesus sends two disciples ahead of him into Jerusalem to retrieve a donkey for him to ride. It’s almost like Joshua (wait a minute, Joshua is Jesus’s real name) sending spies into Jericho before he … before he what? Before he shows the nice folx at Jericho a better spiritual experience than they previously knew?
He sends spies in to Jericho before he leads the armies of God into the promised land in victory over the inhabitants of the land! And this Joshua of Nazareth is now sending spies into Jerusalem where they retrieve a donkey so he can fulfill the prophecy of old about Israel’s King coming to her on the donkey. This is a hostile take over, but not hostile like the usual sense of hostile. And sure enough all the little people see in Jesus God’s answer to Herod, that imposter king of the Jews, and they want to see him cleanse the Holy Place, the church, for God to conquer the inhabitants who defile God’s home.
Then Jesus, after making all the fanfare of entering Jerusalem as King, goes into the temple and immediately starts throwing tables around and picking the fight that will get him crucified. Sure enough, Jesus shows up in church and finds the religious leaders making a mess of things. And rather than saying two nice and affirmative things, subtly slipping in a little criticism, and then closing with another warm affirmation in order to ensure no one gets their feelings hurt, Jesus runs everyone out of the place as if the smoke and the glory of God entered the place and sent all the priests running.
And actually, Jesus is just getting started. For much of Holy Week, Jesus returns again and again to the temple and preaches to the multitudes in town for the holiday worship services. The religious leaders want to be rid of this God incarnate so they can get back to business-as-usual, but they fear the mobs following Jesus will riot (Matt. 21:26, 46), and so they must resort to trickery, trying to entrap Jesus in statements which will win the crowds back to them. But Jesus starts preaching sermons about the “church leaders” (Matt. 21:45) that just ratchets up the tension all the more.
When was the last time you went to church and heard a sermon that calls out the sins of the leadership there?
Been a while?
That’s what Jesus does.
And it gets him killed.
I don’t have to tell you, I am sure, but the “church leaders” down at Second Temple Assembly of God hatch a plan with Judas Iscariot to betray him when there are no crowds around. But ironically, that leads us to one more part of the climactic worship where Jesus goes to church: Golgotha.
Yes, Jesus has one more power play in his fight. It’s the power of LOVE, and he transforms himself into the sacrifice at the heart of worship. He picked a fight, alright, but he isn’t waging war by any of the standard strategies. No. He engineers a huge ironic upset. He gets the people of God to crown him King of the Jews despite themselves. And he does it in self-sacrificial love.
When was the last time you experienced that where you go to church?
Summing up some loose ends
No doubt my brevity in this post leaves so much more for us to explore and talk about which just cannot fit in this forum. I can’t help but think about all the places of worship and gatherings of the flock to eat, pray, and preach (to worship) that we skipped over in this brief analysis, and sure enough we find conflict in them too (though not typically the if-it-bleeds-it-leads style of conflict you find on channel 9 Action News). Jesus enters conflict with his own disciples on numerous occasions too, thus these we looked at are just some of the confrontations worship with Jesus highlights with “religious leaders” specifically.
Likewise, we would be mistaken to suggest that every instance of worship is all about conflict with no peace. Keep in mind we have plucked only a few strings in the symphony here, but we are finding the very real, very biblical melodies which generally go not played where we go to church. Jesus does bring comfort to his people on numerous occasions as well, and this post has not pursued any of that.
However, you probably don’t NEED me to paint a one sided portrait of THAT side. THAT, you already have portrayed for you week in and week out, I think. But rather, I acknowledge there is more to the story here while presenting you with the challenges which Jesus brings to church with him yet which most often “church leaders” of our day mute and distract us from seeing – probably so that we can be manipulated by them and they can secure their establishment.
But if you go to church where Jesus attends, you will find that dust never settles.
You know I think I need to end this examination of The Church Jesus Attends suggesting that Jesus is knocking at the door where you go to church. It would be wrong of me to suggest that just because that temple in Jerusalem is corrupt that God does not enter it or does not care about it. That is simply not the case. We see at the end of Luke’s Gospel the disciples continue to worship in Herod’s corrupt temple. We find in the book of Acts that the continued presence of Jesus among them manages to continue making waves with the “religious leaders” and that manifests in arrests and floggings.
We must not take a study like this and just presume it gives us license to up and leave the church we attend. But it does legitimate the fact that in the conflicts which arise from Jesus in our midst, confrontations and conflicts with church leaders especially, we must not presume therefore that the Holy Spirit is not at work in them. We may well suffer a flogging too, but if Jesus rides with you to church, you can expect conflict there, because believe me, church leaders are no more righteous today than they were in the first century.
Jesus stands at the door of the church and knocks (Rev. 3:20), and if we open up to him – show him our hospitality – he will come in and eat with us, even party with us! This is the same Jesus who claims that the “least of these” brothers represent him in a very special way. My thought is that if your church were to answer that knock and welcome the “least of these” in to eat, we will find Jesus turning tables in the church where he attends all over again!