Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Small Groups as Christ's Outposts

"Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matt. 16:17-18).

When Jesus spoke these words about how the church would operate, he was reshaping the Jewish picture of what it meant to participate as the people of God. They were looking for a conquering King; he was giving them his presence, which would change how they related to others. N. T. Wright explains, “Jesus ... apparently envisaged that, scattered about Palestine, there would be small groups of people loyal to himself, who would get together to encourage one another, and would act as members of a family, sharing some sort of common life and, in particular, exercising mutual forgiveness.” These scattered small groups would act as kingdom outposts that embodied his presence after his ascension.

Later in the development of the church, Paul clearly defines these outposts. I Corinthians 12 highlights how the body works. At the end of sixteen verses that reference the word “body” fifteen times, Paul writes, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (vs. 27). Much ink has been spilled on the nature of the body, how the gifts should work, and the mutual interdependence upon the parts of the body on one another. “Paul’s basic concern was to restore the sense of unity in the Corinthian congregation by restoring the sense of interdependence among the believers. And this restoration required a true sense of their mutual relation to Christ.” To be the body of Christ is to act as a mutually interdependent group under the headship of Christ.

To be mutually related to Christ is to be mutually related to the anointed Messiah. The Greek word christos means Messiah in Hebrew. Many people miss this point as they mistakenly read Christ as a title representing Jesus’ divinity, or even his surname. A first century reader of the Old Testament would have understood that christos means Messiah, the Jewish royal leader who would drive out God’s enemies and restore God’s presence on the earth. Paul’s audience included both Jews and Gentiles, and he was trying to help individuals in these ethnically diverse churches realize that they are mutually interconnected to one another through the life of the Jewish Messiah.

Immediately after Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the son of the living God, Peter revealed his ignorance about what it meant to be the Jewish Messiah. Jesus told them he would suffer and die. Peter failed to remain silent and allow Jesus to reveal himself. Peter interjected his idea of the Messiah and Jesus rebuked him. Jesus, as “the image of the invisible God,” does not manifest the kind of God one would expect. As “the radiance of God’s glory” (Hebrews 1:3), he surprised Peter with a different definition of what God looks like.

Jesus is our picture of God. It was scandalous to even think about God becoming a man, but it was immensely more scandalous for God to come as a suffering servant. Bonhoeffer writes, “The offense of Jesus Christ is not his incarnation—that indeed is revelation—but his humiliation.” Jesus demonstrated a kind of glory that does not look like glory to us. His power came not as a conquering king, but as a lowly king of love, a suffering servant, one who gave up his life so that others might have life.

While we are thankful for our salvation because of Christ’s humiliation, we often miss the crucial fact that Jesus manifested the nature of God through his humiliation. He showed us the true way to love and to live through the passion of the cross. He taught us true power through vulnerability. He revealed how authority is not controlling, but gives freedom for the other person to respond or reject it. As the head of the church today, Jesus is still living the same way, his nature unchanged. He is not seeking to establish the church as a gloried authority on the earth. He was the suffering servant, and he still is through his presence in the church. As the head of his body, Christ is leading the church to operate in the same humiliating way that he operated.

To be the body of Christ is to function as the mutually interdependent body that expresses the same character that Christ demonstrated on the cross, “in service to God and for the benefit of others.” Immediately before facing death on the cross, Jesus instructed his disciples with this: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12-13).

This is the way that small groups become Christ's outpost today. This is our call in the world. Is your group living up to this call? What stands in the way? What has helped you enter into it?

We cannot settle for less.

Adapted from The Relational Way, pages 52-53

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