The last thing I thought I saw, before my burning eyes clinched shut, was Laurie walking toward me out of our sliding glass doors with a look of utter delight. It was a look I don’t often see on her face especially on a day like this.
I couldn’t wait to get my eyes open again to see if that’s what I’d really seen, but a gust of wind had blown a cloud of smoke into my eyes and they were watering fiercely. As I grimaced, waiting for the pain to subside, I could hear chicken sizzling on the barbeque in front of me and the surrounding laughter and conversation of forty or so people who filled our backyard. Before I could open my eyes I felt her hand on my shoulder and heard her whisper in my ear.
“You’ll never guess who I have been talking to!” She was taunting me playfully and I had never seen her this relaxed with her yard full of people waiting to eat.
“So that’s where you’ve been, “ I said blinking my eyes rapidly against the pain as I fought to see clearly. “The chicken will be done in about 20 minutes and nothing looks like it's ready.”
“Relax,” she grinned. “We’re here to have fun, not to put on a production.” The smirk told me she knew this was as out of character for her as I did.
“Come on , guess! You’ll never believe who stopped by!”
“I don’t know. Your sister?” She was Laurie’s favorite person in the world, but they rarely get to see each other since she lives five hours away.
“No,” Laurie said, her shoulder sagging a bit at the thought. “That would be fun, too. It’s John.”
John? I thought as I ran through a list of last names. I couldn’t figure out which one had excited her so much. But her mockingly, exasperated how-stupid-can-you-be look, finally made me realize whom she was talking about. “You’re kidding! Where is he?” I said looking around her at the house and feeling awkward that he hadn’t come to mind first. It had been almost a year since I’d seen him and had long ago given up the thought of seeing him again. “He went to freshen up.” Laurie answered. “He said he’d stay and enjoy the meal with us.”
“Why didn’t you get me sooner?”
“I tried, but he said you looked busy and he wanted to help me with the salad and relish tray. We had the best talk, Honey. He made me feel as if I’d known him all my life and could tell or ask him anything. In fact, he helped me sort through some things that have hurt me in this process. I can’t wait to tell you all about it.”
“And I can’t wait to hear it.”
“I wonder if your first impression about John might be right after all…”
“Now, you think he’s John the disciple? Why would you say that?”
“I don’t know… There’s something about himdepth, certainly, and when he talks to you, you know he really cares about you as an individual. I’ve never met anyone like him. He says the strangest things that are at one level so incredibly simple, and yet on another challenge your religious comfort zone by rearranging everything you’ve ever thought before.”
“I tried to tell you…”
“I know, but I never realized it was so freeing. Do you think he could be the John?”
“Why don’t you ask him?” I smirked, knowing she never would.
“I’d feel like an idiot,” she said motioning to the house as John appeared.
“There you are!” John called walking out the door and heading toward the barbeque.
“I hear you’re pretty good kitchen help,” I said grabbing him about the neck and pulling him in for a hug. “It is so good to see you.”
“You, too! You have a big party today, I see!”
“We didn’t mean to. We were going to invite a few folks over, but somehow lost control and people started asking us if they could come." We looked over the yard at the spirited volleyball game in the left corner of the yard, with a healthy dose of heckling spectators in the shade, a swimming pool full of happy splashers, some pockets of conversations going on in various shady spots and a ping-pong table filled with food and underlined with ice chests full of soft drinks and a freezer or two of home-made ice cream.”
“This is great. Are you sure I’m not crashing anything?”
“Of course you are, but we’d love to have you. It’s been so long, I wondered if I’d ever see you again.”
“I actually came to town to visit some other people. They are in bad shape at the momentangry over some congregational politics that have wasted them. But Father is doing something wonderful in them through it. They said they knew of you, and I wanted to give you their number,” he said pulling a piece of paper out of his pocket. “I told them I’d ask you to call them.”
“We’d love to” Laurie said snatching the paper from his hand and heading back inside.
“So how are you doing, Jake?”
“It's an adventure, John, to be sure. We’ve been through some incredible ups and downs since we were last together.”
“Ahh, so you must have taken that pastoring job!”
I’d forgotten all about that and the thought made me explode with laughter, “Yeah! Right!”
“Why not? Steady income, credible job, personal validation? Weren’t those the important things to you when we first met? “
Wow! That was a long time ago. I began to think back over the four years since I’d met John. In some ways it seemed so much longer. “It’s crazy, John. I don’t even think about those things anymore. I am having so much fun sorting out this life in Jesus and helping others do so, that I’m not even worried about what others think, or about my career.”
“So what has happened?” John asked as I turned the chicken flaming on the grill.
“I couldn’t begin to summarize it. Look around you and you’ll see most of it. God has opened up so many relationships to us and we’re seeing people capture a hunger for Jesus like we haven’t seen since the earliest days in this faith.” We are seeing new people come to know him and grow to know him. I rarely have a conversation now where Jesus isn’t the focus of it somehow.”
“And were you able to get your old pastor and Diane together?”
“We did and I can’t tell you how excited I am about how that has sorted out. If we get some time alone, I’ll tell you about it,” I said with a nod at people nearby to indicate we could easily be overheard.
“I’d love to hear it. Are you still working real estate?”
“A little, when people ask me to help, but I’m not trying to build that business. I’m spending most of my time helping people sort out their relationship to God. I’ve been asked to share my story with various groups and spend time with people who are at critical moments in their own journey. I’m so excited to watch him change lives as I just help them get free from the condemnation that makes them feel excluded from Father’s affection.
“As I read the life of Jesus now, I see more clearly that’s what he was doingfreeing people from shame so that they could embrace his Father. And I’m seeing that with increasing freedom in my own life too. That’s probably the greatest gift you’ve given me, John. I no longer labor under the oppressive guilt of how far I fall short, nor under the demanding obligations of self-produced righteousness. And I’m no longer putting that on others.”
“I never realized how much of what I thought was ministry was only manipulating people’s shamewhether it was to make them feel guilty for falling short or to earn other people's approval.
“That’s what religion is, Jake. It’s a shame-management system, often with the best of intentions and always with the worst of results.”
“But it did work, at least externally.”
“Yes, but it only drove the bondage even deeper. In the end people are still addicted to shame and bounce between self-pity and self-glory, never finding freedom to simply live in him. It makes people think God wants a cause and effect relationship with them. If they’ll be good, he’ll be good to them.”
“I’m now seeing that’s why so many people live alienated from him. I visited two terminally ill people in the last month and both of them were distraught over the idea that they had done something wrong to deserve it, though they weren’t sure what. It took a long time to get beneath the surface of their pat answers, but they both finally admitted how angry they were at God for not healing them and full of guilt for having such thoughts.”
“Most never own up to that anger because they’re afraid something worse will happen to them. So they go on feeling as if God is unfair to them and they are never able to resolve thatsort of like you were in that hospital cafeteria.”
“I remember it well, John. I love how God has been changing me one small bit at a time. Sometimes I don’t even notice he’s doing that until I’m in a situation and I watch myself respond in ways I never would have before. I am enjoying immensely the Jake he is allowing to emerge.”
“Just like a butterfly taking wing from its cocoon, Jake. Isn’t it sad that we thought we could press people into spiritual change, instead of helping them grow to trust Father more and find him changing them? You can’t press a caterpillar into a butterfly mold and make it fly. It has to be transformed from the inside.”
“And it is so much more exciting lifting shame off of people than burdening them down with it. No wonder Christian fellowship has to be sold as an obligation. Who would want to hang out with people who are always laying a guilt-trip on you or pressuring you to meet their expectations?”
“Which is why body life always ends up so performance-based and manipulative. Isn’t this so much better?” John said surveying the yard.
I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but nodded in agreement. “I’ve even started posting the story of our conversations on a web page, John. I hope you don’t mind. The response has been incredible. People all over the world have been on similar journeys, rethinking their life in him and what life as his church can be. It seems that many people are seeing through the emptiness of religious form. I’ve lost count of the people who have told me that my story reflects theirs in so many ways, except for you of course. One guy was even upset that in all his desperation to sort out God’s life, he hadn’t met you if you were still a….” Oops! I thought it best not to finish that sentence.
But John wouldn’t let me off so easily. “Still what, Jake? What have you told them?”
“I left it open that you might be John the disciple of Jesus. You know I wondered that in the beginning, so I’ve been honest about that.”
“And what conclusion have you come to?” John looked up with a smirk.
“I don’t know. Jesus told Peter that it was possible. And you’ll have to admit, some incredible things have happened in my life since we met. You seem to have a grip on this journey like no one I’ve met before. You’ve confirmed some of my deepest hopes and helped me live them more freely. So the question of who you are has honestly become far less important to me. But I’ll admit to being curious. And you’ve never denied it.”
John smiled and just as he opened his mouth we were interrupted. Marvin came over and threw his arms around John from behind. “Look who's here!”
John turned around and smiled. “Marvin, isn’t it?”
“You remembered? That’s amazing. I saw you over here with Jake and thought I’d get in on the action. No one told me you were coming.”
“They didn’t know either. I just happened by. You were a pastor at one time, too, weren’t you?”
“I won’t focus on your sins if you won’t focus on mine,” Marvin laughed.
“You can focus on mine, if you like. It just leaves me more in awe of him,” John answered.
Marvin laughed awkwardly like he couldn’t quite find the joke that surely had to be there. After a bit more banter between them, John turned back to me. “I notice quite a few people are here from that home group. How is that going, Jake?”
“There isn’t much ‘that’ to talk about, John. We’ve never gotten back to any kind of regular meeting since your visit. I don’t know why, really, but the relationships have grown and we see each other often. It hasn’t bothered me, but some times I wonder if it should
"Well, it bothers me,” Marvin said.
“And why is that?" John asked
“Because I don’t feel like I’m doing anything that counts?”
“I don’t know. That’s the funny part.” Marvin said, shaking his head and sighing in frustration. " I’ve never had more fruitful relationships and I’m seeing people from my own neighborhood and at work open their lives to Jesus. It seems I’m with people all the time.”
“And that’s not productive?”
“I guess productive isn’t the right word. It just doesn’t seem focused somehow. Some folks I know aren’t finding fellowship like that. They seem adrift without the focus that regular fellowship provides. If our old group was meeting, I’d invite them.”
“And what would that change?” John asked.
“I don’t know. I think it would anchor them somehow to a group.” It looked like Marvin expected John to answer, and when he didn’t the awkwardness kept him going. “They need something.” He paused again but John still wasn’t biting. “Some identity, I guess.”
“Would a meeting provide that, or would it simply mask the lack of it?” John asked.
I just kept turning the sizzling chicken grateful I wasn’t the one being grilled this time.
“My hope would be that it would provide focus and motivation.”
“So that comes from a meeting?” John asked.
Marvin just looked at John with a confused look on his face. I’m not sure he knew what to say and perhaps he was trying John’s technique.
“It would help, wouldn’t it?” Marvin finally blurted out a bit frustrated.
John put his arm on Marvin’s shoulder. “I am not trying to frustrate you. But it is important that you think these things through. If you’re going to have a meeting to hopefully provide some focus, it will probably turn out to be more distracting than helpful. People will come to the meeting thinking that’s their focus and in time it will prove insufficient for that.”
“Why?” Marvin’s tone had softened a bit.
“Because it is knowing Father that provides the motivation. Meetings are a poor substitute for that.”
“So we just sit around and do nothing?” Marvin’s frustration resurfaced.
“Who said anything about doing nothing? I am only encouraging you not to start a meeting just to start a meeting. Every time people see God moving, someone has to build a building or start a movement. Peter was that way at the Transfiguration. When He couldn’t think of anything else to do, he proposed a building program. If you’re going to walk this way, Marvin, you’ve got to find freedom from the overestimation of your own capabilities.”
“My what?” Marvin laughed. “I don’t even know what that means.”
“It means that the work of building the church is his, not yours or mine. Don’t think you can put something together by your own ingenuity. That has been tried a zillion times in the last 2,000 years always with the same results. Sure it's fun initially, and the excitement of seeing God touch lives overshadows our own attempts to organize it. But that doesn’t last forever. Eventually people end up cemented into that which is designed to protect God’s life among them. But it often ends up shoving him out in deference to their own wisdom. We’re just not bright enough to control the ways in which God works.”
“Nor would I want to,” Marvin answered.
John smiled, “Which is why we’re having this conversation…”
“But what is the church, John, if it's not getting together regularly?”
“I’m not saying it can’t meet, Marvin, I’m just saying that meetings won’t accomplish what you’re looking for. Look around you,” John’s hand swept the back yard. “Aren’t people together all over?”
“You’re calling this a church, John?” Marvin was as surprised as I was.
“Yeah! I thought it was a barbeque.” I added.
“No, I’m saying the church is here. Here are people who love him. Over the course of this day they will share a lot of his life together, I’m sure. Jesus said it only takes two or three and he never said anything about having to do it at the same time, same place or same way every week. He didn’t seem to think of the church as something we do at all, or even go to, but a reality we live in every day.
“Don’t you see you’re already doing it? Living as his body we will encourage each other daily and stimulate each other to love more deeply and to live more graciously. It can be as simple as having a barbeque.”
“Even without worship or Bible study?” Marvin asked.
“We’re already talking about how Father works, aren’t we? And worship isn’t having a song service or prayer time, Marvin. It’s living as a daily sacrifice in the life of Jesus, which is letting him demonstrate his reality through you. This is the joy of living in the kingdomwatching him work in you. But I’m sure if someone here wants to pull together some people to sing, praise or pray, others would want to and it would be awesome. It looks like those people over there are praying.” John pointed to a group on the patio who were holding hands in a circle.
“But it’s not what we learned to call church.”
“Of course not! It can’t be this easy. It can’t be this much fun. We have to work at it more, be more miserable. Don’t you see that’s how the life of the kingdom is snatched from your hearts?” John shook his head with a sigh. “There will be trouble enough as you move along in this world. Wouldn’t you rather share life together as believers with joy and encouragement?”
“But how will new believers grow, John. Don’t we need teaching?”
“What are we doing now? I’m trying to help you discover something that will set you free in ways you can’t even imagine. Isn’t that teaching?”
“But not everyone’s involved. Some are missing out.”
“They might be missing this conversation, but I doubt they are missing out on what God wants to do in them today. He’s pretty good at that.”
“Are you saying it is better not to have a meeting where we all share together?”
“It’s not a matter of what’s better. It’s a matter of what’s real. There are lots of ways the church can celebrate its life together. At the moment you only seem to grasp one of them. Seeing the church as a reality instead of an activity will allow you to celebrate the church however she expresses herself around you. I wouldn’t say this is better. But it certainly isn’t worse. Lots of incredible things will happen today because you’re together.”
“Sometimes that life is best expressed in a conversation like this. Sometimes it's best expressed in a larger conversation that a meeting might facilitate. When you can only see it one way, you miss so many other of the ways in which Father works. Instead of thinking about what kind of meeting or group we should have, ask what would help people best grow in his life. Jake had some good thoughts on that a few minutes ago.”
“What?” I said, pulling the last of the chicken off the grill. I was unsure what John was referring to. “We weren’t talking about the church, were we?”
“Sure we were. People learning to live in relationship to Father in freedom from shame are the core of body life. Find out how to share that life and you’ll be the body.”
Marvin was set to ask another question, but I picked up the platter of chicken and motioned them to follow me over where the rest of the food had all been laid out and people were gathering. I welcomed everyone, made reference to John joining us and asked if he would pray for us. He smiled back at me, paused a minute, scanned the table, and then nodded.
“Let’s all get an empty cup,” John said, taking a stack of paper cups and passing them to those nearby. Then he picked up a loaf of bread sitting at the table. He started to tear the bread into chunks and passing it to those near him. “Everyone grab a piece.” Then, with a wink at Laurie, he picked up a pitcher of grape juice she had just put on the counter by the window. He poured a few cups near him and handed the pitcher to Jeremy to pour the rest. As soon as everyone had some, John lifted up the bread in his hand and others followed his lead. John thanked God for all his provision, from the food on the table, to forgiveness of sin, to good friends and above all for life in the Son.
When everyone had some he lifted up the bread. “His body was broken that your spirits might be alive. Think about that and him as you eat.” Then John held up his cup. “This is the blood of his covenant that cleanses our sin and refreshes our spirit. This is the last meal he ate that night with his followers, and he promised we would do it again in the age that is coming.
“To our King, our Redeemer and older brother in Father’s house…” John said lifting his cup and pausing briefly. Others quickly joined the toast expressing their gratefulness to Jesus.
Finally, John finished. “Until we see you face to face…,” he said looking upward. Then he turned to acknowledge those near him with a tap of his cup to theirs. And then we drank together and stood in silence awed by his grace and our love for each other. Eventually the silence gave way to some hugs and finally a line formed for the food.
After we filled our plates, our conversation with John continued with a number of others who joined us on the patio. After some introductions, Marvin took us back to where we left off. “I love your view of the church, John, but do we do this every week?”
“How about it, Jake?”
“Only if we have it at Marvin’s house and let him cook.” I suggested.
“It might help you to not think about what you do every week, but rather about what Jesus is asking you to do today. You obviously have a heart for people you feel are being overlooked. That’s fabulous. But don’t think in terms of a routine to motivate them, but what Jesus is asking you to do to encourage or equip them. It’s that simple.”
“Like inviting them over to dinner.”
“Yes, or even to invite some to a study together if that’s on your heart.”
“That’s what I’ve wanted to do, but I felt like that might be weird.”
“What if you just invited some of those people to your house for a six-week study on some facet of our life in God? I think some people would jump at that.”
“What do I do when that’s over?”
“Whatever he gives you to do. Remember, equip people to live in him first; then you’ll see how he brings his body together. Don’t get me wrong. I love it when a group of people want to intentionally walk together as an expression of Christian communitylistening to God together, sharing their lives and resources, encouraging and caring for each other and doing whatever else God might ask them to do. But you can’t organize that with people who aren’t ready. Remember discipleship always comes before community. When you learn to follow Jesus yourself and help some others to do the same, you’ll find body life springing up all around you.“
“But what does that look like?”
“It can look like anything. I know people who meet for hikes in the woods and breakfast under the trees. I know families that have moved to the same neighborhood together so they can enjoy greater proximity to each other. I know some really healthy house churches that live out a shared life together and those who meet in larger buildings. I know others who work on a team together to build houses for the poor, cook at a mission, or some other creative way to let the life of Jesus be known in their culture.
“It can look like a hundred different things because Father is so creative. Try to copy any of them and you’ll find it turns lifeless and empty after the initial excitement of starting something new fades away. The church thrives where people are focused on Jesus, not where they are focused on church.
“This is a great time to learn to enjoy him together. Just keep living, loving and listening and he will lead you to whatever expression of church life best fits his plans. Don’t be concerned if it’s nothing you can point to and say, 'that is the church'. You are the church. Don’t be afraid to live in that reality.”
“If church can be this simple, John, how do leaders fit in all of this? Don’t we need elders and pastors and apostles?”
“Doesn’t someone need to be in charge and organize things so people will know what to do?” Marvin was almost beside himself. I cringed inside knowing he wasn’t going to hear what he wanted.
“Why, so people can follow someone else instead of following Jesus? Don’t you see we already have a leader? The church gives Jesus first place in everything and it will refuse to let anyone else crawl up in his seat.”
“So leaders aren’t important either?”
“Not the way you’ve been taught to think of them. One can hardly conceive of body life today without an organization and a leader shaping others with their vision. Some love to lead; others desperately want to be led. This system has made God’s people so passive most can’t even imagine living without a human leader to identify with. Then we wonder why our spirituality falls so painfully short. Read through the New Testament again and you’ll find there is very little focus on anything like leadership as we’ve come to think of it today.”
“But there were elders and apostles and pastors, weren’t there?”
“There were, but they weren’t out front leading people after their personal visions, they were behind the scenes doing exactly what you have on your heart to do, Marvinhelping people to live deeply in Christ so that he can lead them! Elders won’t end up managing machinery, but equipping followers by helping them find a real relationship with the living God. That’s why he asked us to help people become his disciples and why he said that he would build his church. Let’s focus on our task and let him do his. “
“But where do we find this kind of leader today?”
“Don’t look for leaders as you’ve come to think of them, think of brothers and sisters who are a bit further along the journey than you are. They’re all around youin this city and this yard.”
“But how do we know who they are if they’re not designated?”
“My question would be, how do we know if they really are servant leaders just because they have a title? Haven’t you known many so-called pastors or elders who didn’t have the spiritual maturity to back it up? Didn’t Jesus tell us that those who facilitate within this family are not those who exercise authority over others, but those who serve? Is it really that difficult to tell who they are?” John asked
“I think I’d prefer name badges?” Marvin said as we all laughed.
Just then a middle-aged single mom was walking behind me to join some others out on the grass. As I nodded and smiled, she paused and spoke to me quietly, “Could I ask you something, Jake?”
“Of course, Christie.”
“I’m worried about my car,” she said. It made some strange noise coming over here and I’d feel better if someone could check it out for me.”
“I’d be happy to, but I really don’t know that much about it. Do you know Bob over there in the blue shirt,” I said pointing.
She looked and nodded, “Not well, but I’ve met him.”
“He knows more about cars than anyone here. After we eat I’ll ask him to check it out for you.”
“That’d be great,” she said moving on to join some others.
As I turned back I realized the others had been listening to our conversation and John was looking right at me. “It’s as simple as that,” John said with an open hand gesturing to me.
None of us knew what he was talking about. Our awkward silence demonstrated that. “Why did Jake send Christie to Bob?”
“He’s a car guy,” one of the others said. “Everyone knows that. It’s his passion.”
“I don’t think Christie did, and Jake just simply pointed him out. Finding God’s gift in the family can be that simple. Jesus will give you relationships to pursue. As you grow in them you’ll know what he’s gifted them to do. It’s not so clandestine that most people won’t know it. When you find someone who doesn’t, you can point out some to them. That may have been all Paul asked Timothy and Titus to do. They certainly weren’t appointing management teams. Couldn’t they have just identified those who knew the truth of the Gospel and had been changed by it? Others who claimed to be weren’t and Paul didn’t want young believers confused about that.”
“And that works?” Marvin said shaking his head.
“Better than anything else I know,” John said. “We can trust Jesus with this! He’s a far better manager of church life than any of us will ever be. Live in him and follow whatever he puts on your heart to do and you’ll be awed by what he does among you.”
“People think we’re odd already,” Laurie added.
With a good laugh, John stood up and apologized for having to leave. People groaned, hoping they could ask him some more questions.
“Can we do this again?” Marvin asked.
"I'd love to if it works out, but that's not my decision."
“But we have so many other things we would love to ask!” someone else added.
“Then ask Jesus.” John responded. “I could answer questions all day and it wouldn’t make a difference. This life can’t be all sewn up neatly in the intellect; it must be uncovered in the journey. He’ll make things clear to you as you need them.”
With that he tossed his plate in the garbage and headed out the side gate.