Over the course of the last few weeks, and moving forward towards the next several weeks, we have been and will be covering our theme A Third Way to Follow Jesus. So much of the time in our world we are given either/or situations or dichotomies. In the political world you are either Democrat or Republican. In the financial world you are either getting richer or getting poorer. And it is no different in the church world, you are either Conservative Evangelical or Progressive Mainliner. With no room in between.
But so often, as followers of Jesus, we need to take our cue from him. When faced with binary questions, Jesus always took the conversation up a notch to a third place. Like in the conversation about whether someone was to pay taxes to Caesar. Instead of saying yes pay taxes to Caesar, and making the zealots and Jewish people angry, or saying no don’t pay taxes to Caesar and having the possibility of the Roman Empire come down on Him, Jesus shows a third way in answering this question by saying, Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.
When we kicked off this sermon series we talked about whata third way to read the entirety of Scripture would be, where it isn’t all literal or all just myth but a reasonable Third way which sees the Bible as the signpost pointing to Jesus. We also talked about the emphasis in third way faith on the New Testament, and especially the gospel, as they are a record of the high point of Scripture and the entirety of the world itself, Jesus Christ. And last week we talked about the centrality of Jesus above all else.
This week as we explore what third way faith looks like, we approach something that to us might seem like a no-brainer, a well-duh, of course. But in history it wan’t a no brainer. That being the necessity of believer’s church.
Before we turn to Scripture let’s take some time to define what I mean by believer’s church and some history behind what I mean when I say believer’s church. The term believer’s church is used in free church traditions to describe the church as the gathering of those who are genuinely converted to Christ and fully committed to living the Christian life. If you talk about the believer’s church tradition you are talking about the historical free churches, in which churches are not under state-control, that there is voluntary membership, and believer’s baptism is practiced. Third way faith in regards to believer’s church, is about the belief that Christian conversion, while not necessarily sudden or dramatic always involvers a conscious decision. “Unless a person be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Believing that an infant can have no conscious intelligent faith in Christ, third way faith communities baptize only those who have come to a personal, living faith. Voluntary baptism, together with a commitment to walk in the full newness of life and to strive for purity in the church constitutes what it means to be a member of Christ’s body, the believer’s church. Historically speaking, western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed were to be Christians. Whatever it’s positive contributions on vales and institutions, Christendom seriously distorted and distorts the gospel, marginalized and marginalizes Jesus, and has left the church ill equipped for mission in a post-Christendom culture. We need to learn from the experiences and perspectives of third way faith communities and individuals that reject Christendom assumptions and pursued alternative ways of thinking and believing. And out of that alternative to Christendom, where almost all were assumed to be Christian (by the nature of where they grew up, what family they were born into, that they were baptized as infants, etc..) we get the believer’s church tradition. A tradition that said that the church only consisted of believer’s who accepted Jesus and did so by demonstrated their faith in believer’s baptism.
But where did these ideas come from regarding believer’s church? I’m sure we could go many places but let’s turn to John 3 and the encounter that Jesus had one night with a religious leader by the name of Nicodemus. John 3:1-8 says, “Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again. “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
So Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, most likely because of the power and sway that the religious leaders had, and that he didn’t want to face the vitriol that no doubt would come his way if he came to Jesus during the day. And when he comes to Jesus, he, a religious leader who had been following the Torah all his life, and begins a conversation with Jesus about the nature of his work and the nature of the Kingdom of God. Jesus response to Nicodemus gets at the heart of the gospel, the heart of the Kingdom, and the heart of the theology that Nicodemus grew up with. Jesus responds in verse 3, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” You see this strikes at the heart of everything that Nicodemus was ever taught. You see it wasn’t about being born into the right family or the right ethnic makeup. Jewish theology at the time was all about that..being born Jewish or a child of Abraham. And here God in the flesh, Jesus was saying it wasn’t about being born physically into the Jewish lineage, that allowed you to see the Kingdom of God. No, God was starting a new family, made up of people from every tribe, tongue and nation. A family that superseded ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and nationality. A family born of water and the Spirit, and not of flesh. God Kingdom is thrown open to anyone and everyone.
You aren’t a follower of Jesus because you grew up in a Christian home, being American, going to church, etc.. It is about living under the rule and reign of Jesus and making a conscious effort everyday to walk in his footsteps. Ask someone today if they are a Christian, and obviously you’ll get a ton of different answers and responses. But one that we as the church will need to own is that many people will say yes. In fact according to the latest polls 83 percent of the people within the US identify themselves as Christians. The question though is then what is a Christian. If you ask many, they will say they are a Christian because they are American, because they are not (fill in the blank with another religion), because they grew up in the church, or because they said a prayer when they were a children so that they could go to heaven when they die someday. Sadly, many in and outside the church whose present state suggest that one ought to go back and examine whether in fact a real spiritual birth took place at all. I believe, and please know that I am not judging, that many of the 83 percent of Americans who claim that they are Christians are nominal (in name only) and notional (in opinion only)
One becomes a Christian through an event, a process or both in which you identify yourself with the crucified and Risen Christ. You see the decision to become a Christian involves a choice, a personal decision to follow after Jesus as Lord (what we talked about last week that he if he isn’t your Lord, he isn’t going to be your Savior). It’s a decision that you need to make on your own, but not alone. Your parents can’t make it for you. Your friends can’t make it for you. Your spouse can’t make it for you. We can’t make it for you.
Just as you need to make the faith your own, it can’t be forced upon you by anyone. I truly believe in the concept of No Force in Religion. The state can’t force you. The church can’t force you. Your friends and family can’t force you. Christianity is a matter of individual conviction and should not be forced upon anyone but rather requires a personal decisionAll one has to do is to look back at history to see how force when combined with Christianity becomes a bad and evil thing, and distorts the gospel and distorts Jesus. Just look at the Crusades when people said “Come to know Jesus or I’ll slit your throat.” Or the city that used to fine you if you missed church. That is what happens when church and state get in to bed together. Or as Tony Campolo often said, “Mixing Government with the church is like mixing horse manure with ice cream. It doesn’t affect the manure much but it really ruins the Ice Cream.” In history, especially during the reformation, voluntary faith communities, free from coercion were seen as seditious. Reformers couldn’t conceive that the basic fabric of society would survive if one opened the door to freedom of religion and the resulting pluralism of religious perspectives. Then closely connected with freedom of religion and free from coercion was the belief by third way communities in history that baptism was for believer’s only. During the reformation Infant Baptism was closely aligned with the state, and honestly mostly for tax purposes. Believer’s baptism was seen as an act of civil disobedience. Civil disobedience that “embodied their doctrine of the church, their stance toward society, their advocacy of religious freedom and their doctrine of separation of church and state. The baptismal rite was a powerful political act as well as a powerful spiritual declaring that Jesus is Lord and Caesar (in whatever form) is not.
Nicodemus, a man who had grew up in the religious system, who knew the Torah inside and out, who had spent his life on behalf of God, didn’t understand what Jesus was getting at in regards to being born again, and being born into a new family. Jesus responds to that fact by saying, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” Here Jesus is saying their is a double-sided new birth which brings you into the visible community of Jesus Followers (Water baptism) and gives you new life as the Spirit wells up like a spring of water.
So wrapping this up regarding the necessity of believer’s church, what can we draw out from it and apply to our lives? Here are 4 things that I think we can draw out of it.
1. The necessity for each person to decide for themselves where they stand with Jesus. Have you, as the old hymn says, “decided to follow Jesus?” Do you call him Lord and not just Savior?
2. One of the ways of showing your commitment to following Jesus is in the act of believer’s baptism. To go under the water, and die to your old self, and raise to new life. IF you have questions, or you want to know more, or you are very interested in being baptized, let’s talk.
3. Have you also made a decision to join a community and be a part of it’s life? Not just coming but being a crucial part of it’s life. Jumping in, grabbing an oar, and roaring this boat towards the Kingdom. And if you are committing here at Veritas that means grabbing an oar and rowing towards being a blessing, growing deeper in Jesus, and sharing life together.
4. And lastly, we need to make sure that there is no force in religion. We can’t force or twist people’s arms to come to know Jesus. If we do, we distort Jesus, we distort the gospel, and we distort what it means to actually follow Jesus. So maybe we don’t grab a sword or fine people, but there are ways out there that promote force of religion. And I believe as followers of Jesus we can’t and we shouldn’t seek to use
So let’s talk together about the idea and necessity of believer’s church. Let’s talk about your thoughts, ideas, questions, etc.. Let’s talk about ways that the church, even today, as used force and the power of the state. And Let’s talk about what this all means for our lives today in 2016.
1. What thoughts, insights, questions, push back, etc.. do you have about the concept of Believer's Church,, the message, and or the Scripture?
2. Where have you seen force in religion in the history of the church, and in your own life?
3. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we, as a community, do about it?