I was talking with a young couple recently. They had been trying to find a new church in the city where they live. After the second visit, in conversation with the one of the leaders, they were told that ‘we are not a pastoral church, it’s about mission. If you want a pastoral church, this isn’t the place.’ That is not the first time I have heard that in recent weeks.
Clearly, mission is a proper part of church life. We are to be witnesses to Jesus Christ and his power to save and transform lives – but how does this happen? Let’s go back to the beginning. What is at the core of our problems today, the brokenness, fear, and fragmentation of relationships? The story in the Garden reminds us that humankind broke trust with God. We thought we knew best. Guilt that produced fear came in where there could have been peace and security. Relationships were ruptured and we know the rest of the story. If dysfunctional relationships did the damage, it follows that healthy relationships will bring healing. The important question then is, how can those relationships be made healthy?
The answer is in what Jesus Christ did for us when, ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). We were reconciled to God, the hub of all our relationships was established and now we can extend that quality of connection into our human relationships. Where hearts are open to that same love that exists between Father, Son and Spirit, through trust in Jesus, that quality of love is brought to us from the Father, by the Spirit. To think in very human terms, imagine Father, Son and Spirit, joining hands in a wonderful circle of love, with perfect love flowing around that circle. Then the Father pauses and says, ‘I want to include humans in this circle.’ In order to do so, the Father sent his beloved Son to pay the ultimate price for our sin. It is precisely at that point when the Father could not look upon his Son because he was made ‘sin for us’ that the uncoupling of hands became the welcoming of you and me into that amazing circle. We have ‘joined hands’ with the Trinity and in so doing, have the same quality of love available to us as it flows around that ever-enlarging circle.
This is not about human effort. Humankind bears the image of God, however obscured by the effects of sin, and is therefore capable of great acts of kindness and self-sacrifice – but this love is different. It has a different source. It is totally free from self. It doesn’t just invite people to the party so they can invite you back, or so they can think how wonderful you are, or because it makes you feel good about yourself or even for some future reward. It is a love that has been set free from the constraints of sin and it is a love that is available to us because Father, Son and Spirit reside within.
It is not something we create. We are called to ‘make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (Ephesians 4:3). We have this love as a gift – it is at the heart of our salvation. We must not strive and fight for something we already have. What we must do, is learn how to work out what we already have. As Paul put it when he wrote to the Christians in Philippi, ‘work out your salvation’ (Philippians 2:12), or as the NLT puts it, ‘work hard to show the results of your salvation’ (Philippians 2:12).
Where can we do this best? Church – the family of God. God gave us our natural families to learn to understand and handle ourselves. That is where family love should enable us to work through even the most trying character flaws. Friends can choose to walk away from you, but family should not. Our parents probably did their best but weren’t perfect any more than we are but in the family of God, ‘God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us’ (Romans 5:5). We are in that circle and we have a perfect Heavenly Father. We have unlimited resources. All that we need is to be prepared to allow ourselves to be truly family and to work that love out in practice between us.
The couple who told me about their disappointment in finding that the church they had visited ‘was not a pastoral church’ went on to say that they wanted people with whom they could ‘do life with.’ When we learn to do that, when relationships become central, then we have a powerful message to carry out to a watching, broken world. ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ (John 13:35).