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This article is part of the 'Ground Up' project.
Jesus promised His first disciples, "I will build my church", but it seems unlikely that the Church we see today was what He had in mind at the time.
If we are genuinely seeking to follow Jesus, then we have to ask ourselves: when Jesus promised to build His Church, what did He have in mind? Because, whatever it is, if we are participating in His mission, then that is our objective too.
To be fair, life was quite different in the first century. They didn't have TV or democracy or climate change. But, when we ask this question, we are not asking about the details of how we get things done - we are asking about the fundamentals, what was this Church supposed to be and to do?
(I am, for the sake of convenience, making the traditional distinction and using a capital 'C' to refer to the one universal Church, while 'church' with a lower case 'c' refers to a congregation or denomination.)
I am not claiming here any special insight into the mind of Christ. We cannot, of course, know what was actually in His mind when Jesus spoke those words. But we do know what the early Church recorded about his words and works, and we have various documents which tell us about the life of the early Church. We can seek to understand what these records tell us about how the early Church understood their task - how they answered this question.
Not A New Religion
One thing is reasonably clear: Jesus was not intending to start a new religion. We know what religions look like, and so did the early Christians - at the time, there were many different religions you could choose from. Today, we call some of them 'religions' and some of them 'cults', but this is not a distinction they made at the time. New religions were springing up, particularly the 'mystery cults' , of which the worship of Mithras is probably the best known today.
Jesus did not create or command anything which would look like a new religion: there were no ceremonies or rituals, there was no organizational structure or creed, no priesthood to organize meetings and ensure doctrinal purity. Jesus did not leave behind a single document, or establish any way to distinguish those who were His followers from those who were not. Or, rather, He insisted that the only way people should be able to tell who were His followers, was by the way they loved one another.
Jesus commanded His people to make disciples - new followers - and baptize them, but baptism was a standard way of joining a group in those days: a bit like signing a membership card today. People were baptized when they converted to Judaism, or when they joined the community at Qumran - it was certainly not a distinctive Christian thing. Jesus also told His followers to remember Him when they had meals together, and to remember when they took food and drink that He was still the true food and drink nourishing their souls. Again, eating together and remembering the person who started the group is hardly a distinctive Christian practice. Possibly the most distinctive thing He commanded His followers to do - washing one another's feet - seems to have been almost completely ignored.
All the usual trappings of a religion were explicitly rejected by the early Church: they had no special, holy people, no priests. They had no special, holy places, no temples. They had no special, holy days, no feasts or festivals. There were no special clothes. There were no special words, no creeds no liturgies, no rituals. There were no forbidden foods. There were no secrets, no special, hidden or advanced knowledge, nothing reserved for any initiates, or for some inner circle.
Not Reformed Judaism
Jesus was a Jew; He lived and taught as a Jew; He respected and used the Jewish scriptures. His first followers were Jews, and He never suggested that any of them should cease to be Jews. But His understanding of Judaism - His understanding of what His Heavenly Father wanted Judaism to be - was radical and new.
On the one hand, He opposed aspects of Jewish culture and contradicted the teachings of religious leaders; on the other hand, He did not seek to set Himself up as a religious leader, in opposition to the establishment; He did not attempt to get the current religious leadership on His side. None of His followers sought positions of influence within the Jewish community, in an attempt to introduce Jesus' teaching into mainstream Judaism.
Judaism was the starting point for Jesus: He disagreed with aspects of the way it was understood and practiced, but He did not seek to oppose or reform it. Instead, He guided His followers towards an understanding that the Jewish religion, like all religions, was essentially irrelevant. He did not attempt to reform any religion, because no religion, no matter how inspired and enlightened it may be, can deliver what is needed.
It is hard for us to read the New Testament today because many of the familiar words are quite misleading: we know what they men, but what they mean to us today is quite different from what the original hearers understood. When Jesus said, "I will build my church", we think we know what He was talking about, because we know what a church is. Even when we remember it is not a building with pointy windows, but a group of people, we still think we know what this means. Of course, the exact meaning depends on our denomination and tradition - but, whatever we think is the 'right' way to do church, it is hard to avoid reading that meaning back into the text, and assuming that this right way of doing church is what Jesus had in mind.
But, at the time, the word we translate as 'church' ('ekklesia' in the Greek) was about as vague and unspecific as it was possible to be. It was a group of people, a crowd, a bunch, an assembly. The word is used (in Acts 19:41) to refer to a riot. These days, it could refer to a book club, or a lynch mob.
The point is: there was no word to describe what Jesus was wanting to build. It was something new - not because it was a bunch of people, but because it was Jesus' bunch of people. It is called 'the way' in six places in the book of Acts - again, about as vague a term as you can find. It is not talked about as a new religion, or a new lifestyle, or a new political movement, or a new philosophy.
The Jesus Way
Jesus revealed a new way to live, and invited people to join Him. He described it as 'the Kingdom of God', and living in the Kingdom of God means that we give God the first and last word in determining what we say and do. How do we know what God wants? We look at, listen to, and follow the example of Jesus.
The authorities of His day found Jesus to be disruptive - and they still do. He challenged their claims of ultimate authority, insisting that they, too, need to be subject to God. Even more disruptive - this God was not a stern legalist, insisting that order is preserved and everyone must obey or else; this God is a loving Father, Who wants to forgive rather than punish, and Who loves the wicked and the foreigners just as much as He loves us. If we were prepared to live this way, all the barriers which rulers and bureaucrats put up to keep us divided, they would all disintegrate as we learn to love one another as he loves us - fully, completely, and unconditionally.
Jesus took every exclusion found in the Jewish religion - and in almost every other religion - and transformed them into a radical and universal inclusion. That is the way Jesus lived, and that is the way His followers are called to live today, whatever the structures we have build and the rules we have devised may say.