What is church?
My favorite description of church is authored by Eugene Peterson in his book, The Pastor. He defines church as "a colony of heaven in the country of death, a strategy of the Holy Spirit for giving witness to the already-inaugurated kingdom of God." To summarize this definition, church is a people living out the Holy Spirit mission of helping people experience the kingdom of God on earth.
In our Scripture passage from Luke this week, Jesus sends out His disciples on this same mission that defines the church today. What did Jesus call and empower His disciples to do? There are three answers to this question in the passage.
First and foremost, Jesus called His disciples to BE with him. Mark 3:14-15 describes Jesus' commissioning of His disciples which places time in the presence of Jesus as their first priority. He appointed twelve - designating them apostles (sent ones) - that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. Our passage in Luke 9 provides us with this same understanding of the disciples' priority to BE with Jesus. Luke 9:10 says, When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida. Jesus was always calling His disciples to remain with Him, follow Him, and simply BE with Him so that they could continue to learn and grow in their faith and in their understanding of His mission.
If we are to help others experience the reality of the presence of God upon the earth, we, too, need to spend time simply BEING with Jesus. The church, the mission of Jesus, is a work of the Holy Spirit. Unless our hearts are in-tune with the Holy Spirit, we will flounder at the mission of helping others experience the kingdom of God. As I've heard it stated many times and many ways, we cannot give others what we ourselves do not possess.
Second, Jesus called His disciples to PROCLAIM the kingdom of God. Luke 9:2 says, And he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God. Fulfilling this aspect of Jesus' mission is multi-faceted. While it includes preaching, teaching, and witnessing to others concerning the saving power of the Gospel, it also includes pointing others to the reality of the kingdom of God through acts of loving service. Whatever we do that reveals Jesus as our King proclaims the kingdom of God on earth and helps others to experience God's presence.
Third, Jesus called His disciples to HEAL...driving out demons and curing diseases. Luke 9:1-2 says, He gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases...and to heal the sick. This aspect of Jesus' mission may seem overwhelming to us. Can we heal in the way that Jesus and His disciples healed? In short, the answer is yes. In John 14:12, Jesus says, I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. Again, the fulfillment of Jesus' mission is a work of the Holy Spirit. As we abide in Jesus and walk by the power of the Spirit, what is impossible for us becomes possible because of the work of the Holy Spirit in and through us. In fact, our mission of making the kingdom present is incomplete unless it includes acts of healing. Alan Culpepper says in The New Interpreter's Bible, "The work of the kingdom requires both preaching and healing so that if either is neglected the distinctive nature of the kingdom may be lost."
What is church? A people propelled by the power of the Holy Spirit to BE with Jesus, to PROCLAIM His Good News, and to HEAL in His power. May the Lord empower each of us for this Holy Spirit mission, and may the church of Jesus Christ in every place be a colony of heaven in the country of death. Dear Lord, may it be so by your grace!