If there’s one contentious issue among those who ‘believe in Jesus’ it’s the role of the Church. In our communities there are many who have ‘given up on the Church’ but still believe in God. “I can believe in God and not go to Church’ is a popular refrain.

I was listening to someone the other day talking about the difference between Believers and Disciples. They pointed out that in the first century there were no bibles, people couldn’t read, and no-one ‘became a Christian’. Instead people learned about Jesus – His life, death and resurrection from others who shared the Good News. God’s love entered into the world in the person of Jesus who laid down His life on a Cross for the forgiveness of sin for everyone…… including you and me. “It’s amazing grace which is unbelievable. I was lost and now I’m found and Jesus lives in me by His Spirit… I have experienced the difference in my heart… my life has changed and so has my outlook. I gather with other believers to continue to grow and learn because in reading one another’s lives and hearts God speaks through us into the world.”

Back at the beginning people were called to be followers of Jesus – Disciples – not just Believers.

Believers talk a lot about theology and philosophy and can come to a conclusion that Jesus was who He claimed to be. They admire His life and teachings and declare that out of all their spiritual options He is the One they ‘believe in’. They don’t need to be part of anything. For them, believing is enough. Satan believes in Jesus too, by the way.

Jesus talked about them when he said, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46) or “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)

Jesus is describing the difference between a Believer and a Disciple. The disciple not only believes in Jesus, he/she follows him with a desire to live a lifestyle (however faltering and imperfect) in alignment with the Father’s heart. That’s why Jesus called Disciples to “Follow me”.

And when people struggled to believe He encouraged them to pay attention to the supernatural signs and wonders they witnessed first hand. Belief rooted solely in the intellect and philosophical thinking falls way too short of the revelation that invariably follows a personal encounter with Jesus, the Christ.

Why does this matter?

Because one of the most inspiring realities about God’s love made visible in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is His relationships with those who followed Him on earth – His Disciples. It’s in the context of those relationships that the extraordinary love and compassion of God is revealed despite the constant failures of those who followed – as best as they knew how.

After the resurrection the Disciples were commanded to wait in Jerusalem together and then, when empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, to go out into all the world to make more Disciples (not merely Believers). That’s what they proceeded to do…. through conversation, signs and wonders, ministry to the poor, and gathering together to Break Bread; to learn and to worship.

That’s what Jesus taught, what He modeled, and what He commissioned.

Disciples of Jesus desire to do what Jesus does. The reason being that those who don’t know Jesus yet also need to see what difference He makes in the lives and relationships of those who claim to believe. The Church should be the place where they bear witness to such a reality. Unfortunately there are too many bad experiences that cause us to become disillusioned and to pull away.

Disciples declare that while our struggle with Church can be infuriating we are not left with the option to ‘live apart’. That’s like saying I believe in marriage but I’m not willing to be committed to a relationship that invariably will include challenges alongside the joys. More importantly, at the heart of our ‘belief’ is the revelation of God’s love in Jesus that He’s never abandoned or ‘pulled away’ from us. And God knows we deserve that response!  The grace we receive we’re invited to ‘pay forward’.

We love the Church because Jesus calls it ‘His Bride’. We treasure and value what He treasures and values. So to be a disciple of Jesus has to draw us into relationship and community with others. We cannot sit with our Bibles having devotionals in the rocking chair on our porch and think that’s being a Christian Disciple. That’s a Believer…….

Someone sent me a “note with a quote” from Carlo Carretto about the Church. See which phrases you identify with:

How baffling you are, oh Church,

and yet how I love you!

How you have made me suffer,

and yet how much I owe you!

I should like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence.

You have given me so much scandal and yet you have made me understand sanctity.

I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity,

more compromised, more false,

and I have touched nothing more pure,

more generous, more beautiful.

How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face,

and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms.

No, I cannot free myself from you, because I am you,

although not completely.

And where should I go?

We all struggle with disappointments and expectations that remain unfulfilled and unrealized. Many of our thoughts and experiences relating to ‘the Church’ fall into that category. I grew up hearing how it was important to ‘go to church’ and when I attended there were all kinds of irritants and distractions. Then I was ordained and the pressure was to be cookie-carved into a status quo church with a status quo vision as a status quo priest. For many years I was confused, guilty, disillusioned, and frustrated.

I’ve surrendered my life to serve God and follow Jesus, and for some extensive time that became muddled with humbly submitting within the context of a denomination, structures, and hierarchical leadership. Every phrase in the quote above is my testimony, as I’m sure it’s yours.

However my greatest freedom has come when I’ve embraced the messiness and acknowledged that my experience with the Church is very similar to my life. I desperately fight for my leg to be healed when it’s broken, my heart to be healthy, my blood to be free of cancer, my ears to be unblocked, and my eyes to see well. When something goes wrong I contend for their restoration, because they are all I have……

That’s what Jesus feels about each one of us… we matter and He contends for us. That’s what He feels about His bride, the Church. He’s committed, He’s passionate, and He’s deeply in love with her. Are you, am I?

Believer, or Disciple?