The pandemic has pushed us to relearn church as something more than a weekly tourist destination.
This post was adapted from a message given by Seth Evans,
a preacher at Grandview Christian Assembly
With two hundred and fifty rooms, and located on eight thousand acres, the Biltmore is the largest house in North America. The Vanderbilt family constructed it and called it home, but with the family presence dwindling, after fifty years’ time it was converted into a tourist attraction, complete with long lines. My father-in-law told me that though he had been interested in a tour, the length of that line alone had been enough to dissuade him.
When the Biltmore changed from residence to tourist site, it stopped being a home. This is also largely true of the church. Somewhere along the way, people subscribed to the idea that the church was better as an organizational entity than a family. We’ve adopted the view, therefore, that a real church has stunning facilities, a world class band, a celebrity pastor with an all-star team, and programs for every life situation. These things, we have long assumed, make Jesus happy.
None of these extras are intrinsically bad, yet by the same token, the Bible describes none of them as essential for church life, either. If they had been critical, then Christian church life would never have survived political oppression or overt persecution. Nor will it endure COVID-19.
The real Church life that Jesus calls home finds a better description in John chapter 12—the little house in Bethany. There we find the healthy components of resurrection life, service, and sacrificial love for Christ.
“Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead” (v. 1).
Jesus intentionally stopped at Bethany, before going on to Jerusalem to do the hardest work in human history—being crucified for the sins of the world. He sought to spend time with a few people He had deeply affected, and among them, were principles that forever speak to us whenever we meet.
First there was Lazarus, a man whom Jesus had raised from the dead back in John 11. He was there, representing resurrection life, and all believers in Christ. Ephesians 2:5-6 says, that God, “Even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
When we, as believers, gather together, it is a gathering of those who have been enlivened, raised up, and seated together with Christ. It is a house whose primary experience is eternal life.
2 So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table.
Bethany was a time of spiritual feasting, with Martha serving the main course. Martha has received a bad rap, because of her complaints at other times about serving, while others didn’t. Here, though, we don’t see a begrudging service, but one of spiritual health, like in Romans 12, where it says, “Do not be slothful in zeal, but in spirit serve the Lord.” You could say her work was coupled with Lazarus’s resurrection, making it a resurrected service. This life and service then roll into verse 3, with a third healthy component seen in Mary.
3 Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
A pound of this costly ointment, about the size of a cup of coffee or a can of Coke, was a year’s worth of wages, valued at today’s ten thousand dollars. This was her sacrificial love toward Jesus, her very best, and once she poured it on His feet, she wiped His feet with her hair. In First Corinthians chapter 11, a woman’s hair is her glory, her self-worth, and she laid it all down for Him, essentially saying, “You are worth everything I have and all that I am.”
The sacrificial aroma filling the house was also in her hair, so wherever Mary went, the fragrance of Christ was sure to follow her. It was an aroma pleasing to God, the same aroma you and I have when we pour out out all that we have upon Christ—“for we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2 Cor. 2).
And so when we gather together into the little house experience at Bethany, it is as resurrected people, serving one another, and loving Christ. Not all is so beautiful, though. “Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given o the poor?’ He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it” (vv. 4-6).
Many times a person shows up in Bethany, who just doesn’t get it. They want to use Jesus, or the things of Jesus to look admirable, but they have goals not driven by their love for Him. In this case, Judas’s alleged social concern for the poor, normally a righteous, biblical one, subtly masked his self-seeking. And like in a lot of people (ourselves unfortunately included), such feigned concerns over certain issues actually demonstrate a lack of clarity about the value of Christ.
Jesus addressed Judas head-on in verses 7-8, when he defends Mary’s selfless outpouring: “Leave her alone so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” This brief word exposed the man’s muddled inward condition, and prevented it from becoming a new normal among the disciples. Far from celebrating the camouflage of self-righteousness, the little house experience exposes secret motivations. Such hidden reasonings find home in us more often than we’d like to admit. But where Christ is present among gathered, honest, listening hearts, He addresses the depths of a person in prophetic ways.
1 Cor. 14:24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.
The little house fellowship, full of resurrection, service, and love, bring opportunities for Christ to transform us from the inside out. If we’re willing.
My first experience of this dynamic happened back when I was a college student in Cleveland. I lived for a couple of years in a house full of Christian guys, or should I say, characters. There was a Polish guy from Parma, two Italian brothers from Cleveland, an uber-nerdy fellow from the west side of Cleveland, a farm boy from Pennsylvania, another guy from Taiwan, and then another from Oregon, and another from central Ohio. The Lord had put us together, and we took a further step to enter church fellowship together with others.
We had a habit of hanging around after the church meeting, informally sharing with one another about the songs and hymns we sang, and what components of the message had illuminated, and inspired us. This enlivened us, and drew our attention to areas where we could serve one another. It was a golden time of the fellowship of the love of Christ between us.
Over the years, some of us tried to stay connected by using the convenience and the blessing of technology—Skype, Face Time, phone calls, just as many of us have recently experienced the same blessings today (including Zoom). While it was good, it also proved a lesser blessing when we could’ve gotten together. In person, it seemed, we always felt the flow of Bethany.
This isn’t just a sentimental tale from my past. Rather, this is something I’ve fought to carry with me into all the church experiences I’ve had since. As we’ve entered this new phase of church due to the pandemic, (which has become a little house literally in many aspects), Bethany is something we can start to experience together in a new way. It’s where we can practice intentionally being alert to the Lord’s presence, the resurrection life within one another, new ways of serving one another, new ways of showing sacrificial love to Jesus.
Just recently we’ve gathered in my home with a few others for worship on Sunday mornings. Zach and Keiko brought live spiritual songs (a lot better than my wife and I, by ourselves, singing along with the television), and that in turn, brought real resurrection to the group. Josh served by bringing chocolate chip, and poppy seed scones, with homemade whipped cream. It went nicely with the coffee I provided. And of course because we love the Lord, we open our home for the event. We provide for COVID-19 precautions, and my wife also does a deep clean of all the common areas, so the others can feel safe here.
These days we’ve been called back to the scene of Bethany. This isn’t the poor cousin of “real church,” but fellowship on a different wavelength, one that Jesus can feel comfortable calling “Home.” The big deal for the past two thousand years is not only that God became like us, but that He came as us—incarnated—and now when we gather, we sense the same incarnate presence, the realization of Him in His life, and work, and love.