SESSION 8: SEEING JESUS: TRANSFORMING CONGREGATIONS
Matthew 14:22-33; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Below is the Individual Study Guide for Session 7 of Seeing Through the Eyes of Jesus, a new 8-session video series and digital curriculum resource from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Learn more at http://www.cbf.net/eyesofjesus.
By Paul Baxley, CBF Executive Coordinator
As congregations today we have to feel a lot like those disciples did on the stormy sea as described in Matthew 14:22-33. We face so many challenges, and they are well-chronicled by pastors, lay leaders, denominational officials, consultants and sociologists. It is hard to create an exhaustive list of the adverse winds, threatening waves and destructive elemental spirits that are at work all around us. Congregational life and the position of congregations in our communities and even in the personal lives of disciples of Jesus are changing dramatically and were doing so even before the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic only intensified all the changes within and challenges around.
In this incredibly difficult and challenging moment, what would it mean for our congregations to be so renewed through focus on Christ that we could step out of the battered boats in which we have been traveling and join Jesus in his mission and life? What would it mean for us to see our communities through the eyes of Jesus so much so that we had to act in them just as Jesus did? What would be required for us to embrace Jesus’ calling with new clarity in this time? Instead of allowing our vision of the present and future of our congregations to be defined by our challenges or sense of scarcity, could we see our gathered congregations as Jesus sees us and in so doing discover renewed passion and purpose? Might really seeing Jesus be the beginning of a renewal, even a reformation, in the lives of our congregations?
Before we go any further, we need to be clear about how Jesus sees congregations. The first clue we get for this is found in the earliest Gospel (Mark), when the writer describes the duties of the 12 apostles. Those apostles, who would become the foundation of the Church, were given three tasks. They were to be “with Jesus,” to “proclaim the message” and “cast out demons” (Mark 3:14). In other words, by being in relationship with Jesus and by being where he is, they were to join his ministry of preaching and miraculous transformation. Jesus gave them this identity even though they had no particular qualifications, and in spite of a whole host of liabilities and challenges that we see emerge as we get to know them better through the pages of the Gospels. Jesus clearly saw the apostles as an extension of his ministry and mission.
As we saw last session, this vision is confirmed and even expanded just before the ascension, when Jesus entrusts a much larger disciple community with the Great Commission, calling them to make disciples in all nations, to baptize, teach and encourage, to know of his presence with them always. So, just as in the beginning, he called the disciples to be with him and at the end, he promises to always be present with his Church. Always always means always. Always means that Jesus is with his Church in the face of pandemics and cultural shifts and internal transitions and intense social upheavals. Jesus never leaves us alone in storms. He is always coming to us and giving us the gifts and power we need to do what he needs us to do in order to extend his mission and ministry.
From the beginning of the Gospel to the end, the disciples who would become the foundation of the Church are entrusted with the same message, ministry and mission as Jesus himself. No wonder Paul would later write to the Corinthians that the Church is nothing less than the body of Christ (I Corinthians 12). Then, after a terrible and challenging season in the life of the church in Corinth, when his own authority and leadership had been challenged, Paul would still be so bold as to declare that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” But now “God has entrusted” the message and ministry of reconciliation to us.
God was in Christ! God is in us! The shifting of the location of God’s activity is dramatic: the Triune God was at work in the earthly ministry and life of Jesus. Now the Triune God is at work in the Church. With a great flourish, Paul punctuates 2 Corinthians 5 with the announcement “we are ambassadors for Christ.”
Paul writes as one who sees the Church as Jesus sees it. Just as Jesus had not limited Paul’s life and ministry because of his failures or shortcomings and just as Jesus did not give up on Peter when he began to sink, so now Paul sees the church at Corinth through the eyes of Jesus and calls those believers to live into the fullness of Christ’s vision, to share Christ’s message, ministry and mission so that through them, waves, winds and spirits might be conquered—not by force or might—but instead by relentless, resurrecting love.
Do we see our congregations as Jesus sees us? Do we see our lives together through the eyes of Jesus? If so, we will begin to recognize the extraordinary capacity of congregations gathered together—not because of intellectual agreement or political persuasion or sheer convenience or even some social media algorithm—but rather by a God who is in the business of raising the dead and making all things new.
One of the first definitions I ever heard of a Baptist church, though well intentioned, has become one of the silliest I ever heard. I can’t remember who first told me that a “Baptist church was a community of like-minded believers.” That’s just crazy. What holds us together is not agreement. It is the God who raised Jesus from the dead, who sent the Holy Spirit, who invited us to come to him, and who even now equips us so that we might walk on the waves of the stormy chaos of our time and join Christ’s transformation of the world.
One of the elemental spirits blowing in our time that particularly threatens congregations is this effort by so many to turn congregations into outposts for one political party or another, so that congregations are red or blue (like all the other spaces in our world). But the congregations Paul started in the middle of the first century were diverse in beautiful and challenging ways. Those first believers came from all walks of life. They were they racially and ethnically diverse and had to learn, sometimes through failure, how to share life together.
There are many communities in the United States today where Cooperative Baptist Fellowship congregations are some of the last places where people gather who don’t all vote, think and understand life in exactly the same ways. Is that challenging? Yes. Is it new? No. It goes all the way back to the first discipleship group that followed Jesus while trying to sort out life as a community of fishermen, tax collectors and zealots. And it certainly existed in Paul’s congregations, so much so that he had to write passages like I Corinthians 13 and Colossians 3:12-17 to help them discover a path toward a life together when all the elemental spirits were trying to blow them apart. But when disparate groups find ways to stay together, not by becoming a community defined by the superficial “virtues” of tolerance and moderation, but by seeing Jesus more clearly, by speaking to one another honestly, by sharing faith in vulnerable community and steadfast love, then they find even new ways to carry on in their life together as a witness to the message and ministry of reconciliation.
From the very beginning, the Triune God has been seeing so much more in congregations than we often see in them and in ourselves. Imagine how those first disciples felt in Acts 1, when Jesus told them that they, that small group of terrified believers, would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. It was unimaginable—except in the power of God. It must have seemed as crazy as one disciple stepping out of a boat to walk on a stormy sea! It requires a faithful boldness to see our life together as congregations as Jesus sees us and then begin to live according to that vision.
During these days of the coronavirus pandemic, I believe I have come to see congregations more and more as Jesus does because I have been inspired by the remarkable faithful agility exhibited by congregations and their leaders throughout the pandemic. I have been awed by the courage of pastors and lay leaders who have lifted their voices to preach a gospel of love, to bring good news to the poor and release to the captives, even in the midst of all the terrifying winds of hatred and division that have blown among us. I have seen congregations find new ways to use their financial, physical and other resources toward healing, repair and renewal in their larger communities. It is as though in the midst of the storms, we began to summon a willingness to respond to Jesus’ summons to get out of the boat and be with him on the water.
Can you see your congregation as Jesus sees? Not in denial of the challenges, but held tight by the promise that Jesus made to always be with us, undergirded by the conviction that for Jesus always really means always. Can you open your eyes and see all the unique gifts you have been given to encourage one another in faith and to join Jesus in his mission of love? How can you use your collective voice for the holy purpose of Jesus’ mission? How can you use your resources? Your facilities?
I’ve reached the conclusion that one of the biggest challenges faced by many congregations is that we underestimate our capacity to be agents through whom the Lord’s Prayer finds an answer in our communities. I believe a congregation gathered by the Triune God and placed in a particular community is uniquely equipped and positioned to further Christ’s mission.
How is your congregation positioned to bring good news to the poor? To offer release to those held in captivity by racial injustice as well as those who are held captive by the dangerous heresy of white supremacy? How is your congregation poised to offer community to people who feel isolated, alone and ignored? How might your congregation be positioned to bring people together across your community to work for the common good and the healing of the broken fabric of our society? In what ways is Jesus asking you to step out and walk with him in the midst of the storms?
Each one of us comes into a Baptist congregation by either making a profession of faith in Jesus and being baptized, or by renewing our profession of faith as we seek membership in that church. This means that the very center of our life together is Jesus and our faith in him. What would it mean for us to see him, ourselves, our communities and our calling so clearly that faithfulness to him is always our highest priority?
If we did, we would find ourselves speaking boldly, acting redemptively, and sharing a kind of life that would be a witness to an extraordinary life that is only possible because God raised Jesus from the dead, sent the Holy Spirit, invited us into the midst of the divine life, constantly equips us for bold faithfulness so that we can participate in Christ’s transformation of the world. We would begin to walk, live, love and serve like Jesus right in the midst of the storms. Our congregations would be transformed, and we would be in the midst of that transformation.
When Jesus looks at us, that’s what he sees. Will we see him clearly enough to join in? How might we begin to practice stepping out on the storms? What opportunities do we have to speak, act and live?
Invest in Community
By Harrison Litzell
Rather than working through questions this week, we invite you to invest in community. Find some way to connect with others, whether in your faith community or outside it. It should not be an evangelistic opportunity nor does it need to hold any solemn conversation or reflection on these sessions. Simply enjoy being together and know it is for community that you are made.
Here are some ideas:
1. Call or reach out to a friend and ask how they are. If they are nearby, invite them to a local park for a walk together.
2. Host someone (or many someones) for a meal in your home.
3. Find an event in your community (farmer’s market, music event, theater program, block party, etc.) and attend. Keep an eye out for people who are alone or meet up with friends and enjoy the larger community.
Jesus, as we continue to follow you, may we keep our eyes focused on you. May our eyes be open to those hurting around us so that we will respond. May our eyes look at people as your creation and give them the love they deserve.
May we open our eyes to the world and see the beauty you have made for us to enjoy. And may we open our eyes wide to see that we are a reflection of you, having be made in your image which makes us not just special but loved all the days of our lives. It is in the name of the giver of life, Jesus, that we pray together, Amen.
Seeing Through the Eyes of Jesus is a new resource from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship that calls us back to the central focus of our Christian faith—the Risen and Living Jesus!
Access this free 8-session video series and digital curriculum resource at https://www.cbf.net/eyesofjesus
- Missing Jesus—Seeing Through the Eyes of Jesus (Session 1)
- Jesus is Lord—Seeing Through the Eyes of Jesus (Session 2)
- Really Seeing—Seeing Through the Eyes of Jesus (Session 3)
- The Danger of Distraction—Seeing Through the Eyes of Jesus (Session 4)
- A Community to Check Our Vision—Seeing Through the Eyes of Jesus (Session 5)
- Seeing Jesus and Claiming Jesus’ Mission—Seeing Through the Eyes of Jesus (Session 6)
- Seeing Jesus: Transforming Me—Seeing Through the Eyes of Jesus (Session 7)