Life on the Altar Flows to Life in the Body of ChristApril 24, 2021 Drawing Near
When I was a freshman in high school, I had a football coach who was intense, very intense. His intensity was especially evident with players he didn’t like, players like me. At least that was true of my freshman year which was a proving ground in his mind. Thankfully, I survived Coach’s wrath that first season which led to an improved status for my future years of high school.
Coach had a mustache that resembled the look of a Viking on a conquest. He was the kind of man who during his tour-of-duty in Vietnam spent his free time killing water buffalos with his .50 caliber machine gun. In the strangest of contrasts, school administrators assigned him to teach driver’s education. I will always remember how he greeted the class as he looked out at us on that first day, “Well,” he scoffed, “This isn’t the freshman class at Harvard.” That was certainly an accurate assessment.
I remember his greeting every time I read the Apostle Paul’s charge to the Corinthian church, “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (I Corinthians 1:26-29)
Paul was saying to the Corinthians, and us, “Notice, your gathering is not made up of the ‘movers and shakers’ of the culture. Your curriculum vitae is not very impressive in the world’s eyes, but that’s okay. It’s okay because the church is not about you. The church is about showcasing God’s grace and glory through the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ.” What Paul said to the Corinthians, he also applied to himself as he reflected upon his conversion, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”
When Paul reflected on the makeup of the church, he didn’t congratulate them on their achievements or their resumes. Rather, he pointed out that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” (v.27) This is important to our understanding of New Testament teaching about the local church and how it should inform our expectations and involvement in the church that we attend.
Having served as a pastor of a local church for over 30 years now, I am quite aware of the good, the bad, and the ugly of church life. There have been a number of tough seasons when it was really hard to reconcile the exalted claims of the church in the New Testament with the reality of an ugly church problem. Some seasons of ministry have tempted me to move to Montana and get a shift at MacDonald’s. However, I have found that persevering through difficulties in church life has brought some of the richest blessings I have known as a believer. Many times I have been called to die to myself, and have come to see that any measure of fruit in ministry is not because of me, but because of God’s grace. God’s plan for believers to serve and grow is within the context of a local church family. This is where we learn to love, persevere, and serve. This is where we learn to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God.
From the Altar to Body Life
Paul’s progression in Romans 12 takes us from the altar where we present ourselves to God as living sacrifices to the importance of Body life for the believer. I don’t mean to suggest that we ever crawl off the altar, only that altar life necessarily leads to life in a local church. This theme will occupy the next series of posts as we follow Paul’s exhortation to the church in Romans 12. We will look first at the call to humility and how that is fostered in church life; we will then move to the practice of living the ‘one another’ commands; followed by the importance of spiritual gifts as we learn to give and receive from one another; and then we will close part two with a warning against neglecting the gathering of the church.
Humility is Cultivated Best in Body Life
When we taste of the mercies of God found in Christ, we begin to love what he loves. Nothing is clearer from the New Testament than Christ’s love for his church. Consequently, each believer is to be connected to a local body as an essential discipline in the Christian life. However, faithfulness to a local fellowship of believers is a waning practice in our culture. Bill Gates speaks for many when he said in a Time magazine interview some years ago, “Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on Sunday morning.” A recent Gallup poll bears witness to this mindset as American church membership has fallen below the majority for the first time. The poll followed church membership over the last 80 years with a peak of 76% following World War II, but the poll noted a sharp decline in the last twenty years to 47%. This is the first-time church attendance has fallen below 50% in the United States.
When I read statistics like this, my first take is that this poll covered all religions, not just Christianity, and my allegiance is to the gospel, not religiosity. My heartbreak over church decline is not driven by a desire to keep the club going as if it were a civic organization like Rotary or the Lions club. My mourning is for the state of the church. Early in my ministry I was able to hear T. W. Hunt teach on prayer. He had an effective ministry calling the church to prayer. In one session Hunt said that the problem of people not responding to the gospel is because the church is in such poor condition. Indeed, the times are desperate for a move of God, but the church is not, and that is evidenced by our neglect of Body life.
Pragmatism and lethargy bring obedience and discipleship to a screeching halt. Jesus said, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” Again, I’m not advocating a return to the “good ole days” where church attendance and religious observance were the prevailing norm. I’m calling those of us who name Christ as Lord to love what he loves by identify faithfully with a local body where we can carry out together the commands of our Savior.
Paul’s transition in Romans 12 makes this vital point for Christian living, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.”
In v. 3, we are called not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, and then Paul continues to speak of believers being in one body with many members. Church life is a discipline of grace in which we learn humility, in which we learn to follow Christ. God’s matriculation for believers is life lived in this context, in a family where we allow ourselves to be known, and where we get to know others. It is here we learn to walk in love and humility as we seek God’s kingdom together. The book of Acts captures a beautiful picture of a biblically functioning church. I would urge you to read Acts 2:42-47. From this passage we observe this young band of believers. Notice what they were doing:
1. They WORSHIPPED together. (2:42, 47)
2. They received INSTRUCTION together. (2:42)
3. They shared life in FELLOWSHIP. (2:44-47)
4. They expressed themselves through personal MINISTRY.
They were gathered and committed to live their lives in obedience to what Jesus Christ had commissioned them to do. This is the divine mandate given to every believer in every generation. In reading this account in Acts you get the impression that these early believers couldn’t have made it without one another. This is what I long for in my church and in yours. Jesus said that this world would know that we are followers of him if we have love one for another. Such an expression is best given through a church walking in humility and love for the glory of Christ.
Has your heart grown cold to the thought of church?
Have you been burned in a church conflict? Do you have memories that are not good?
Maybe you have just drifted away from church life for any number of reasons? Maybe you agree with Bill Gates and believe you could spend your time better doing something else?
I understand, but I would encourage you to return. Not because we are trying to keep the club open, or avoid foreclosure, but because God has purposed to display His glory through the church where the members are radically committed to the Lord and to one another. The local church is the epicenter of His kingdom purposes, and it is where believers need to give their best to Him who is worthy of it. See you Sunday!
2] Ephesians 5:25-33; Acts 2:42-47; Hebrews 10:25
 Accessed online April 23, 2021, Time Magazine, January 13, 1997
 Accessed online April 22, 2021, news.gallup.com, March 30, 2021
 Romans 12:3-6a
 Matthew 28:19-20
 John 13:35
 Ephesians 3:14-21