The last thing I thought I saw, before my burning eyes
clinched shut, was Laurie walking toward me out of our sliding
glass doors with a look of utter delight. It was a look I don’t
often see on her face especially on a day like this.
I couldn’t wait to get my eyes open again to see if that’s what
I’d really seen, but a gust of wind had blown a cloud of smoke
into my eyes and they were watering fiercely. As I grimaced,
waiting for the pain to subside, I could hear the chicken sizzling
on the barbeque in front of me and the surrounding laughter
and conversation of forty or so people who filled our backyard.
Before I could open my eyes I felt her hand on my shoulder and
heard her whisper in my ear.
“You’ll never guess who I have been talking to!” She was
taunting me playfully and I had never seen her this relaxed with
her yard full of people waiting to eat.
“So that’s where you’ve been,” I said blinking my eyes rapidly
against the pain as I fought to see clearly. “The chicken will be
done in about 20 minutes and nothing looks like it’s ready.”
“Relax,” she grinned. “We’re here to have fun, not to put on
a production.” The smirk told me she knew this was as out of
character for her as I did.
“Come on , guess! You’ll never believe who stopped by!”
“I don’t know. Your sister?” She was Laurie’s favorite person
in the world, but they rarely get to see each other since she lives
five hours away.
“No,” Laurie said, her shoulder sagging a bit at the thought.
“That would be fun, too. It’s John.”
John? I thought as I ran through a list of last names. I
couldn’t figure out which one had excited her so much. But
her mockingly, exasperated how-stupid-can-you-be look, finally
made me realize who she was talking about.
Where is he?”
I said looking around her at the house and feeling
silly that he hadn’t come to mind first.
It had been almost a year since I’d seen him and I had long ago given up the thought of
seeing him again. “He went to freshen up,” Laurie answered.
“He said he’d stay and enjoy the meal with us.”
“Why didn’t you get me sooner?”
“I tried, but he said you looked busy and he wanted to help
me with the salad and relish tray. We had the best talk, Honey.
He made me feel as if I’d known him all my life and could tell
or ask him anything. In fact, he helped me sort through some
things that have hurt me in this process.
I can’t wait to tell you all about it.”
“And I can’t wait to hear it.”
“I wonder if your first impression about John might be right
“Now, you think he’s John the disciple? Why would you say that?”
“I don’t know… There’s something about him—depth, certainly,
and when he talks to you, you know he really cares about
you as an individual. I’ve never met anyone like him. He says
the strangest things that are at one level so incredibly simple,
and yet on another challenge your religious comfort zone by
rearranging everything you’ve ever thought before.”
“I tried to tell you…”
“I know, but I never realized it was so freeing. Do you think
he could be the John?”
“Why don’t you ask him?” I smirked, knowing she never would.
“I’d feel like an idiot,” she said, motioning to the house as John appeared.
“There you are!” John called, walking out the door and
heading toward the barbeque.
“I hear you’re pretty good kitchen help,” I said, grabbing him
about the neck and pulling him in for a hug. “It is so good to see you.”
“You, too! You have a big party today, I see!”
“We didn’t mean to. We were going to invite a few folks
over, but somehow lost control and people started asking us
if they could come.” We looked over the yard at the spirited
volleyball game in the left corner, with a healthy dose of heckling
spectators in the shade, a swimming pool full of happy
splashers, some pockets of conversations going on in various
shady spots and a ping-pong table filled with food and underlined
with ice chests full of soft drinks and a freezer or two of
home-made ice cream.
“This is great. Are you sure I’m not crashing anything?”
“Of course you are, but we’d love to have you. It’s been so
long, I wondered if I’d ever see you again.”
“I actually came to town to visit some other people. They are
in bad shape at the moment—angry over some congregational
politics that have wasted them. But Father is doing something
wonderful in them through it. They said they knew of you, and
I wanted to give you their number,” he said, pulling a piece of
paper out of his pocket. “I told them I’d ask you to call them.”
“We’d love to” Laurie said, snatching the paper from his
hand and heading back inside.
“So how are you doing, Jake?”
“It’s an adventure, John, to be sure. We’ve been through
some incredible ups and downs since we were last together.”
“Ahh, so you must have taken that pastoring job!”
I’d forgotten all about that and the thought made me explode with laughter, “Yeah! Right!”
“Why not? Steady income, credible job, personal validation?
Weren’t those the important things to you when we first met?”
Wow! That was a long time ago. I began to think back over
the four years since I’d met John. In some ways it seemed so
“It’s crazy, John. I don’t even think about those
things anymore. I am having so much fun sorting out this life in
Jesus and helping others do so, that I’m not even worried about
what others think, or about my career.”
“So what has happened?” John asked as I turned the chicken on the flaming grill.
“I couldn’t begin to summarize it. Look around you and
you’ll see most of it. God has opened up so many relationships
to us and we’re seeing people capture a hunger for Jesus like we
haven’t seen since the earliest days in this faith. We are seeing
new people come to know him and others growing in him. I
rarely have a conversation now where Jesus isn’t the focus of it somehow.”
“And were you able to get your old pastor and Diane together?”
“We did and I can’t tell you how excited I am about how that
has sorted out. If we get some time alone, I’ll tell you about it,”
I said with a nod at people nearby to indicate we could easily be overheard.
“I’d love to hear it. Are you still working real estate?”
“A little, when people ask me to help, but I’m not trying to
build that business. I’m spending most of my time helping
people sort out their relationship to God. I’ve been asked to
share my story with various groups and spend time with people
who are at critical moments in their own journey. I’m so excited
to watch him change lives as I just help them get free from the
condemnation that makes them feel excluded from Father’s affection.
“As I read the life of Jesus now, I see more clearly that’s
what he was doing—freeing people from shame so that they
could embrace his Father. And I’m seeing that with increasing
freedom in my own life too. That’s probably the greatest gift
you’ve given me, John. I no longer labor under the oppressive
guilt of how far I fall short, nor under the demanding obligations
of self-produced righteousness. And I’m no longer putting
that on others.”
“I never realized how much of what I thought was ministry
was only manipulating people’s shame—whether it was to
make them feel guilty for falling short or to earn other people’s approval.”
“That’s what religion is, Jake. It’s a shame-management
system, often with the best of intentions and always with the worst of results.”
“But it did work, at least externally.”
“Yes, but it only drove the bondage even deeper.
In the end people are still addicted to shame and bounce between
self-pity and self-glory,
never finding freedom to simply live in him.
It makes people think God wants a cause and effect relationship with them.
If they’ll be good, he’ll be good to them.”
“I’m now seeing that’s why so many people live alienated from him. I visited two terminally ill people in the last month
and both of them were distraught over the idea that they had done something wrong to deserve it, though they weren’t sure what. It took a long time to get beneath the surface of their pat answers, but they both finally admitted how angry they were at God for not healing them and full of guilt for having such thoughts.”
“Most never own up to that anger because they’re afraid
something worse will happen to them. So they go on feeling
as if God is unfair to them and they are never able to resolve
that—sort of like you were in the hospital that night.”
“I remember it well, John. I love how God has been changing
me one small bit at a time. Sometimes I don’t even notice he’s
doing that until I’m in a situation and I watch myself respond in
ways I never would have before. I am enjoying immensely the
Jake he is allowing to emerge.”
“Just like a butterfly taking wing from its cocoon, Jake. Isn’t
it sad that we thought we could press people into spiritual
change, instead of helping them grow to trust Father more and
find him changing them? You can’t press a caterpillar into a
butterfly mold and make it fly. It has to be transformed from the inside.”
“And it is so much more exciting lifting shame off of people
than burdening them down with it.
No wonder Christian fellowship has to be sold as an obligation.
Who would want to hang out with people who are always laying a guilt-trip on you
pressuring you to meet their expectations?”
“Which is why body life often ends up so performance-based and manipulative.
Isn’t this so much better?” John said surveying the yard.
I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but nodded in agreement.
“I’ve even started posting the story of our conversations
on a web site, John. I hope you don’t mind. The response has
been incredible. People all over the world have been on similar
journeys, rethinking their life in him and what life as his church
can be. It seems that many people are seeing through the emptiness
of religious form.
I’ve lost count of the people who have told me that my story reflects theirs in so many ways, except for
you of course. One guy was even upset that in all his desperation to sort out God’s life, he hadn’t met you if you were still
a….” Oops! I thought it best not to finish that sentence.
But John wouldn’t let me off so easily. “Still what, Jake?
What have you told them?”
“I left it open that you might be John the disciple of Jesus.
You know I wondered that in the beginning, so I’ve been honest about that.”
“And what conclusion have you come to?” John looked up with a smirk.
“I don’t know. Jesus told Peter that it was possible.
And you’ll have to admit, some incredible things have happened in
my life since we met. You seem to have a grip on this journey
like no one I’ve met before. You’ve confirmed some of my
deepest hopes and helped me live them more freely. So the
question of who you are has honestly become far less important
to me. But I’ll admit to being curious. And you’ve never denied it.”
John smiled and just as he opened his mouth we were interrupted.
Marvin came over and threw his arms around John
from behind. “Look who’s here!”
John turned around and smiled. “Marvin, isn’t it?”
“You remembered? That’s amazing. I saw you over here
with Jake and thought I’d get in on the action. No one told me
you were coming.”
“They didn’t know either. I just happened by. You were a
pastor at one time, too, weren’t you?”
“I won’t focus on your sins if you won’t focus on mine,” Marvin laughed.
“You can focus on mine, if you like. It just leaves me more in awe of him,” John answered.
Marvin laughed awkwardly like he couldn’t quite find the
joke that surely had to be there. After a bit more banter between
them, John turned back to me. “I notice quite a few people are
here from that home group. How is that going, Jake?”
“There isn’t much ‘that’ to talk about, John. We’ve never
gotten back to any kind of regular meeting since your visit. I
don’t know why, really, but the relationships have grown and
we see each other often. It hasn’t bothered me, but sometimes
I wonder if it should.”
“Well, it bothers me,” Marvin said.
“And why is that?” John asked
“Because I don’t feel like I’m doing anything that counts?”
“I don’t know. That’s the funny part.” Marvin said, shaking his head and sighing in frustration.
“I’ve never had more fruitful relationships and I’m seeing people from my own neighborhood
and at work open their lives to Jesus. It seems I’m with people all the time.”
“And that’s not productive?”
“I don’t know if ‘productive’ is the right word. It just doesn’t
seem focused somehow. Some folks I know aren’t finding fellowship
like I have. They seem adrift without the focus that
regular fellowship provides. If our old group was meeting, I’d invite them.”
“And what would that change?” John asked.
“I don’t know. I think it would anchor them somehow to
a group.” It looked like Marvin expected John to answer, and
when he didn’t, the awkwardness kept him going. “They need
something.” He paused again but John still wasn’t biting.
“Some identity, I guess.”
“Would a meeting provide that, or would it simply mask the lack of it?” John asked.
I just kept turning the sizzling chicken grateful I wasn’t the one being grilled this time.
“My hope would be that it would provide focus and motivation.”
“So that comes from a meeting?” John asked.
Marvin just looked at John with a confused look on his face.
I’m not sure he knew what to say or perhaps he was trying John’s technique.
“It would help, wouldn’t it?” Marvin finally blurted out a bit frustrated.
John put his arm on Marvin’s shoulder. “I am not trying to frustrate you.
But it is important that you think these things through.
If you’re going to have a meeting to hopefully provide
some focus, it will probably turn out to be more distracting than helpful.
People will come to the meeting thinking …
that’s their focus … and in time it will prove insufficient for that.”
“Why?” Marvin’s tone had softened a bit.
“Because it is knowing Father that provides the motivation.
Meetings are a poor substitute for that.”
“So we just sit around and do nothing?” Marvin’s frustration resurfaced.
“Who said anything about doing nothing? I am only encouraging
you not to start a meeting just to start a meeting.
Every time people see God moving, someone has to build a building
or start a movement. Peter was that way at the Transfiguration.
When He couldn’t think of anything else to do, he proposed
a building program. If you’re going to walk this way, Marvin,
you’ve got to find freedom from the overestimation of your own capabilities.”
“My what?” Marvin laughed. “I don’t even know what that means.”
“It means that the work of building the church is his, not yours or mine. Don’t think you can put something together
by your own ingenuity. That has been tried a zillion times in the last 2,000 years, always with the same results. Sure it’s fun initially, and the excitement of seeing God touch lives overshadows our own attempts to organize it.
But that doesn’t last forever. Eventually people end up cemented into that which is designed to protect God’s life among them. But it often ends up shoving him out in deference to their own wisdom.
We’re just not bright enough to control the ways in which God works.”
“Nor would I want to,” Marvin answered.
John smiled, “Which is why we’re having this conversation…”
“But what is the church, John, if it’s not getting together regularly?”
“I’m not saying it can’t meet, Marvin, I’m just saying that
meetings won’t accomplish what you’re looking for. Look around you,”
John’s hand swept the back yard, “Aren’t people together all over?”
“You’re calling this a church, John?” Marvin was as surprised as I was.
“Yeah! I thought it was a barbecue,” I added.
“No, I’m saying the church is here. Here are people who love him. Over the course of this day they will share a lot of his life together, I’m sure. Jesus said it only takes two or three and he never said anything about having to do it at the same time, same place or same way every week. He didn’t seem to think of the church as something we do at all, or even go to,
but a reality we live in every day.
“Don’t you see you’re already doing it?
Living as his body we will encourage each other daily and stimulate each other to love
more deeply and to live more graciously. It can be as simple as having a barbeque.”
“Even without worship or Bible study?” Marvin asked.
“We’re already talking about how Father works, aren’t we?
And worship isn’t having a song service or prayer time, Marvin.
It’s living as a daily sacrifice in the life of Jesus, which is letting him demonstrate his reality through you.
This is the joy of living in the kingdom—watching him work in you. But I’m sure
if someone here wants to pull together some people to sing,
praise or pray, others would want to and it would be awesome.
It looks like those people over there are praying.” John pointed
to a group on the patio who were holding hands in a circle.
“But it’s not what we learned to call church.”
“Of course not! It can’t be this easy. It can’t be this much fun.
We have to work at it more, be more miserable. Don’t you see that’s how the life of the kingdom is snatched from your
hearts?” John shook his head with a sigh. “There will be trouble enough as you move along in this world. Wouldn’t you rather share life together as believers with joy and encouragement?”
“But how will new believers grow, John. Don’t we need teaching?”
“What are we doing now? I’m trying to help you discover
something that will set you free in ways you can’t even imagine.
Isn’t that teaching?”
“But not everyone’s involved. Some are missing out.”
“They might be missing this conversation, but I doubt they
are missing out on what God wants to do in them today. He’s pretty good at that.”
“Are you saying it is better not to have a meeting where we all share together?”
“It’s not a matter of what’s better.
It’s a matter of what’s real.
There are lots of ways the church can celebrate its life together.
At the moment you only seem to grasp one of them. Seeing the
church as a reality instead of an activity will allow you to celebrate
the church however she expresses herself around you.
I wouldn’t say this is better. But it certainly isn’t worse. Lots of
incredible things will happen today because you’re together.
“Sometimes that life is best expressed in a conversation like
this. Sometimes it’s best expressed in a larger conversation that
a meeting might facilitate. When you can only see it one way,
you miss so many other ways in which Father works. Instead of
thinking about what kind of meeting or group we should have,
ask what would help people best grow in his life. Jake had some
good thoughts on that a few minutes ago.”
“What?” I said, pulling the last of the chicken off the grill.
I was unsure what John was referring to. “We weren’t talking
about the church, were we?”
“Sure we were. People learning to live in relationship to
Father in freedom from shame is the core of body life. Find out
how to share that life and you’ll be the body.”
Marvin was set to ask another question, but I picked up the
platter of chicken and motioned them to follow me over where
the rest of the food had all been laid out and people were gathering.
I welcomed everyone, made reference to John joining
us and asked if he would pray for us. He smiled back at me,
paused a minute, scanned the table, and then nodded.
“Let’s all get an empty cup,” John said, taking a stack of paper
cups and passing them to those nearby. Then he picked up a
loaf of bread sitting at the table. He started to tear the bread
into chunks and passing it to those near him. “Everyone grab a
piece.” Then, with a wink at Laurie, he picked up a pitcher of
grape juice she had just put on the counter by the window. He
poured a few cups near him and handed the pitcher to Jeremy to
pour the rest. As soon as everyone had some, John lifted up the
bread in his hand and others followed his lead. John thanked
God for all his provision, from the food on the table, to forgiveness
of sin, to good friends and above all for life in the Son.
“His body was broken that your spirits might be alive. Think
about that and him as you eat.” And we all did so.
Then John held up his cup. “This is the blood of his covenant that cleanses
our sin and refreshes our spirit. This is the last meal he ate that
night with his followers, and he promised we would do it again
in the age that is coming.
“To our King, our Redeemer and older brother in Father’s
house…” John said lifting his cup and pausing briefly. Others
quickly joined the toast expressing their gratefulness to Jesus.
Finally, John finished. “Until we see you face to face…,” he
said looking upward. Then he turned to acknowledge those
near him with a tap of his cup to theirs. And then we drank
together and stood in silence awed by his grace and our love for
each other. Eventually the silence gave way to some hugs and
finally a line formed for the food.
After we filled our plates, our conversation with John continued
with a number of others who joined us on the patio.
After some introductions, Marvin took us back to where we left
off. “I love your view of the church, John, but do we do this every week?”
“How about it, Jake?”
“Only if we have it at Marvin’s house and let him cook,” I suggested.
“It might help you to not think about what you do every week,
but rather about what Jesus is asking you to do today.
You obviously have a heart for people you feel are being overlooked.
That’s fabulous. But don’t think in terms of a routine to motivate
them, but what Jesus is asking you to do to encourage or
equip them. It’s that simple.”
“Like inviting them over to dinner.”
“Yes, or even to invite some to a study together if that’s on your heart.”
“That’s what I’ve wanted to do, but I felt like that might be weird.”
“What if you just invited some of those people to your house
for a six-week study on some facet of our life in God? I think
some people would jump at that.”
“What do I do when that’s over?”
“Whatever he gives you to do next. Remember, equip
people to live in him first; then you’ll see how he brings his
body together. Don’t get me wrong. I love it when a group
of Christians want to intentionally walk together as an expression
of community—listening to God together, sharing their
lives and resources, encouraging and caring for each other and
doing whatever else God might ask them to do. But you can’t
organize that with people who aren’t ready.
Remember, discipleship always comes before community.
When you learn to follow Jesus yourself and help others to do the same, you’ll find
body life springing up all around you.“
“But what does that look like?”
“It can look like anything. I know people who meet for hikes
in the woods and breakfast under the trees. I know families
that have moved to the same neighborhood together so they
can enjoy greater proximity to each other. I know some really
healthy house churches that live out a shared life together and
those who meet in larger buildings. I know others who work on
a team together to build houses for the poor, cook at a mission,
or some other creative way to let the life of Jesus be known in
“It can look like a hundred different things because Father is
so creative. Try to copy any of them and you’ll find it turns lifeless
and empty after the initial excitement of starting something
new fades away. The church thrives where people are focused
on Jesus, not where they are focused on church.
“This is a great time to learn to enjoy him together. Just keep
living, loving and listening and he will lead you to whatever
expression of church life best fits his plans. Don’t be concerned
if it’s nothing you can point to and say, ‘that is the church’. You
are the church. Don’t be afraid to live in that reality.”
“If church can be this simple, John, how do leaders fit in all
of this? Don’t we need elders and pastors and apostles?”
“Doesn’t someone need to be in charge and organize things
so people will know what to do?” Marvin was almost beside
himself. I cringed inside knowing he wasn’t going to hear what
“Why, so people can follow someone else instead of following
Jesus? Don’t you see we already have a leader? The
church gives Jesus first place in everything and it will refuse to
let anyone else crawl up in his seat.”
“So leaders aren’t important either?”
“Not the way you’ve been taught to think of them. One can
hardly conceive of body life today without an organization and a
leader shaping others with his vision. Some love to lead; others
desperately want to be led. This system has made God’s people
so passive most can’t even imagine living without a human
leader to identify with. Then we wonder why our spirituality
falls so painfully short. Read through the New Testament again
and you’ll find there is very little focus on anything like leadership
as we’ve come to think of it today.”
“But there were elders and apostles and pastors, weren’t there?”
“There were, but they weren’t out front leading people after
their personal visions, they were behind the scenes doing exactly
what you have on your heart to do, Marvin—helping people to
live deeply in Christ so that he can lead them! Elders won’t end
up managing machinery, but equipping followers by helping
them find a real relationship with the living God. That’s why he
asked us to help people become his disciples and why he said
that he would build his church. Let’s focus on our task and let
him do his.”
“But where do we find this kind of leader today?”
“Don’t look for leaders as you’ve come to think of them,
think of brothers and sisters who are a bit further along the
journey than you are. They’re all around you—in this city and
“But how do we know who they are if they’re not designated?”
“My question would be, how do we know if they really are servant
leaders just because they have a title? Haven’t you known
many so-called pastors or elders who didn’t have the spiritual
maturity to back it up? Didn’t Jesus tell us that those who facilitate
within this family are not those who exercise authority over
others, but those who serve? Is it really that difficult to tell who
they are?” John asked.
“I think I’d prefer name badges,” Marvin said as we all laughed.
Just then a middle-aged single mom was walking behind me
to join some others out on the grass. As I nodded and smiled,
she paused and spoke to me quietly, “Could I ask you something, Jake?”
“Of course, Christie.”
“I’m worried about my car,” she said. “It made some strange
noise coming over here and I’d feel better if someone could
check it out for me.”
“I’d be happy to, but I really don’t know that much about it.
Do you know Bob over there in the blue shirt,” I said, pointing.
She looked and nodded, “Not well, but I’ve met him.”
“He knows more about cars than anyone here. I’ll ask him to
check it out for you.”
“That’d be great,” she said, moving on to join some others.
As I turned back I realized the others had been listening to
our conversation and John was looking right at me. “It’s as
simple as that,” John said, with an open hand gesturing to me.
None of us knew what he was talking about. Our awkward
silence demonstrated that.
“Why did Jake send Christie to Bob?”
“He’s a car guy,” one of the others said. “Everyone knows
that. It’s his passion.”
“I don’t think Christie did, and Jake just simply pointed him
out. Finding God’s gifts in the family can be that simple. Jesus
will give you relationships to pursue. As you grow in them you’ll
know what he’s gifted others to do. It’s not so clandestine that
most people won’t know it. And when you find someone who
doesn’t recognize gifts in others, you can help them by pointing
them out. That may have been all Paul asked Timothy and Titus
to do. They certainly weren’t appointing management teams.
Couldn’t they have just identified those who knew the truth of
the Gospel and had been changed by it? Others who claimed
to be weren’t, and Paul didn’t want young believers confused
“And that works?” Marvin said shaking his head.
“Better than anything else I know,” John answered. “We can
trust Jesus with this! He’s a far better manager of church life
than any of us will ever be. Live in him and follow whatever he
puts on your heart to do and you’ll be awed by what he does
“People think we’re odd already,” Laurie added.
With a good laugh, John stood up and apologized for having
to leave. People groaned, hoping they could ask him some
“Can we do this again?” Marvin asked.
“I’d love to if it works out, but that’s not my decision.”
“But we have so many other things we would love to ask!”
someone else added.
“Then ask Jesus,” John responded. “I could answer questions
all day and it wouldn’t make a difference. This life can’t
be all sewn up neatly in the intellect; it must be uncovered in the
journey. He’ll make things clear to you as you need them.”
With that he tossed his plate in the garbage and headed out
the side gate.