I don’t know if you know this, but the AVERAGE church lives as long as the AVERAGE human. Yes, churches usually last about 70–100 years. So what is the secret to a church vibrantly continuing for over a hundred years? I hate to ruin the suspense, but I already gave away the answer in the title of this article: being UNITED IN CHRIST.
Think back with me to the start of the whole thing — when Jesus walked this earth in human form and called the VERY FIRST PEOPLE to follow Him, the TWELVE DISCIPLES. We have all studied these guys all our lives, and we THINK we know about them. But we can’t help but mentally “Photoshop” them into nicer guys than they really were. Imaginative paintings of them crowd the great museums. Statues of them look so noble decorating the halls and walls of cathedrals around the world.
To be honest, I think that if THEY (the Twelve) could see how they are depicted in these masterpieces, they would laugh so loud that the museum would call security! Or maybe they’d be so DISGUSTED with all the pedestals and caricatures of themselves that … well … you wouldn’t want to see them angry.
Remember James and John? Jesus gave them the nickname “Sons of thunder.” If there were ever two brothers ready for a bar fight, it might have been them!! These two guys were so short-tempered that they literally asked Jesus’s permission to call down heavenly napalm on an entire village of men, women, and children just because the village didn’t make them feel welcomed.
I’m not sure how big and burly Simon Peter was, but here is a clue to his character: He was the boss that James and John had to answer to. He was the alpha dog on the docks! If you’ve ever known a dockworker or a sailor, I don’t have to tell you that disputes by THOSE guys aren’t settled over a cup of tea and a conversation.
So at first I thought Peter was probably the toughest hombre in the bunch … until I realized reading Matthew 8 that Matthew lived in the same fishing village, Capernaum, which means that Matthew worked down near the docks, strong-arming for Rome a portion of EVERY LAST CATCH of fish that Peter, James, and John hauled in. They worked all night to catch the fish, and he sat at the end of the dock to take as fat a percentage of their catch as he could. You can imagine how they felt about this collaborator with the Romans who gouged them every chance he got. He was either the baddest dude you ever laid eyes on, or he had some serious Roman soldiers as his enforcers.
So for a while I thought maybe Matthew was the true alpha of the group … until I studied the Zealots. Two of Jesus’s disciples were named Simon. One was Simon Peter, and the other one is described as Simon the ZEALOT.
The word zealot means someone who is full of zeal, but this group was WAY MORE DANGEROUS THAN THAT. These guys hated the Romans so much that they were Jewish terrorists — the take-no-prisoners brand of violent extremists who thought that the only good Roman was a dead Roman and that they should make as many Romans good and dead as they could manage.
The Roman soldiers called the Zealots sicarii because the Zealots carried knives called sicca, which they hid in their robes so they could walk up behind a Roman soldier in a crowd of people, stab him in the back, and then melt into the crowd as the soldier fell to the ground.
The Latin translation for Zealots (sicarii) meant “ASSASSINS.” Those who speak Spanish know that to this very day, in Spanish, a sicario is a hitman (usually for the drug cartels). This is the group that Simon was a part of when Jesus called him!
By the way … ever wonder where Peter got the blade he used to cut the servant’s ear off in the Garden of Gethsemane? Here’s a clue: Matthew used the Greek word for one of these sicca!
Can you get your heads around this motley band of followers? It’s like Jesus hand-picked a Republican and a Democrat, a Vaxxer and an anti-Vaxxer, a mask-wearer and a mask refuser, an Antifa member and a Proud Boys member. Any betting man in those days would lay money on the odds that these twelve men would soon either kill each other or walk off in opposite directions. Instead, a carpenter named Jesus forged them into an astonishing team that began a movement that is still expanding today!
BUT Jesus didn’t gather that wild bunch just to prove that He could. He wasn’t showing off. In fact, the question we should ask is NOT why Jesus chose them, but why they chose to follow Him.
I am convinced that the Gospel writers recorded all the details about this wild bunch of guys so that we will KNOW that it was the mind-blowing love of Jesus for EVERY man, woman, and child that drew people to Him. He was a HUMAN MAGNET. He was IRRESISTIBLE to everyone who wanted to know God, even if they NEVER REALIZED BEFORE THEY MET HIM that the missing piece they had desperately longed for was God. SOMETHING ABOUT JESUS …
- that made Matthew ask, “Why am I wasting my life gathering this money?”
- that made Simon the Assassin say, “Oh, I would die for Him!”
- that made Peter, James, and John say, “For the privilege of following HIM, we would learn to sit at the same dinner table as Matthew.”
HE MUST BE WONDERFUL!!
That’s actually one of His NAMES!! The prophet Isaiah said, “He shall be called WONDERFUL …” (Isaiah 9:6). So we used to sing, “His name is wonderful, His name is wonderful. His name is wonderful — Jesus, my Lord. He is the mighty King, Master of everything. HIS NAME is wonderful — Jesus my Lord.”
The prophets in the Old Testament fell all over themselves trying to describe this AMAZING ONE who would come to live among us. How can anyone describe the One who TRANSFORMS people!?! There came a day when Simon the Sicari pulled that blade from his sleeve for the last time, threw it down, and thought, “I am never carrying this again.” (Matthew probably breathed a big sigh of relief!)
Jesus was like the PIED PIPER of pure, honorable love, and wherever He went, people were drawn to Him. People dropped their work to be with Him. They lost track of the time listening to Him. They watched Him heal people and love people until they couldn’t bear to see Him leave; so when He went, they went, too.
But Jesus wasn’t a schmoozer, a feel-good guy who just gave everyone warm, fuzzy feelings. He was a MAN’S MAN, the alpha in any group. He is everything that our hearts have imagined in a KING — good, wise, kind, and loving — and yet COMPLETELY in charge. We who have met Him find ourselves gathering around Him; and the CLOSER WE GET TO HIM, THE CENTER OF OUR WORLD … THE CLOSER WE GET TO EACH OTHER.
He has ALWAYS been our reason for being together.
Within a couple of days after His death, His followers started to disperse!! Once they thought He was gone, they began to drift apart, each to his own world. This teaches us something IMPORTANT about ourselves. If JESUS isn’t the reason your church gathers, it won’t continue to gather!
Even meeting for fellowship with each other is NOT enough. First people think, “I can go to that church as many times as the doors are open, but I will never meet JESUS there …” then they begin to wonder, “Then what’s the point?” That is why the liberal churches are losing people. WHY GO TO A CHURCH, IF YOU’RE NOT GOING TO MEET JESUS THERE?
The disciples were outward bound, leaving the group in ones and twos, heading back to their homes and their old lives … but THE RESURRECTION regathered them! WHY?!? They found out that they could still be with HIM!! That’s still true today. If He is AMONG us, we will stay together!!
But when Jesus comes into our lives, He brings other people with Him … a group to belong to … UNITED IN CHRIST.
So an unbroken stream of people has flowed from Him across the centuries because they were IN Christ. Because HE has been the Constant Presence, WE are united with ALL OF THEM in the pleasure of serving and loving Christ together in this time and place. As long as Jesus is still lifted high, the Church will stay strong for a LONG, LONG time.