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The centurion commanded a group of men called a centuria. His centuria, as part of the army of occupation in Israel, had clearly become a real community. The concern that the centurion had for his servant is evidence that this community was functioning well:
And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear unto him, was sick, and ready to die. (Luke 7:2 AV)
It would be interesting to find out more about how the centurion and his men lived and worked together, but the New Testament describes another community which I believe is the prototype for every local church. This was revealed to the church family at Holy Trinity Church during a day of prayer and fasting. God gave us two words through Derek McCormack: ‘alabaster’ and ‘Bethany’, and we realised that the model for a local church is the village of Bethany described in the Gospels. This revelation was confirmed in a number of ways, but perhaps the most telling was that within days we received an email from Frank Viola, announcing his ‘life’s work’: a book entitled God’s Favorite Place on Earth. This wonderful book explores the community of Bethany as revealed in the Bible, telling its story from Lazarus’ perspective. The story of Holy Trinity Church, aka Bethany in Shrewsbury, is told in my previous book, Bethany – resurrected church, but it is worth repeating some of the lessons we learned from applying the model of Bethany to church life.
The key factor about the community in Bethany was that Jesus was physically there. As we read the accounts in the Gospels, we see what it is like for a church to know the presence of our Head and our Bridegroom, and how this changes everything. God made a promise to Moses about how he would be with his people:
The LORD replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (Exodus 33:14)
Moses understood the importance of this:
Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:15-16)
It is the manifest presence of Jesus himself that transforms a church into his Body and Bride.
The community of Bethany of Judea has all the other characteristics of a church:
The only significant time Jesus ever used the word ‘church’ is in Matthew 16:18, where Peter ‘confessed’ who Jesus is: “…the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). This also happened in Bethany: Martha said to Jesus, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” (John 11:27). Church is the place where we know who Jesus is, and are prepared to proclaim it.
- The heart of the work of a church is worship. Bethany was a place of extravagant worship as evidenced when Mary ‘wasted’ a year’s wages of perfume on Jesus (John 12:3-5).
- It was a place of healing and resurrection: The dead man came out (John 11:44)
- It was a place of teaching: She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. (Luke 10:39)
- It was a place of pastoral care: Jesus said to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” (John 11:23)
- It was a place of evangelism: …many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him. (John 11:45)
- It was a place of generous provision for God’s work: As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no-one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here.” (Mark 11:1-2)
- It was a place of hospitality, security and rest: And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night. (Matthew 21:17)
- It was a place where the community ate and drank together: Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honour. (John 12:2)
- It was a place of freedom: Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” (John 11:44)
- It was a place of controversy and persecution from the world: So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him. (John 12:10-11)
- It was a place of love: Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. (John 11:5)
- It was the place where Jesus’ feet last touched the surface of the earth: When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. (Luke 24:50-51)
Bethany churches are those that know that only one thing is needed: listening to Jesus. This is what Jesus told the sisters:
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42)
It is often said that we need Marthas as well as Marys, otherwise nothing would get done, but that is a human judgement, in direct contradiction to Jesus’ words. The repetition of Martha’s name is a sign of Jesus’ love for her, but he is emphatic that the choice to wait and listen for his word is infinitely better than to get on with what we think needs doing. When Jesus came to Bethany after Lazarus had died it is significant that Martha went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home (John 11:20). However, the instant that Mary heard that Jesus was calling for her, she moved so fast that her friends were caught up in her wake (John 11:31). Mary was not passive, she exemplified what W. Ian Thomas wrote about:
God is perfectly capable of taking care of His own affairs, and the reason so little is being accomplished by the Church of Jesus Christ today is that we have all too often organised God out of business. Millions of man hours and countless millions of pounds are being misspent on man’s promotional activity, unasked, on God’s behalf… What embarrassment it would be to you if you had a pair of hands that always tried to demonstrate to you how busy they were!… Surely, what the head demands of every member of the body is restful availability, and prompt response to every impulse of the head in instant obedience,…
This quality of ‘restful availability’ is what Jesus is looking for in the members of his Body. If we cannot follow Mary’s example, then we will never be a body that he is comfortable in.
We all need a community like Bethany to be able to hear clearly what Jesus is saying to us, both individually and corporately.
In addition to his ‘Bethany’ book (God’s Favorite Place on Earth), Frank Viola has written extensively on ‘organic church’, e.g.
In the institutional church, congregants watch a religious performance once or twice a week led principally by one person (the pastor or minister), and then retreat home to live their individual Christian lives.
By contrast, I’m using “organic church” to refer to those churches that operate according to the same spiritual principles as the church that we read about in our New Testament. The New Testament church was first and foremost organic, as are all churches that stand in its lineage. T. Austin-Sparks is the man who deserves credit for the term “organic church.” He writes,
God’s way and law of fullness is that of organic life. In the Divine order, life produces its own organism, whether it be a vegetable, animal, human or spiritual. This means that everything comes from the inside. Function, order and fruit issue from this law of life within. It was solely on this principle that what we have in the New Testament came into being. Organized Christianity has entirely reversed this order.
Frank Viola uses ‘organic church’ to describe what Jesus needs in the 21st Century. This is local churches where each seeks to live by the life of Jesus which is at its heart. A church that rejects the artificial because it hears and obeys the words of its Master, where the members of the Body work together because they are all in communion with the Head. We began to see what a true organic church is like, where the members hold very lightly to tradition, ego, structures, formality, marketing, all the weapons of the world; but will not let go of fellowship with Jesus and each other.
- Read Luke 10:38-42, John 11:29-36, John 12:1-8. How does Mary of Bethany exemplify a member of an organic church? What can we learn from her?
- Read John 11:1-46. Jesus ministered to the two sisters in different ways. Think of your fellow church members and look at how we can really love them, keeping in mind their natures. Discuss whether Jesus lacked compassion in delaying going to Bethany. Talk about waiting for his timing and the difference this makes.
- Look through the list of characteristics (page 82) of the community of Bethany. Which of these apply to your church and/or any other church you know about? Which are must-haves and which are optional?