It’s easy to forget that when Jesus describes for Peter the kind of death by which “he was to glorify God,” the immediate purpose is establishment of the Church (Jn 20:19). That purpose Jesus had already made clear to him: “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18). So with the disciples in the Upper Room discourse: the point of enduring suffering (Jn 15:18-25; 16:1-4) is not merely to stand as faithful individual Christians but that the Church might be built. There’s no other way to make sense of what happens next: the Jerusalem counsel in Acts 15, the books of Ephesians and 1 & 2 Timothy, and the seven churches of Revelation 2 & 3 (in which instead of addressing individuals, Jesus speaks to each church as though it were an individual). Jesus came to build churches, and he taught his disciples to build churches. That’s exactly what they did. A third of the books of the New Testament are the names of churches.
I think my generation of Evangelicals associated “The Church” with dead or apostate institutions such as the Mainline churches or the Roman Catholic church. Safety and strength, so we thought, was in the devoted individual. This perpetuated the proverbial “me and Jesus” model, a self-centered faith that has proven remarkably powerless to the next generation. It’s powerless because it’s false. When Jesus and Paul say “you” in the NT, it’s not a singular pronoun—it’s a second-person plural. And they don’t mean “you guys;” they mean the people of God, the ecclesia.
The incisive Scottish minister James Stalker once said, “for trifling reasons—or for no reason at all—people take it upon themselves to withdraw from the visible Church as something unworthy of them. This was not the way in which Jesus acted. The Church of his day was by no means a pure one; and he, if anybody, might have deemed it unworthy of him. But he regularly participated in its ordinances and ardently loved it. There are few congregations less ideal, perhaps, than that in which he worshiped in wicked Nazareth, and few sermons are less perfect than those he listened to. But in that little synagogue he felt himself made one with all the piety of the land; as the Scripture was read, the great and good of former ages thronged about him; nay, heaven itself was in that narrow place.”
I think Stalker is right: I didn’t devote my life to the Church because it was perfect or could be made perfect. (I have regularly, if not weekly, contributed to its imperfection.) I devoted myself to the Church because it is—with all its failings—the body, the institution, for which Jesus gave his life (Eph 5:25). Think for a moment: if not for Jesus’ devotion to his Church, we wouldn’t know how to think about marriage. We love and serve Him by loving and serving his Bride. And at the end of history, when the labor of our lives is complete, we will join in the celebration of the wedding feast of the Lamb. At that feast, Jesus will not have wed himself to a bunch of individuals, but to the faithful of the ages, gathered as one in solemn and joyful assembly.