OK, last post I got some feedback on Facebook. Went something like this: you’re a fancy thinker and writer and all, mr. smartypantsblogger. But what does any of this have to do with anything? I think that is a direct quote from Natalie Magnusson. To which my immediate reply goes something like this: What? I have to do all the work? But so that you will know that I don’t just get nosebleeds, but also stub my toes, here are a few what-for’s.
Let me start by getting more specific with what I brought up in the last post. One way that a spatial imagination has influenced us is that we think of salvation primarily in terms of the question, “how can an individual be saved?” Now, let’s push that one step further. The drama of salvation is seen in this light as the direct encounter between God and the individual sinner. This in turn influences many to think of church as a support group for saved people.
I once had a student tell me that she thought of going to church like she thought about belonging to a gym. You were more likely to be on shape if you belonged to one, but you could be in shape on your own. Just like faith. If you belong to a church, you’re more likely to be close to God, but it isn’t really necessary. Church, from this viewpoint, existed to serve the prior category of “saved individual.”
The point of church as an aggregate of individuals is to support their lives, their needs, their likes, their aspirations–even teach them things that they need to thrive in their personal relationship with God. Ministry becomes customer service, because church is within the discretion of the individual. The sermon takes on a certain shape. The music style becomes absolutely crucial. You get the idea.
But, let’s say that history, not the individual, is the horizon of interpretation. Now the primary question changes from the salvation of the individual to what God is up to in history and even in the present. But I need to clarify this just a bit. Paul doesn’t view history as simply the accumulation of the past leading to an inevitable future. Rather, Paul views the death and resurrection of Jesus as the inauguration of the coming Day of the Lord. In particular, the resurrection of Jesus is a sign of the general resurrection of the dead that will come at the end of the age. The future state of things has broken into the present, which is a different way of viewing history than the one-damned-thing-after-another view. The question becomes, in light of God’s coming future, how can we recognize the evidence of the in-breaking of God’s salvation here and now? Or, put another way, how would we live if we believe that the coming salvation of God is both real and present?
One way Paul recognized it, given the pictures provided by Israel’s prophets, was that the Gentiles would be included in the final purposes of God. Paul knows that he participates in the coming, saving age because Jew and Gentile with one voice, through faith in Jesus Christ, are praising God. The church is not just a club for people who are already saved. Rather, the church is the sign and foretaste of God’s coming reign. It doesn’t exist to support the desires and spiritual tastes of the individual. Rather, it exists so that the new humanity emerging under the birthing work of the Spirit might become visible. That a new human family–the family of the new age, progeny of a second Adam–no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, might become manifest and visible. And you can’t do that by yourself.
In fact, the Spirit is given precisely for this work. None of the fruit of the Spirit are given simply for the solace or the comfort of the individual. They are given to create a community that can overcome the barriers established by the way of the flesh. Humility, peace, kindness, and the like are communal in nature because part of the work of the Spirit is to create a community that anticipates the reality of a new human family who through Jesus all call upon God as Father. Church isn’t secondary to God’s saving work. It’s the laboratory for it. It’s ground zero for the saving work of God. It’s not optional, an add-on to salvation like leather seats or under-body rust protection. It is a necessary aspect, an anticipatory participation, for those who belong to the coming fullness of God’s reign.
So, the practical question about church is not whether or not I like the sermon or the music style, but whether the church’s life is a sign of the age to come. Whether it is a place where conflicts are overcome and differences are not an opportunity to start a new church, but a portrayal of the rich diversity of the new humanity that will thrive together in the new creation. Where the poor, the naked, the orphan, the weak are welcomed in the name of the Lord. Do you see it?
This just gets us started. Let me roll up my practical sleeves. Let’s go back to this notion that what is at the heart of reality is persisting substance. The issues here typically get defined in terms of “nature” or “essence.” So, we ask questions like what is the nature of the church or what is the church’s essence? So, classical understandings of the church as questions about what is permanent about the church. What is unchanging? Campbell asked it this way, “what are the marks of the church?” When this kind of question becomes the primary question, then you end up with an ideal or invisible church that exists only as an abstraction outside of history or only in the mind of God or in a very superficial reading of the New Testament.
A temporal imagination, especially an eschatological imagination that sees the church in relation to God’s coming future, honors actual churches as signs of the age to come. They exist in history, not as the full expression of what is still coming, but as a faithful if limited expression of faith in the presence and coming of God’s glory. The church is less concerned with the question, “how are we a representative of an ideal church,” or “are we getting everything right in relationship to a timeless, ideal church?” Rather, the church asks the question, “how are we in this very specific time and place a sign of the coming glory of God?”
And this gets real practical, real quick. If the church exists as a static, timeless entity, then it really doesn’t matter where it is in place and time. In fact, it would be possible for a group of leaders to meet over a weekend in a retreat cabin far away from the church’s actual neighborhood without any real knowledge of who the church’s neighbors are to write a mission statement for the church. (Sound familiar?) The church exists in space apart from history. A church with an eschatological imagination assumes that God is at work in history, in the concreteness of this particular time and space to demonstrate that the coming reign of God has broken into human experience. A church serving that vision of God’s future would never write a mission statement without asking about the concrete conditions of the world around it. Without talking to its neighbors.
And that leads me to another thing…