On Being the Church
You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? … You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.
The caption for this cartoon says; “Venice Church announces its Frequent Attender program—free upgrades to aisle seats and complimentary chocolate-on-the-pillow treatment.” Offering membership privileges programmes seems to me to be counter to the message of the gospel. We want people to come to church because we know the God who loves us loves them as well; we want people to come to experience the love we have found in our Saviour. The Saviour who sought and found us is seeking and calling to our neighbours as well and we would like them also to know the peace, hope and joy of this relationship with Jesus. I wonder if some of our efforts to reach out to the unchurched are a bit like this fictitious frequent attender programme.
What is the gospel, and how do we bring it to bear on the hearts of people today? It is a question that each generation of Christ’s followers needs to address—often more than once given the nature of change. The gospel—the good news that is Jesus Christ—doesn’t change; but how to bring that gospel to bear on the hearts of people in this generation is ever changing. Dr. Timothy Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, proposes that congregations answer this question, among others, as part of generating a theological vision. “A theological vision is a faithful restatement of the gospel with rich implications for life, ministry, and mission in a type of culture at a moment in history.”
“A faithful restatement of the gospel”; the church’s existence is out of and for this very gospel—out of and for the good news that is Jesus Christ. When I take up the task of writing and preaching sermon I typically pray a prayer penned by Thomas Aquinas. One of the sentences of that prayer asks God: “Just as you can make even babies speak your truth, instruct my tongue and guide my pen to convey the wonderful glory of the gospel.” It is my conviction that a congregation’s excitement for “the wonderful glory of the gospel” attracts others to also hear this good news. Our apprehension of the gospel’s glory is the impetus that moves us to offer our best to and for worship and such excitement witnesses to others.
N.T. Wright, in his discussion of being the church, offers a widow on to the vista that is the gospel’s greatness and the purpose of the church within that. The church is “called to bring the transformative news of God’s rescuing justice to the whole creation.” Jesus put it this way: “You are the salt of the earth; … You are the light of the world.”
But what—or more accurately, who—is the church? It is all well and fine to speak about the church and its mission in the world but what does it mean for a person to be part of the church. There are many images used of the church—family, bride of Christ, tree, body. The Apostle Paul says this of the church: “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:9) Being part of the church is something God initiates in our lives; the churh is, in essence, all the people who are in relationship with Jesus Christ. Let us reflect for a few moments on what that means—about believing and belonging.
1. First, on believing. I like the analogy N.T. Wright uses with respect to believing. “What happens when you wake up in the morning? For some people waking up is a rude and shocking experience. Of goes the alarm, and they jump in fright, dragged out of a deep sleep to face the cold, cruel light of day. For others, it’s a quiet, slow process. They can be half-asleep and half-awake, not even sure which is which, until gradually, eventually, without any shock or resentment, they are happy to know that another day has begun. Most of us know something of both and a lot in between.” (Simply, p. 204-5)
Waking up offers one of the most basic pictures of what God’s hand in our lives looks like when it comes to believing; what it is to experience God’s faithfulness in calling us into the fellowship of his Son. There are classic alarm clock stories like Saul of Tarsus (who becomes the Apostle Paul) who is blinded by a sudden light on the road to Damascus. And there are many stories of the half-awake and half-asleep variety. Some take months or years, during which they aren’t sure whether they are on the outside of Christian faith looking in, or on the inside looking around to see if it’s real.
I enjoy hearing people’s experience of coming to faith in Jesus Christ. I read recently about William Lane Craig, the man they called "Christian philosophy's boldest apostle." Craig has traveled the world debating many of the world's most articulate atheists. The atheist Sam Harris said, "Craig is the one Christian apologist who seems to have put the fear of God into many of my fellow atheists"—which is probably why the atheist Richard Dawkins refuses to debate Craig.
From birth Craig suffered from a neuromuscular disease that causes atrophy in the extremities. He walks with a slight limp, and his hands often look as if they're gripping an invisible object. Growing up, he couldn't run normally. "My boyhood was difficult," Craig said, "Children can be very cruel."
Since sports weren't an option, he joined his high school debate team. Initially, he wasn't interested in spiritual issues, but he started reading the Bible, and the Jesus he found there took hold of him. Craig explained, "For me it was a question of personal … commitment: Was I prepared to become this man's follower?"
During college he continued debating and searching for his calling. Not until years later, though, after establishing himself as a philosopher, did he start to debate and defend his faith in a public setting. It came as a welcome surprise. He said, "I was just thrilled to be able to [use debates] as a means of fulfilling this vision of sharing the gospel."
To return to the waking up analogy, whether it is like the shock of an alarm clock or of the gradual half-asleep or half-awake variety at some point you need to know yourself awake. There is such a thing as being asleep and such a thing as being awake as it is important to be able to tell the difference. Waking up is one of the regular early Christian images for what happens when the good news of Jesus impinges upon someone’s consciousness. “Wake up, sleeper!” writes the Apostle Paul (Ephesians 5:12).
The gospel—the good news of what God has done in Jesus—is first and foremost news about something that has happened. And the first and most appropriate response to that news is to believe it. God has raised Jesus from the dead, and has thereby declared in a single action that Jesus has launched the long awaited kingdom, and that the evil of all the world has been defeated, and that our sin has been borne away for us. When the alarm clock goes off, this is what it says: “here’s the good news. Wake up and believe it!”
The message, though, is so utterly unlikely and extraordinary that you can’t expect people simply to believe it in the same way they might believe if you said it was raining outside. And yet, as people hear the gospel, at least some find that they do believe it. It makes sense to them. I don’t mean the kind of “sense” you get within the flatland world of secular imagination. There the only things that matter are what you can put in a test tube or a bank. I mean the sense that exists within the strange new world which we glimpse, even if only for a moment, in the way we glimpse a whole new world when we stand in awe in front of a great work of art. That kind of “making sense” in much more like falling in love than like calculating a bank account.
Ultimately, believing that God raised Jesus from the dead is a matter of believing and trusting in the God who would, and did, do such a thing. What the early Christians meant by “belief” included both believing that God has done certain things and believing in the God who has done them. When things “make sense” in this believing way you are left knowing it isn’t so much a matter of having it all figured out and now decide to take a step—this is to trust in our ability to figure out—rather it is a matter of Someone calling you, calling with a message that is simultaneously an invitation to love and a summons to obedience.
Our Lord always reveals himself when and where he wills, in a manner beyond our comprehending. To this day we can’t explain how the risen one looms before any of us; not being able to explain it, however, doesn’t prevent us from knowing it and glorying in it. We can’t comprehend it (in the sense of mastering the logic of it), but we can certainly apprehend it as the risen one apprehends us, seizes us, and we seize him in turn.
Many hesitate because of what they perceive “believing” to mean. Somehow it has come to be equated with comprehending; I believe something to be true because I have understood it to be true or I can calculate it to be true. So if I can’t say yes to every aspect of the gospel story—meaning I can’t explain it as true—then I guess I can’t say I believe. This is not what the early Christians meant by believing or by faith.
Faith begins by trusting as much of ourselves as we know of ourselves to as much of God as we know of him. And so it continues. Faith is to know ourselves summoned by Jesus Christ and to say yes to that summons with as much yes as we can offer at that moment. Christian faith isn`t a general religious awareness. Nor is it the ability to believe unlikely propositions nor a kind of gullibility which puts one out of touch with genuine reality. It is faith which hears the story of Jesus and responds from the heart with a surge of grateful love and says; “Yes. Jesus is Lord. He died for my sins. God raised him from the dead. This is the centre of everything.”
2. Now, about belonging. In essence, the church is all those people who put their hand up to say “Yes. Jesus is mine and I am his.” The church is a collection of people who belong to one another because they belong to God, the God we know in and through Jesus. We are in fellowship with one another because we are each in fellowship with Jesus Christ. As we know, belonging to Jesus does not necessarily render a person likeable or nice or without fault. So why do we bother with the church? Because Jesus Christ bothered with me and took me into fellowship with him, warts and all and he loves the church. To love the church is my response to his love for me; in obedience to love what Jesus loves.
The gospel is good news and that good news has found its way into our lives which in turn calls us to serve this same good news. The gospel that calls us into fellowship calls us for the purpose of making that good news known. The good news that is Jesus Christ is both our salvation and our purpose. This is to say that that the church exists to proclaim the good news of Jesus, the first and primary task being worship. To be salt and light, as Jesus said.
In the Bible all of human life is en-fleshed. We have never had a spiritual experience except in our bodies. The direction that this leads us is the church is to be visible in the world. Here is how the United Church doctrine (Basis of Union) on church expresses it: we receive it as the will of Christ, that His Church on earth should exist as a visible and sacred brotherhood, consisting of those who profess faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to Him, together with their children, and other baptized children, and organized for the confession of His name, for the public worship of God, for the administration of the sacraments, for the upbuilding of the saints, and for the universal propagation of the Gospel. This is why we meet together, build buildings to house these purposes, have membership roles, call people to faith, and baptize them.
Every time you walk into the sanctuary of a church building and take up your place alongside those you have joined with, you witness that Jesus Christ is the world’s one true sovereign; you announce that what Jesus is up to in the world is to be believed and celebrated. You witness that this same good news of Jesus, having found out you, is the same good news that sustains you and keeps you in this venture of life. When you put your hand to the work of care for this building we have erected for these purposes you join in the great purposes of God to set all things right. When you offer your voice in song or skill of musical instrument to lift up the name of Jesus with the best you have you witness that to the kingdom has begun where beauty will flourish in that world finally free from sin and evil.
N.T. Wright began his book Simply Christian talking about four echoes of a voice; the longing for justice, the quest for spirituality, the hunger for relationship, and the delight in beauty. He has attempted to articulate what Christian faith has to say with respect to these common human longings. We give Wright the final word.
Made for spirituality, we wallow in introspection. Made for joy, we settle for pleasure. Made for justice, we clamor for vengeance. Made for relationship, we insist on our own way. Made for beauty, we are satisfied with sentiment. But new creation has already begun. The sun has begun to rise. Christians are called to leave behind, in the tomb of Jesus Christ, all that belongs to the brokenness and incompleteness of the present world. It is time, in the power of the Spirit, to take up our proper role, our fully human role, as agents, heralds, and stewards of the new day that is dawning. That, quite simply, is what it means to be Christian; to follow Jesus Christ into the new world, God’s new world, which he has thrown open before us.