the church as community
God always calls communities rather than individuals. This was a rather remarkable statement. I am not sure when I heard it for the first time it but it didn't quite seem to jive with my church upbringing. The image with which I had been raised was that Jesus was all about the individual. What each of us was striving for was a personal relationship with Jesus. After all salvation was not a collective endeavor and spirituality was individual experience. Therefore I had always assumed that God called individuals and that the church was an add-on which existed solely for the purpose of occasionally pumping people up and aiding believers in doing together what they could not do individually. The idea that God calls communities and not individuals seemed a real stretch.
The more I have studied scripture, the more I have come to appreciate the observation that God does indeed call communities. As a prelude to our discussing the church I want to spend a few lines considering the concept of community in the scriptures. We can begin with the two opening stories in Genesis. In the first creation story (Genesis 1) the crown of God's creative efforts is humanity. As God creates human beings God does not make one individual and then wait to see what happens. God creates them male and female. God, if not creating a community, at least creates a team. In the second creation story (Chapter 2) God creates the man first. God quickly realizes however that the man is not adequate in and of himself (someone once commented that this meant Adam had no idea how pick up in the Garden of Eden) and so Adam was in need of another human who would undergird and complete him. Both stories then tell us that as individuals we are incomplete in and of ourselves.
The second major story in the book of Genesis which points us in the direction of community is that of the call of Abram. At first glance this story would appear to work against the idea that God calls communities; why else would we call it the call of Abram? However if we look beyond its title what we see is that God did not just call Abram. God told Abram to take his family (Sarah, his nephew and his slaves…as well as all of their goods) and go to the land which God would show him.
What Abram is also told is that God will give him many descendants and that through those descendants God will save the world. Even though salvation ultimately comes through Jesus of Nazareth, it is the collective community of Abram that is the incubator into which the messiah is born, which teaches the messiah the message of salvation, and which orients the messiah's view of the world.
The Old Testament continues with the idea of community by using the image of "the people of Israel." It is the people of Israel that God frees from Egypt. It is the people that God leads through the wilderness. It is to the people to which God gives the land of Promise. It is to the people of Israel that God gives judges, prophets, priest and kings. It is the people of God that God chastises and that God saves. While there may be charismatic individuals whose stories we read (such as Samson, David, or Elisha) ultimately their stories were always sub-plots in the larger story of God's people. Their work and witness was never about individual spirituality but was always intended to impact the community.
We continue with this image of community as we enter the New Testament. Unlike many of the prophets who had come before them, who acted as lone spokespersons for God (even as they were speaking to the entire people of God), both John and Jesus called men and women to follow them (you can find the names of some of the women in Luke 8). John and Jesus understood that what they were called to create was a kingdom of persons whose lives were linked together as they served the one, true living God. At Pentecost the Spirit is given to the disciples and on that day a community of 3,000 is created. Finally wherever the Apostle Paul traveled he did not simply make individual converts but created communities. Over the next several weeks we will spend some time with the community we call the church and see what meaning it has for us.
the church as the called out people of God
A while back someone asked me where the word "church" came from. My first response was to talk about the Greek word ekklesia, which we translate as church. On further reflection it occurred to me that ekklesia doesn't seem to have any connection to our English word, church. With a bit of research I discovered the answer; however you will have to wait for the end of this article to find out how they are related. Where I want to begin is with a discussion of the concept of theekkelsia and how we got from there to here.
The word ekklesia was not originally a religious word. It had two secular meanings. The first meaning is that of people who are called out. In Greece when a city needed to gather its citizens for a discussion about a particular matter or to deal with issues of security a herald would move through the city "calling people out." The people would then gather for the meeting. The second meaning of ekklesia carries with it the image of those who had gathered. So the complete meaning in secular Greek was that the ekklesia was the called out and gathered together people…again without any religious connotation.
At first glance then it might appear that the early Christians simply borrowed that word from secular Greek and put it to work to describe this new people of God. However there is more to it than that. The word ekklesia had also been in use by the Jewish community for some time. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) the word ekklesia is used almost a hundred times in order to describe God's people. What sets the Biblical usage apart from its secular use is that in scripture ekklesia is always modified by "of the Lord." In other words the Hebrew people are the called out and gathered people of the Lord. This use of ekklesia makes sense in terms of the overarching story of God's people. The people of God were not those who happened to discover YHWH one day and decide to worship. It was always God (as we noted last week) who called people together for the purpose of being a blessing to the world.
When the early Christ followers used the term ekklesia then (Paul uses it extensively in this writings to refer to the Christ following community) they were not merely borrowing a secular term but were claiming the title of called out and gathered people of God for themselves. This makes sense when we understand their concept of who they were. Early Christians believed that in Jesus of Nazareth God had acted decisively to redeem the world. Through Jesus' death, resurrection and appearances to the disciples and others Jesus had initiated a new moment in history and called forth from the old ekklesiaof God (traditional Judaism) a new ekklesia which was to proclaim Jesus as Lord and live in the Jesus' way (which is a reminder to us that the earliest followers of Jesus were called "The Way."). We need to be careful to note here that the Apostle Paul is clear that this new ekklesiais an extension of and not a replacement of the old ekkelsia. According to Paul the Jews are still God's people and the followers of Christ as merely a branch grafted into God's Old Testament ekkelsia.
The church then began to adopt other words which Judaism had used to describe their ekklesia of God. The church began to speak of themselves as the elect (God had chosen them) and saints (they were to lead God centered lives).
We are now led back to our original question of the origins of the word "church." The answer is that it is derived from the work of Theodoric the Great (454-526 CE). Theodoric was as an Ostrogothic King who ruled Italy after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. He was an Arian Christian who spread the faith into Germany. Along the way he spoke of believers as kuriche, meaning those who belong to the Lord. From this we get such words as Kirche (German), Kirk (Scottish) and Kyrke (Swedish) and Church (English). Of interest is that Spanish (Ilgesia), French (eglise) and Italian (chiesa) maintain a clear sense ofekklesia. Regardless of the name, we are still the called out and gathered people of God.
the church as a result of Jesus' work
In 2012 the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) of which Everybody's Church is a part, changed its constitution. (There were three portions of our former constitution; Government, Worship and Discipline. The new constitution altered the Government section, maintained the Worship and Discipline sections and added a fourth section called, Foundations of Presbyterian Polity) One of the most interesting changes in the constitution was the alteration in the document's opening words. In our old constitution the opening words were as follows:
"All power in heaven and on earth is given to Jesus Christ by Almighty God, who raised Jesus from the dead and set him above all rule and authority, all power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. God has put all things under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and has made Christ the head of the Church, which is his body."
(G-1.0100 PCUSA Book of Order 2009-2011)
Our new constitution opens with the following paragraph:
"The Good news of the Gospel is that the Triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – creates, redeems, sustain, rules and transforms all things and all people. This one living God, the Scriptures say, liberated the people of Israel from oppression and covenanted to be their God. By the power of the Spirit, this one living God is incarnate in Jesus Christ, who came to live in the world, die for the world, and be raised again to new life. The Gospel of Jesus Christ announces the nearness of God's kingdom, brining good news to all who are impoverished, sight to all who are blind, freedom to all who are oppressed, and proclaiming the Lord's favor upon all of creation."
(F-1.01 PCUSA Book of Order 2011-2013)
Each of these opening sections is both Biblically and theologically on target. However the difference between the two is obvious. Our old constitution began with a clear statement about the person of Jesus and by extension reminded us that the church is centered on Christ.
Our new constitution sees the work of Jesus, and thus the church, as part of the ongoing work of the Triune God. While our new constitution immediately includes a paragraph and then several sections on Jesus and the church…which are very good…it seems that the framers wanted to center the church in God's ancient salvation story before expanding on Jesus' importance to the church and the world.
These two distinct opening statements offer us an opportunity to reflect on the significance of the relationship between Christ and the church. The original opening was an attempt to speak clearly to the belief that the church as the called out people of God exists only because of the work of God in and through Jesus of Nazareth. This makes a great deal of sense when we look at the Biblical record. The disciples, while following Jesus during his earthly ministry considered themselves to be part and parcel of the Jewish community. There was no sense of their being part of something new. After the resurrection however it was their relationship with the risen Jesus, and not ancient Judaism, that bound them together as a distinct community. They believed and proclaimed that in Jesus, God had done and was continuing to do something new and amazing in the world. Jesus was not simply the messiah, but he was in effect the saving event of God for which the world had been waiting.
This reminds us that without Jesus there would be no church. Without Jesus there would be no good news. Without Jesus there would be no in-breaking Kingdom of God. In other words the church and Jesus are so intimately tied together that beginning our constitution with a statement about Jesus made sense…which is why it was so for generations. None-the-less I will admit at this moment that as a big picture, salvation history, kind of guy I like the new opening…while still missing the old one. What matters then for us as the church is to never forget that Jesus is decisive for who we are, what we believe and what we do. That even though we are the church called by God and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are still the church of Jesus Christ.
the church and its unity
I never paid much attention to the sign. Many days I would drive by the Mary Ellen and Harvester Church of Christ (located at the corner of Mary Ellen and Harvester streets in Pampa, Texas) and see nothing but the name. One day however a member of my church, and a former member of that congregation, told me to look at what was written under the name. I looked and there were these words, "The Church of Christ meets here." When I asked him why he wanted me to see those words his response was that it was his impression that the manner in which they were interpreted by his former congregation was that the only place where the Church of Christ met was at the corner of Mary Ellen and Harvester Streets. His impression was derived from the fact that in Pampa, a town of 18,000 persons, there were three Church of Christ congregations, each having emerged from the same mother church because of doctrinal disputes…and the members of one church would not speak with the members of the other churches because those "other" people did not believe the right things.
In many ways this has been the history of the Church. From the church in Corinth (46 CE) which was divided into factions, to the split between Roman (Western) and Orthodox (Eastern) churches in 1054 CE, to the Reformation (1500's CE) in which Protestants split from the church in Rome, to the current move toward the creation of new Presbyterian denomination for conservative congregations the church has had this long history of dividing in order that one church could claim to the only place where the Church of Christ meets. We have believed that by creating a new denomination or moving to a more "true" denomination we will no longer be associated with "those" lesser Christians. The joke on anyone who has ever broken away for those reasons is that the Mary Ellen and Harvester Church of Christ got it right…the Church of Christ does meet there…but it also meets in every other church where Christ is worshipped; which means we are all the church and are thus all related.
Hans Kung, in his book The Church (Sheed and Ward; New York: 1967; p. 85) puts it this way. "Each individual ekklesia (each individual congregation, community or church) is not the ekklesia (the whole Church, community or congregation); but none the less fully represents it: this means two things, Firstly: the local ekklesia is not a "section" or a "province" of the whole ekklesia. It is in no way seen as a sub-division of the real "Church"…no, the local Church does not merely belong to the Church, the local Church is the Church…Secondly: the "whole ekklesia" is not a "collection" or "association" of local Churches." What Kung is trying to say is that the church exists wherever followers of Jesus Christ meet, whether as individual Churches or as the Church. This is so because every place where Jesus followers meet they receive the same Gospel, are given the same mission, receive the same grace and worship the same Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It matters not whether a church is liberal or conservative, Presbyterian or Pentecostal, speaks Spanish or Swahili; they are the church of Jesus Christ.
We at First Presbyterian attempt to affirm and live into this reality in many ways. First we offer open communion. Anyone who has been baptized is invited to come and partake. It doesn't matter if someone has been sprinkled by a priest or dunked in a river by a preacher; they are still part of the Church of Christ. Second we work ecumenically. This Good Friday we will remember Christ's death with our Methodist, Baptist, and Disciple neighbors. We understand once again that we are bound together by Christ, even if we belong to different denominations. Third we work with Presbyterian churches which are more conservative than ourselves to do the work of Christ. This spring when many of our members travel to Mexico for a medical mission trip they will be teamed with members from the First Presbyterian Church of San Antonio, which is a "Confessing Church", meaning we disagree with them about who may be ordained. All of this is to say that we strive to live out the reality that we are linked with every community where "The Church of Christ Meets."
the church and the kingdom of god
In the Gospel of Luke the Kingdom of God, or the reign of God if like, is mentioned more than forty times. For Luke God's rule and reign on earth is what Jesus had come to unleash. What is interesting however is that by the time of the writing of Acts, which is the second half of Luke's story (Luke-Acts), the Kingdom of God goes virtually unmentioned. Why the sudden change from one story to the next? The answers are Easter and Pentecost. At Easter the powers of this world were defeated and the reign of God broke into the world in the presence of the risen Christ. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit was unleashed so that the Kingdom could be an ever growing reality even without Jesus physically present. The book of Acts then did not need to speak about the coming Kingdom because it was a reality into which they were living.
Why am I writing about the Kingdom of God? I am writing because the church has spent the last two thousand years trying to figure out its relationship to the Kingdom. The two critical questions with which the church has struggled are: Are the church and the Kingdom the same? Does the church bring in the Kingdom of God? We will look at both of these questions.
First, are the church and the Kingdom the same? In the early years of the church, theologians concentrated on the Kingdom of God as an inner spiritual reality. However once the church was not only legalized (311 CE) but later became the official religion of the empire theologians in both the East and the West began to associate the church with the Kingdom of God. This was an easy connection to make since there was one empire and one church which were intimately bound together (almost a theocracy). In other words the Kingdom of Rome/Church and the Kingdom of God were assumed to be the same. In medieval times this association was used to justify the crusades as expanding the Kingdom of God through conquest of those who were enemies of God and the state. While these views faded during the Reformation period (1540s onward), they never completely vanished.
Second, does the church bring in the Kingdom of God? If we follow the logic of our first answer, the response of the church for more than a thousand years was, yes. The church brings in the kingdom by conquest and conversion. While that sense of bringing in the kingdom faded in the Reformation period it regained a foothold in a slightly different form during the early 1900s. It came in the form of the Social Gospel movement. One of the leaders of the Social Gospel movement, Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist preacher in Hell's Kitchen, claimed that the church had forgotten the purpose of the Kingdom of God which was to change society and improve the world. The church then was to bring in the Kingdom of God by encouraging progressive legislation which would deal with poverty, education, fair labor standards, health care and other issues of social need. While the movement as such foundered after the horrors of World War I, its legacy lived on in movements as diverse as labor unions, the Civil Rights movement and women's suffrage. We can still see vestiges of this movement in the church today.
So again, is the Church the Kingdom of God and/or does the Church bring in the Kingdom? The simple answer is, no. Hans Kung puts it this way, "Ekklesia (the church) grows from below, can be organized, is a product of development and progress…in short it is definitely the work of man; basilelia (the Kingdom) comes from above, is an unprecedented action, an incalculable event, in short is definitely the work of God." (The Church, p. 93) What we as Presbyterians have believed is that we are to live as a provisional demonstration of the Kingdom of God; meaning we are to do our best to model what we believe the Kingdom ought to look like in terms of personal relationships and social justice. Thus we are not to retreat into personal spirituality as if the Kingdom is only within, nor are we to be so arrogant as to believe we can create the Kingdom of God for God. We are to strive to be both personally and corporately faithful to Christ's call to love God and love neighbor, as good citizens of the Kingdom.
the church and politics
The year was 1976. It was the year in which we celebrated the Bicentennial, Apple Computers was founded, the NBA and the ABA agreed on a merger (go Spurs!), Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford for president and a little known Baptist pastor named Jerry Falwell began a series of "I Love America" rallies which would galvanize the religious right and change the political landscape of this nation for decades to come. The rise of the Religious Right coincided with the lingering social upheaval of Vietnam and the 1960s, growing drug abuse, the loss of jobs overseas, women's liberation and the increasing integration of the South. Conservative Christians gravitated toward the movement to not only make their views known but to possibly reverse many of the changes they disliked which had occurred in the previous decade (abortion rights, no organized prayer in schools among them).
What is fascinating to many about Falwell and the rise of the Religious Right is that it was a movement which was diametrically opposed to traditional Baptist teaching. Baptists had believed that the purpose of the church was to save souls. They were not to be involved in politics. While there were a few Northern Baptists such as WalterRauschenbusch (whom I mentioned last week) that participated in the Social Gospel movement, most conservative churches followed the lead of preachers such as Dwight L. Moody who claimed that focusing on social issues was a dangerous and sinful endeavor. In end however the Religious Right decided that is was acceptable to be the conservative counter-point to the waning liberal Social Gospel movement; each of which believed that the church was supposed to use the power of politics to bring about their own image of the Kingdom of God.
This history raises a question for us: Ought the church to be involved in politics?
We Presbyterians have never been of one mind on this issue. At times we believed in active participation. During both the English Civil War and the American Revolution Presbyterians were actively advocating revolt from the pulpit and on the battlefield.
At other times we believed in something that E.T. Thompson (a church historian) called the Strange Spirituality of the Church; in which the Presbyterian Church proclaimed the only thing it was to be about was saving souls, very much like traditional Baptist teaching. So which is it; involvement or not? If we cast a critical eye on both history and theology we discover that the answer to our question lies somewhere in-between the extremes.
First there is a danger in being too involved in politics. The danger here is that Jesus never advocated a particular political or economic system. When we pretend that there is only one "Christian" system, party or program we associate Jesus and the Church with transitory and flawed human constructs. In addition the lure of power is often so great that the church has often compromised some of its most basic beliefs in order to maintain control over society (note the Medieval Roman Church).
Second there is a danger in being too uninvolved in politics. The church has been given a prophetic role in society. We are to be the conscience of the community, constantly reminding people of the way of life to which Jesus has called us. We can witness what happens when the church abandons its prophetic voice in the decades of child labor and the abuse of Native Americans and people of color in this nation. It was only when the people of God reclaimed their appropriate role (and engaged in the political process) that change began to occur.
The church then is not to be afraid of the political realm, yet it must be realistic about it. If it engages in political action it must do so with great humility, admitting that no political platform or party can ever ultimately represent the Kingdom of God. In addition it must engage with great caution knowing that the temptation to power is great. In the end then there are no hard and fast rules about the church and politics…simply caution and challenge as we strive to be a Church faithful to God's calling in a real and hurting world.
the church as imperfect institution
The church has seen better days. Over the past 20 years the church, regardless of denomination or leadership, has found itself exposed for what it is…an imperfect institution. For decades the church was one of the few institutions that was seen positively not only by its members but society as a whole. The scandals involving first prominent charismatic pastors (Jim Baker and Jimmy Swaggart) and then those of the priestly sexual abuse of children in the Roman Catholic Church have reshaped public opinion about the church. Though we as Presbyterians have not garnered the spot-light we have had our share of ministers sleeping with parishioners as well as a child sexual abuse scandal in a mission school in Africa. All of this has led American society to distance itself from organized religion. Diana Butler Bass put it this way:
"The religious market collapse has happened with astonishing speed. In 1999, when survey takers asked Americans "Do you consider yourself spiritual or religious," a solid majority of 54 percent responded that they were "religious but not spiritual." By 2009, only 9 percent of Americans responded that way. In 10 years, those willing to identify themselves primarily as "religious" plummeted by 45 percentage points. In the last decade, the word "religion" has become equated with institutional or organized religion…in almost exclusively negative terms."
The reality however is that the church has never been the shining city set on a hill that people pretended it to be.
If we take seriously the New Testament witness it is apparent that the church has always had its issues. In the Apostle Paul's letters we read about churches that are rent by sexual lapses (a man sleeping with his step-mother), people being greedy and not sharing, others thinking that they are wiser and better than other church members, those who believe their spiritual gifts are the best, as well as factions based on who baptized whom.
Church history witnesses to the church rapidly becoming anti-woman (women were quickly removed from leadership positions), hierarchical and more concerned with theological orthodoxy than being a compassionate, loving community. Once the church became the official religion of the Empire under Constantine (320s CE) it became enamored of the power that this relationship brought. The following centuries brought everything from the crusades, to the inquisition, to Protestant heresy and witch trials…and the deaths of thousands of innocents. The picture is not pretty.
I offer these observations not because they are sensational or in order to make ourselves feel badly about our past. I offer them for two reasons. First they are a reminder that we are in many ways a human institution. Even though we are called by Christ in and through the Holy Spirit, we bring into this community all of our human foibles and failings. A pastor friend of mine even tells new members in his church to expect that one day the church will disappoint them. This understanding will hopefully help us in those moments when the church has let us down…knowing that there are no perfect churches out there. Second I hope this realization about our lack of perfection will cause us to want to be a better church…a better community of caring and compassion. By realizing that we are not perfect we will see that there is room for improvement; that by prayer and grace we can become more and more the church Christ calls us to be.
In the end the quality of our community is up to us and our willingness to be led and guided by the Spirit as we live into our faith given to us by Christ.