Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Church is One

Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

This next four Sundays we will be considering together what it means to confess what are often referred to as the four marks of the church. In the Nicene Creed we confess: the church is one, the church is holy, the church is catholic and the church is apostolic. This homily series builds on the homily I preached a couple of weeks ago entitled, Why Go To Church? That homily was born out of a conviction that we don’t talk enough in the church about the meaning and purpose of the church itself. We’re not the only ones - as I speak with friends and colleagues in ministry it seems that none of us feel that we are doing as good a job as we should be with regard to equipping God’s people to know the basics of eccelesiology, the doctrine of the church.

We talk about the love of God; we talk about our relationships with each other and with God, we talk about the programs of the church but we don’t talk often enough about the nature of the church itself. However, when Jesus talks about the church and when the New Testament church leaders talk about the church they have in their minds tangible communities that shared universal characteristics. They were public, in the sense that all were welcome. The common denominator was not - at least not in a fundamentally important way - a common affinity for anything or anyone except that each person coming was coming because of their response to the gospel, because of an interest in or love for Jesus.

As these assemblies were maturing, the New Testament leaders, who we refer to as apostles, helped these young churches understand their unique purpose in the world. Just as God dwelt with his people in the OT and desired to demonstrate his love for humankind through Israel, the church was to embrace the continuation of this mission, albeit in an amped up form. Because of the resurrection of Jesus, the church embodies the very presence of Jesus for the world, In the church we drink and eat of God’s love and forgiveness so that we might show the world what it is like to be being made new. As Luke Timothy Johnson puts it in what is becoming a banner quote for this new homily series: "The church is, in a real sense, the continuation of the incarnation, the embodied presence of the resurrected Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit... the church is.... the laboratory for communal life before God, the model that the world can see.... as the basis for its own rebirth."

To start thinking of the church in this way brings us very quickly right up against some of the most powerful trends of living and being in our culture wherein we are encouraged to be consumers first and givers second. What is in it for me? What can I get out of this or that experience, etc. This approach to church and life in general is taught more by example than ideology, so it kind of sneaks up on us. But powerfully by example after example we are taught that what enables us to be fulfilled as individuals is found in groups of people who we have a lot in common with. We look for affinity groups where we like the same food; we like the same sports; we have similar political views, we love the same sorts of things and same sorts of people.

However, when we come upon the church of the New Testament, the church for whom Christ died and lives, we meet a group of people who grew to realize that beyond the common loves of social friendships there is a more important common love that is meant to unite people across race and class, a common love that is meant to reconcile enemies, a common love that revolutionizes the use of power in the world as those with power learn that they are to become servants in the same way that Jesus was a servant. This is the way St. Augustine characterized the common love shared in the church:

“Saint Augustine argued in the City of God that a "people" - - any “people” is a group that shares a common love. The better the thing that is loved, the better the people. The church, then, exists as a people to show the world that there is something worthy of love - Jesus Christ.” - paraphrase of a remark made by Dr. Mark Husbands, Professor of Theology, Hope College.

And so, we take up the oneness of the church:

The unity or oneness of the church is probably meant to be taken in two different but related ways. First, that oneness with Jesus means oneness with the divine life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Secondly, Jesus continues to bring people to this oneness through the oneness, or unity, that is at once an attribute and task of the church, the body of Christ.

When we read these words on oneness in John 17 we are stepping into a strong and important theme in John’s gospel, which we are introduced to at the very beginning of the gospel. In the first chapter of the gospel, John tells us that no one has seen God, but that Jesus, who is one with the Father, close to the Father’s heart, makes him known. And so, in John 17 we meet the continuation and expansion of that theme as Jesus expresses in prayer how he will continue to make known the love of God to the world. His means for continuation point to the second dimension of the church’s oneness, because the means is through the corporate (community) life of the church. (Aside: the fact that so many of us can read this portion of John 17 and miss, or underestimate, the community or corporate dimension of what Jesus is talking about is a reminder to us that we don’t think enough about the nature and purpose of the church). And so we meet again another stark reminder that we consume not for ourselves but we consume God’s love so that we may continue its flow to others, “that the world may believe that you have sent me....”

Perhaps it makes you anxious to think of yourself as one of the ones through whom God desires to love others. However, when we consider this weighty thought in the context of John 17 and in the context of the purpose of the church in general, we come to understand that the emphasis is not on the ability of any one individual to convince someone that God loves them through the testimony of any one individual life. Rather, the life we live in community with others is the basic means God uses to paint a picture of his redemptive love at work in redeeming the world. What I mean by this is that your life in community with your brothers and sisters in Christ will be more and more shaped according to the self-giving love of Jesus, so that your life in Christian community bears witness to the unity and the oneness that God desires for all human beings, oneness with the divine life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and oneness with each other.

This means, among other things, that we ought to see caring about unity - not uniformity - but unity around the gospel of Jesus Christ as an aspect of the church’s holiness, a vital characteristic of the people of God and a principle to which we are deeply committed. It is our common relationship to Jesus that unites us across differences of theology and different applications of God’s word to our life in the world. There are some people in our community who are pacifists because of their faith; there are others who disagree with that reading of the gospel but each person can make their case from the same Bible. I am sure you can think of other examples of people in our community who apply the Bible in ways that are different from each other. When people disagree on application but are working out their salvation with the same Lord, they belong in community with each other because both are called by the same Lord and are loved by the same Lord. And when we care deeply about our unity in Christ, the church signals to the world that a genuine unity among very different sorts of people is possible, if only people would respond to God’s love in Christ.

For example, if Christians in the Republican party en masse, and Christians in the Democratic party en masse, would find imaginative ways to let the world know that they care more about what unites them in Christ rather than what divides them politically and morally - wow, this would be quite a statement to the world.

Another example: what would it look like if your neighbors who don’t know of God’s love for them in Christ could see in your life in your church community a way to be united across differences, a model for uniting around life-giving truth, while allowing for diversity - if they could see in your life in your church community a commitment by default to working out differences for the sake of unity....? I think this would make a great impression on behalf of the gospel.

You may say our lack of unity, our lack of ability to achieve the ideal of unity set forth in the New Testament and the Creed is so discouraging that you are tempted to simply withdraw into the comfort of a homogeneous community and say: “well all of this unity in the midst of diversity is just too hard and it is not really achievable anyway”. But this is where it is important to remember that when we confess a commitment to an ideal (and it is important to remember that each of the four marks of the church are ideals, completed in Jesus but imperfectly experienced through us)- when we confess that the church is one in Christ, and strive towards that ideal over and over again, we are making an important signpost of God’s grace in the world. Really friends, what we strive for and are known for striving for is really important; in a fallen world, striving for oneness is an important ideal to work towards because it leads us in the direction of what matters deeply to God and what is most basic to our redemption and the redemption of the world, a share in the divine life.

Questions for discussion:

1. If you were asked by someone who is an outsider to the life of the church to explain what you think Jesus meant when he prayed for oneness in John 17, what would you say? What part of the fallen human condition does Jesus’ prayer for unity address?

2. Do you think of your life in the church community as a reality that should be in some way publicly available to others? If so, how? If not, why not?

3. Do you agree that the ideal of oneness is an important ideal to continually strive towards? Can you talk in your own words about what life looks like when that ideal is set aside?

4. In the lead up to communion I remarked that the first person to think of when we experience a rupture in our relationship with someone is not oneself or even the other person, but Jesus. Jesus is the most important love that Christians share. How do you think you are doing when it comes to thinking of Jesus in this way? How can we help each other make sure that that thought is to us more than a cliche?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Why Go To Church?

This past Sunday we began a mini-series of homilies on the doctrine of the church. Why Go To Church? This was the title of the first one. Here is a recap:

Today we are taking up the question: why go to church? There are many ways to answer this question but I think one way of getting at the heart of the matter is to consider an example of what sort of thing God intends to happen in the body of Christ and because of the body of Christ. I say, in the body of Christ because it is the church community, referred to as the body of Christ in the New Testament and in other literature of the early church, that is God’s normative means and instrument, through which he shows the world how to be reconciled to God and to one another. I say because of the body of Christ because it is only through the grace of God at work in the community through the Holy Spirit that true reconciliation can occur.

The example I want to consider with you can be a particularly difficult one to get our heads and hearts around because it is the story of a runaway slave named Onesimus and how Paul urges his master, Philemon, to be reconciled to him. As modern Westerners we, of course, would prefer Paul to have commanded Philemon to free Onesimus. I have included below an addendum that is a brief summary of why the New Testament authors did not take this kind of head-on approach when confronting the social relationships common to the pagan Roman world. However, in this recap, I want our main focus to be on how God uses the church as a theater of redemption for the world to watch.

Luke Timothy Johnson has this to say about the church: "The church is, in a real sense, the continuation of the incarnation, the embodied presence of the resurrected Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit... the church is.... the laboratory for communal life before God, the model that the world can see.... as the basis for its own rebirth."

I can think of no better example of this principle at work than in what Paul prescribes for Philemon, Onesimus and the church that met in Philemon’s home.

Here is a brief summary of what Paul urges but first a little background on this letter:

Philemon was a Christian leader in the churches that met in around Colossae. We can deduce that he came to follow Jesus through Paul's church planting efforts in this region. He and Paul had become friends, Philemon probably had helped financially with Paul's ministry, and now one of the regional churches met in Philemon's home. Onesimus, one of Philemon's household slaves had run away, perhaps stealing money on the way out the door. Somehow Onesimus ends up coming to Paul who is under house arrest - perhaps in Rome? He becomes converted and Paul desires to see Philemon and Onesimus reconciled. Most likely, Onesimus carried this letter to Philemon, asking for reconciliation, along with the epistle to the Colossians when he returned from being with Paul to home.

The gospel at work!

What is so remarkable about this letter is how Paul goes about leading these two brothers into reconciliation with one another. He does it through a bold series of representational identifications putting into action his words in 2 Corinthians 5:18 where he challenges us to a ministry of reconciliation. First, Paul identifies himself and Philemon as brothers in Christ (v7). Secondly, he identifies himself as Onesimus' father ( v.10). Lastly he urges Philemon to accept Onesimus and be reconciled to him as no longer a slave, but as a dear brother (v.16). Later in the letter he identifies himself with Onesimus yet again when he tells Philemon to charge whatever Onesimus owes him to his (Paul's) account. This whirlwind of identifications all suggest one thing: Paul is boldly representing Christ to Philemon and to Onesimus. As one theologian has put it, Paul is standing in the middle of them with one arm on each of them and drawing them together, mirroring Christ's role as mediator between us and our father. Luther saw in Paul's logic a great picture of the gospel. Paul is taking Onesimus' debt to himself and appealing to Philemon not based on his feelings for Onesimus but on Philemon's feelings for him (Paul). Basically Paul is saying this: reconcile with Onesimus because of your love for me, because of my love for Onesimus, and charge his debt to me. This is rhetorical drama at its best. Paul has painted a picture with words where he plays the role of Christ, thus subtly yet surely drawing Philemon into the presence of Christ and his reconciling love for him, Paul, and Onesimus. Paul has truly appealed to Philemon based on love (v.9) and not law, knowing that only love can produce true transformation and reconciliation.

To put it another way with a slightly different emphasis, in the exhortation to Philemon we have Paul creating an analogy of the gospel by the way he appeals to Philemon to be reconciled to Onesimus. Philemon is beckoned to be reconciled to Onesimus because of Paul’ love for both of them and, implicitly, because of God’s family love for all of them. Just as God has received all of us because of Christ, Philemon is to receive Onesimus. Philemon is being exhorted to give up his rights as a Roman pater familia, or head of household and recognize his identity as an equal to Onesimus in the family of God. One cannot help but think here of the Christ hymn in Philippians 1 where believers are exhorted to take on the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, who did not regard equality with God as something to be used to his advantage but emptied himself and took on the form of the slave. Philemon is to take on the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, that of a slave, emptying himself of his power, and becoming a slave to his servant, Onesimus.

Onesimus and Philemon are invited, exhorted, to turn their lives over to the work of gospel - they are to be reconciled through the power of the Holy Spirit. The main point I want to draw from all of this is that the place ordained of God for this sort of gospel reconciliation to happen is in the church, the laboratory for communal life before God (see above) that the world watches for clues about how to experience the renewal God intends for humanity. Note very well that this letter is a letter not just to Philemon but to the public gathering meeting in his home; this reconciliation is meant to happen in the context of the public church and because of the church, teaching us that the gospel is meant to be performed physically and acted out physically in relationships within the public body of Christ. We are called and graced by God, through our involvement with church, to be the physical representation of God’s salvation in the world, pointing forwards, in hope, to the consummation of God’s redemptive work. It is through the church that God has put on display for all to see the power of his redemption at work.

Questions for discussion:

1. It is often said that Christians in our society suffer from a consumer mentality when it comes to thinking through our commitment to the physical body of Christ, the church. Do you agree? Explain it in your own words and offer examples.

2. Does it put you in awe to think of the church as a laboratory for the world to learn from? What is the most important sort of thing the world is meant to learn from the church according to the Luke Timothy Johnson quote from above? Based on your conversations with folks from outside the church, what do you think most people have learned from their observation of churches? (I know there are as many answers as people to to this but maybe your own anecdote will be helpful to the group.)

3. If you were to say in your own words why you want to be in the habit of going to church, what would you say?


Let me be the first to say that the letter to Philemon in the New Testament is a difficult letter to deal with, especially in our socio-cultural setting. Apart from simply being so distant from our experience, the letter begs so many questions. Why in this letter and elsewhere does St. Paul not, in the name of God's kingdom, call for an abolition to slavery? Why does he not just tell Philemon outright that he ought not to own slaves instead of begging the two of them to reconcile with each other as equals in Christ. A full answer, whatever a full answer would be, to these questions would take us far afield from what we can do this morning but we can note a couple of things quickly. If Paul had chosen to challenge Rome with an anti-slavery message, the rising Christian movement would have probably been snuffed out like so many other failed slave revolts; indeed, it would have likely been perceived widely as nothing more than a salve revolt, so common and fleeting were they. Instead, Paul in Philemon and elsewhere, sews the seeds of a new society, where social relationships in the church begin to mimic the perfectly egalitarian Kingdom of God where there is neither Jew nor Greek, male and female, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all (conflation of Col.3:11; Gal.3:28). We need to remember that because of this the gospel was the most dangerous - in a good way - sort of challenge to the abuses of power built into Roman law; because, rather than confronting authoritarianism and its abuses in a typically revolutionary way, the gospel created a new community within the old world and rendered Roman law ultimately irrelevant to the relationships of the new humanity in the body of Christ, the church.

This is how New Testament Scholar, Gordon Fee talks about the revolutionary power of the gospel with regard to the kind of social relationships in the Roman world where people had power over others: male and female; fathers and children; masters and slaves, etc.:

“Such.... ....was not intended to abolish the structures, which were held in place by Roman law. Rather, it was intended forever to do away with the significance attached to such structural differences, which pitted one group of human beings against another. And the most radical thing of all was that such people - Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women - shared a common meal together, itself a cause for cultural shame, and thus celebrated their Lord’s death until he was to come again—which, as 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 makes clear, created considerable tension for the traditional householder. No wonder the world had such difficulty with these early Christians, and why they were considered to be “haters of humanity,” because they so willingly broke the rules - not by tearing down the structures, but by making them ultimately irrelevant! Such people are greatly to be feared as they are the worst of all possible anarchists.
So what in the end is it that makes our present text so radically counter-cultural? What Paul obviously did not do was to demolish the structures and create new ones. What was radical lay in his urging those who are filled with the Spirit and worship Christ as Lord to have totally transformed relationships within the household.”