The Transforming Heart of Christianity
VI - The Church and Community
The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
April 9, 2003
We are now at the close of our series. We began by looking at the Bible and the process whereby we develop our doctrinal identity as Christians. We then talked about the nature of humanity and sin, followed by the separate, holy nature of God. Those concepts meet at the doctrine of Salvation whereby we are reconciled to God through the person of Jesus Christ. We unfold the meaning of our salvation through baptism, the Eucharist, and the discipline of worship.
Those things change us. The next question is, having been changed, how do we change the world? That is our challenge for this evening.
The primary mechanism for representing the Christian vision is the Church. I speak of the Church with a big “C” in the sense of the collected work and wisdom of all communities of baptized believers who function within the parameters of the doctrines we have outlined over the past few weeks. Their work is the work of the Body of Christ.
Defining the church and its role was obviously a key concern of the early Christians. The word “church” or “churches” ( ekklesia /ek kle si a/) occurs 118 times in the Epistles. The larger question is how important it was to Jesus, who is only quoted as using the words on two separate occasions. Both passages are in Matthew, and both are quite possibly later additions to the gospel [Matt 16:18; Matt 18:15-22].
Jesus, in general, did not speak of the founding of a Church. He spoke of the “ Kingdom of God” and the “ Kingdom of Heaven” (a phrase unique to Matthew). He mentions the phrase over 80 times. Some people get a little hung up on the word “kingdom” because they think its overtones are too masculine. Since God is neither male nor female, “Realm of God” is perhaps a more accurate translation of the phrase. Nevertheless, some people avoid “Kingdom” because they wish to imply that we are somehow equal partners with God in some sort of “Democracy of Heaven.” That is, of course, ludicrous. We do have our part to play in the Realm of God; but it’s God’s realm. It is the fulfillment of the perfect will of God, and God is in control [Matt 12:28; 22:1-14].
In the Sermon on the Mount, the Realm of God is the place where the weak and oppressed find victory and affirmation over the violent and the powerful [Matt 5; Luke 6:20]. Elsewhere in Matthew, Jesus describes the Realm of God as an irresistible force that, once introduced, takes over what it touches [Matt 13:31-33]. It is a place where greatness and success are measured by radically different values [Matt 18:1-4]; and where the practice of piety counts for more than the appearance of faithfulness [Matt 21:31].
For Jesus, the Realm of God was an immediate and vital product of his ministry and presence [Matt 4:17]. Jesus’ presence brought it about [Luke 17:20-21], and proclamation of the arrival of the Realm of God was a key part of his task and the good news of the gospel [Luke 4:43]. In addition, despite our desire to dumb down that message, it was much more than “accept Me as your Savior and be a member of the Realm of Heaven.” In fact, Jesus explicitly says the opposite, proclaiming that not all those who call upon His name will be part of the Realm of God. Only those who do the things God wants done are welcomed into that new realm. The rest are turned away even if they have proclaimed Jesus “Lord.” [Matt 7:21].
The connection between doing things and the Realm of God is found throughout Jesus’ teachings on the Realm of Heaven. The things that Jesus expects to us are counterintuitive (as in the paradoxes of the Sermon on the Mount). They run contrary to the demands of all greed and success-driven societies everywhere [e.g. Luke 18:24]. They even run contrary to common sense.
This has created no small difficulty for those of us who wish to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. Although Jesus’ teachings on the Realm of God offered explicit, practical advice on what we must do to be part of the Realm of God; Christian pragmatists have insisted that much of what Jesus describes is impossible in this world. Consequently, they have found several different ways to understand the nature of the Realm of God. Howard Snyder offers a careful breakdown of each of these in his excellent book Models of the Kingdom and describes the varying approaches as follows:
Obviously, many of these are not mutually exclusive, and some of them are more distressing than others. Attempts at forming a utopian political state have – for instance – inevitably led to brutal and oppressive tyrannies. “Christian” cultures generally become more influenced by their own cultural norms than Christianity (see, for instance, recent proclamations that Jesus was not a pacifist by those who think Christianity is wedded to conservative American politics).
Yet the Realm of God is, indeed, our ultimate future hope. We look forward to a day when its promise is fulfilled completely and the world is transformed to the image of God and the teachings of Jesus [Rev 21:1-4]. Likewise, there is a strong connection between our inner transformation and the Realm of God [e.g. John 3:5]. The joining of the people of God into the Body of Christ is also a component in that Realm [I Cor 12:18]. The church is representative of that union and an instrument of that Realm [Eph 5:29-30].
Of all these images, however, the one most clearly adopted by the early Church was the image of Christians as an agent for change working against the systems of power and wealth that ran the world. As Snyder points out (79), the Jewish leaders of Thessalonica referred to the followers of Jesus as “those people who have been turning the world upside down” [Acts 17:6]. As a community, they shared everything in common, with those who had more giving to those who had less [Acts 5:32-37]. They also proclaimed the radical notion that, in Christ, none of the traditional social distinctions apply. Male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek – none of it matters in the Realm of Heaven [Gal 3:28].
Such behavior, which made as little sense in their culture as it does in ours, was directly rooted in Jesus’ teachings. We are told in the gospels that Jesus made it clear that collecting wealth, even saving money for our basic needs, was pointless and showed a lack of faith [Luke 12:13-31]. Jesus even taught that those who were rich (and note that almost any American, even those well below the poverty line, would likely have been considered rich by the standards of Jesus’ time) should give away all of their possessions if they wish to be saved [Mark 10:21-27]. The unequivocal message of Jesus is that we can either seek rewards and success here on Earth or we can seek the eternal rewards of the Realm of Heaven; but we cannot do both. They are mutually exclusive [Matt 6:19-21, 24-33].
This perhaps deserves a little repetition and elaboration. Everyone I know, even the best Christian, fails according to the standard Jesus set for being a part of the Realm of Heaven. We fail according to the radical standards of the Early Church, and we fail according to the words of our Savior. We try to rationalize this with all sorts of pragmatic, self-serving explanations of why we really need the things we have; but in moments of self-honesty we must admit that all of those excuses ring hollow.
The truth is that, alongside a gospel of repentance and self-transformation, Jesus also preached a social gospel of societal reform and cultural transformation. As Christians, we are obligated to preach both and work for both. We have addressed the internal aspect of the gospel in the lectures on Salvation (which is its initiation) and Worship (which nurtures it); so please do not think that I am subordinating them. Yet as we speak the truth of sin and salvation, we do so in the context of loving service to one another [Snyder beautifully ties this to Eph 4:15].
In the history of our faith, there are several examples of Christians who have seen the radical nature of that obligation and lived lives of absolute service and complete rebellion against the priorities of the world at-large. Most of them ended up with “Saint” in front of their name. They include people like St. Patrick and St. Francis of Assisi and contemporary Christian examples like Mother Theresa and Clarence Jordan.
The chief interpreter of the relevance of the social gospel to our contemporary situation is Walter Rauschenbusch – whose A Theology for the Social Gospel is the seminal work for modern understandings of our tangible obligations as Christians. Rauschenbusch describes salvation as the “voluntary socializing of the soul” (199). Those who are saved are conscious of their connection to the larger community in which we live. Rauschenbusch goes on to say that sanctification – the process of becoming Christlike – requires service. He writes, “Parasitism blinds; work reveals” (202).
As Rauschenbusch explains. we cannot be like the Pharisees who made their obligatory tithes and ignored their obligations to fight injustice, offer mercy, and nurture faith [Matt 23:23-24]. We cannot settle for our tithes and our mission offerings and say “we are doing our part.” As long as there is injustice and we are comfortable, we are not really doing our part. As long as there is violence and we are not standing between the attacker and the victim, we are not doing our part. As long as there is hunger and we are throwing out our leftovers, we are not doing our part. Jesus didn’t tell us to do our share or do what is reasonable, he told us to do everything that we could [Matt 5:31].
John Buchanan, a leader in the Presbyterian Church (USA), says that seekers come into our churches seeking affirmation and purpose. Consequently, we should offer them a word of grace and a word of responsibility (Buchanan 101-102). I would go even a little farther and say that, as recipients of grace, we must also offer a word of obligation. As a people who are saved from our own weaknesses and mortalities, we must work to heal the ways in which the collective weaknesses of humanity wound and injure our neighbors.
This is not something we can do or even should do, it is something we must do. To be quite frank, it is more than I can handle. I am not a good enough Christian to live up to the standard Jesus set for rejecting the seductions of wealth and luxury. I am not a good enough Christian to invite everyone into my home – regardless of how badly their bodies or their political views smell. Jesus’ audience clearly understood this when he told them about giving away all our possessions, and they replied that it seemed like no one would be saved. Jesus responded that they were right, it was impossible, but that with God all things are possible [Luke 18:26-27].
That word of grace should be a comfort to us as we recognize our own failures as followers of Jesus. It does not, however, release us from the obligation to try. If you will remember, one image that I offered of salvation comes from Barth. In his model, our Christian journey is one of a gradually unfolding understanding of our salvation through Jesus. Moving more and more deeply into a life of sacrifice and service is part of that journey; and we should never assume that we have reached the end of it.
One tool for helping us on that journey is the Church. As I have already stated, Jesus really didn’t talk about the Church, but the apostles talked about it quite a bit. In the absence of the physical presence of Jesus, we frail humans need a structure to preserve for us the teachings of Jesus and our heritage of faith. The best that we have come up with is the Church.
It has several different permutations. One common model is the episcopal model, where bishops provide oversight to priests who in turn provide guidance to local parishes. Bishops are selected and consecrated by their peers; and a general continuity of doctrine and practice is preserved in this way.
Another model is the presbyterian one. In this system, congregations agree to be in covenant to their collective wisdom. They do this by electing “presbyters” (representatives) who meet and make authoritative pronouncements for their denomination.
A third way is congregational polity. Congregational polity recognizes no higher temporal authority than the local church. Each community of baptized believers is free to act, worship, and serve as they are led by the Holy Spirit, and their accountability is to each other. Our church practices congregational polity, while also recognizing the importance of accountability to the larger Christian community.
There is considerable misunderstanding of congregational polity. Many people see it as a dumbing-down of faith since for some it reinforces the belief that any nincompoop can lead a church or guide its ministry. In fact, congregational polity is dependent on the assumption that every single believer is obligated to be an informed and studious Christian. Priesthood of the Believer (a common name for this concept) does not mean that any idiot can serve as a priest. It means that we are all called not to be idiots. Every believer is obligated to seek the education and spiritual discipline expected of one who would be a religious leader.
Nevertheless, almost all Christian groups that practice congregational polity ordain clergy. Although they generally do not subscribe to the sacerdotalism of episcopal traditions, they recognize that certain people are called to particular roles within their faith communities. Clergy are the people entrusted with the traditions of the faith and the history of how they are interpreted. They provide context for the local congregation, helping it to locate its mission and its identity within the larger identity of the whole Body of Christ.
These lectures have been part of just such a process. Their focus has been, from the beginning, on Christianity which transforms. We began with the Scriptures, the detailed accounts of those who have been shaped by the presence of God into communities which were separate from the world. We then looked at ourselves, recognizing the presence of sin in our lives and our need for change. We moved on to look at the nature of God as the ideal for what we should be, the ultimate goal of our transformation.
Salvation is the point where those two meet. I have discouraged an objective quantification of salvation since I don’t think Scripture offers one. I think the best approach for a believer is to rely on the mercy and mystery of God to have accomplished our salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection; and accept that we are constantly moving to a deeper understanding of what it means to be saved. Baptism is our entryway to that understanding. The Eucharist is the ritual meal which nourishes it and our sense of community. Worship is the discipline which helps to regularly remind us of the ways in which we are called to be different from the world around us.
Even as our worship, prayer, and study shape us, so must we shape the world from which we are separate. Cooperatively through the Church and our churches, and individually; we must work for the radical image of equality, freedom, love, service, mercy, generosity, and sharing which Jesus proclaimed. It is an impossible ideal, but if it were anything else it would not be worth our time.
Working for that ideal is dangerous stuff, and we are tempted to say that no one can really follow the example of Jesus and live. When we fall into that temptation, may we be reminded that Jesus came to where his disciples had gathered in fear, offered them peace, showed them the scars on his hands and his sides, and said “As the Father has sent me, so send I you” [ John 20:19-21].
Evans, Christopher H., ed. The Social Gospel Today. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
Rauschenbusch, Walter. Walter Rauschenbusch: Selected Writings. Winthrop S. Hudson, ed. New York: Paulist Press, 1984.
Buchanan, John. Being Church, Becoming Community. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.
Fullenbach, John. Church: Community for the Kingdom. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002.
Snyder, Howard A. Models of the Kingdom. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1991.
Clifford, Paul Rowntree. The Reality of the Kingdom of God: Making Sense of God’s Reign in a World Like Ours. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996.
Kavanaugh, John Francis. Following Christ in a Consumer Society: The Spirituality of Cultural Resistance. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1982.