What is Church?

There are many definitions of “Church,” and I suspect this may be one of those words the interpretation of which has done much to divide Christendom over the millennia. In Evangelicalism, we are all too familiar with the idea that the church is not a building, but a community of God’s people. While this doesn’t really do much to define anything greater than a social club, it seems to suffice for many of us. And it worked for me until a short time ago when I came to the realisation that is is so much more–greater, deeper, and more transformational–than that.

Having been intensely (and critically, often cynically) looking into this idea of what Church is for the past 3-4 years, I came across this simple definition from Brian McLaren today in MINEmergent:

Church is a space in which the Spirit works to form Christlike people, and it is the space in which human beings, formed in Christlike love, cooperate with the Spirit and one another to express that love in word and deed, art and action.

Truth is, I’ve read that before, but never has it stuck with me as it has just now. A social club cannot meet this criteria. A sporting group can’t transform people in this way. This is the essence of what “Church” is all about. Anything beyond this is window-dressing, politics, tradition, or religiosity.

Redemption

“God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Excerpt from Colossians 1:9-14)

When was the last time you heard the word “redeem” outside of church?

Whenever it was, I’m willing to bet it had something to do with coupons [vouchers]. Which is actually sort of what Paul’s talking about here. To redeem something means to pay a debt that’s owed on it. When you take your coupon to the store, we say you’re redeeming that coupon; actually, it’s the store that’s redeeming it when they give you your 10% off.

Paul’s claim is that whatever sins you’ve committed have built up a debt, and that Jesus has paid it off.  Christianity’s party line for some time now has been that the debt you owe is death, and that Jesus paid that debt off by his own death.  Maybe—but perhaps there’s another way to think of it.

At root, sin is about spending our lives on things that are not worth spending our lives on.  Spend enough of your life on the wrongs things, and it can start to seem like you owe your life to them. Maybe what Jesus does is to give us a purpose, holy and high, to which we can devote ourselves when we sicken of being in thrall to lesser purposes. Maybe he redeems us not by paying off a debt, but by showing us that we don’t actually owe our sins anything. That we have in fact always been free to walk away from them and back home to God.

Maybe redemption is finding something—someOne—worth spending your life on.

God, don’t let me or the world trick me into believing I owe anything to anyone but you.  Amen.

–Reflection by Quinn G. Caldwell, from StillSpeaking

Hallelujah (Let there be Joy!)

Yesterday we celebrated the third Sunday of Advent. The theme was ‘Joy’ and we remember this week the overwhelming joy of those who witnessed the coming of Jesus so many years ago.

 

Joy to the world, the Lord is come.
Let earth receive her King.
Let every heart prepare him room,
And Heaven and nature sing!

He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness
And wonders of his love.

I really enjoyed seeing (and hearing) the Adelaide Chamber Singers brilliant performance of

Handel‘s Messiah last Friday night at St Peter’s Cathedral. Together with a small string orchestra, an organ, timpani and a couple of trumpets, they drew us into a beautiful reflection on the birth, passion and power of Jesus Christ. The near-perfect rendition was not abridged, even though the Christmas themes are confined mainly to the first part. Truly this work needs to be taken within the framework and context of the whole. One example of taking it out-of-context is the one chorus that is often used as a Christmas centerpiece: Hallelujah.

Within the oratorio, the Hallelujah Chorus appears at the end of ‘Part the Second’ which speaks about the passion of the Christ and his second coming as a righteous judge, who will shake the heavens and earth, who will laugh at the calamity of the nations, and will judge the heathen in his wrath. The culmination of this Divine rage is  ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ. And he shall reign forever and ever: King of kings and Lord of lords.’

I have to say that I prefer taking this chorus outside of its context because, to me, it is a positive affirmation of the truth that one day Jesus will return and bring his perfect kingdom. In this new heavens and new earth, all will be as it was created to be. In that day the cry on everyone’s lips will be ‘Hallelujah, for the all-powerful Lord reigns.’

And I can think of no better thought this Advent season than that of the One who was born in a manger, who walked on this earth, who took on our humanness, and who ultimately conquered death, coming once again to this earth in answer to our prayer ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done; as in heaven, so on earth.’

Even so, come Lord Jesus.

Thy Kingdom Come

If we try to make the church into the kingdom of God, we create a false idol that will disappoint us.  If we try to make the world itself into the kingdom, we will always be resentful when it does not come through.  If we make a later heaven into the kingdom, we miss most of its transformative message for now.  We are not waiting for the coming of an ideal church or any perfect world here and now, or even for the next world.  The kingdom is more than all of these.  It is always here and not here.  It is always now and not yet.  No institution can encompass it.  That is rather clear in the texts where Jesus describes the kingdom.

All false religion proceeds in a certain sense from one illusion.  When people say piously, “Thy kingdom come” out of one side of their mouth, they need also to say, “My kingdom go!” out of the other side.  The kingdom of God supersedes and far surpasses all kingdoms of self and society or personal reward.

Adapted from Preparing for Christmas with Richard Rohr, p.13

Christ

I cannot talk about the season of Advent–or any season on the church calendar–without speaking of Jesus. He is the centre of all Christian celebrations.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, or Sarcastic Lutheran (as she is known on her blog) preached the following on Christ the King Sunday:

Yet when it comes down to it the most reliable way to legitimately know anything at all about the nature of God is to look to how God chose to reveal God’s self in Christ.  And most notably we see who God is in how God chose to reveal God’s self on the cross.  And just to be clear: The cross is not about God as divine child abuser sadly sending his little boy off to be killed because we were bad and well, somebody had to pay.  Because the irony about viewing the cross this way is that the whole thing was about God saying  pay attention – don’t avert your eyes from the cross.  This this is the logical end of your value system. Here is where it will always end. In the suffering of God.  Here is the extent I will go says God to defy your idea of me as a vengeful God.  If you think I am about smiting your enemies then think again for I will not lift even a finger to condemn those who hung me. I will simply not be known as the God of vengeance.  I will simply not allow you to project your puffed up human traits on me as though I’m a bigger better version of the best parts of you or a bigger badder version of the worst parts of you

On the cross we don’t see a legal transaction where Jesus pays our debt.  We see God. The Word made flesh hangs from the cross. And let there be no mistake – this is Christ the King. And while his scornful and shameful death is insulting to our idea of a king and a God the divine royalty of Christ is simply unassailable.  by us or anyone else.  because sometimes things are so holy that they cannot be desecrated try as we might.

In the previous chapter of Luke as Jesus sits at table sharing his last supper with his friends they break out in an argument over who will be the greatest.  Jesus says “the greatest of you must become like the youngest and the leader like one who serves…I confer on you says Jesus to his faltering friends “I confer on you a kingdom so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and you will sit on thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel.

Even Jesus speaks of his kingdom and of thrones and judgment.  Yet today on Christ the king Sunday we see that Christ’s kingdom is comprised of thieves and Christ-deniers.  Today on Christ the King Sunday we see our king enthroned yet the throne is not one of gold and jewel but of  blood and puke stained wood and the crown is not one of gold and jewel but of twisted thorn. And as his crown is piercing his brow it is from here the King of Glory judges the world who put him on a cross.  From his rough hewn throne of a cross Jesus looks at the world…those who betrayed him, those who executed him those who loved him and those who ignored him and he judges it all.  The pronouncement is made and the judgment is ….forgiveness.  Forgive them Father for they know not what they are doing is, as my friend Justin reminded me this week,  an eternally valid statement. From his cross Christ the King loves the betrayer, the violent, the God killer in all of us. Because his divine self was unmockable.  Protected and apart and unmanipulatable by our opinions and value systems.  And it finally is only a God who enters our human existence and suffers our insults with only love and forgiveness who can save us from ourselves.  It is only a self-emptying God who walked among  as Christ Jesus, who, in the words of St Paul, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,  humbled himself to the point of death— even death on a cross. (Read the entire sermon here).

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Brian McLaren on The Propitiation Question:

. . . [T]he question itself is problematic because it rests on assumptions about God and God’s nature that need to be examined. Many of us saw that – to use your terms – there is original blessing in the Bible, and there is the reality of sin – and it doesn’t make sense to minimize one to magnify the other. That made a lot of us look for a deeper question – and for me, that question is, “What is the biblical narrative really about?” If it’s about “sin management” – dealing with the “problem” of sin as a legal problem, we’ll read the Bible in one way. If it’s about creation, liberation, reconciliation (and, I might add, incarnation) … we’ll read the Bible differently.

So what is your straight, non-sidestepping, no-holds-barred take on “The Propitiation Question?”

The best way I can reply, since I think the category of propitiation is often defined within an unhelpful and other-than-biblical narrative, is in the form of some questions:
1. Who was the primary audience for the suffering and death of Jesus? Was it intended to bring about a change in God, or in us? Since I don’t think God needs to change, but rather we do, I’d vote for the latter.

2. Where do we centrally locate God the Father on good Friday – in and with the political and religious leaders, condemning and torturing Jesus? Or in Jesus, suffering injustice with and for us? Again, I’d vote the latter.

3. Does Jesus, in some mysterious way, absorb/redirect the hostility of God towards us, or the hostility of us towards God? Again, I’d vote for the latter. (I think this is what C. S. Lewis was after in his idea of “the perfect penitent.”)

In each case, perhaps a case could be made for the former; there are ways we could say there is truth in the former. But I think the weight of meaning is found in the latter option. Many people see everything from within the conventional narrative and so they can’t even imagine Jesus being important apart from it, and that’s a major reason why, I think, they are so adamant in defending it.