The role of the church as an agent of public welfare or a custodian of charitable projects is much in the news at the moment. In this article, adapted from a recent address, I return to the foundational calling of the church as an agent of a much larger hope - one which goes beyond mere instrumentality, and one which is in danger of being obscured by finding too convenient a niche in the established social order.
Readings: Exodus 19:2-8a, Psalm 100, Romans 5:1-8, Matthew 9: 35 - 10:8.
Church ritual has a curious way of reflecting the reality it ought to aspire to; that of God’s back-to-front kingdom where the first are last and the last first. At the service where he was instituted Anglican Bishop of Worcester in 1997, Peter Selby (who has since retired and taken on a significant role monitoring Britain’s prisons) spent a few moments at the beginning of the ceremony explaining what was about to happen.
The exceedingly lengthy procession around the Cathedral, he noted, could be seen as a polite exercise in trying to barge your way to the back of the line. Anglicans, you see, have learned something (liturgically, at least) from that famous Gospel story where Jesus’ followers rushed to take the important places at the head of the table only to be chided for their positional arrogance. However, it is perhaps a sign that the Church continues to struggle with the Gospel it proclaims, the incoming bishop suggested, when prelates and princes still manage to claim the designated place of honour in our processions and structures, rather than the paupers and prisoners who should rightfully be there according to Matthew 19:30 and 20:16.
The same point is made by a well-known anecdote from the Middle East, in which a vocal Holy Man rushes around the market arena shouting, “I am nothing, I am nothing!”. Looking on, an outraged onlooker yells back: “Who on earth do you think you are, reckoning you’re good enough to be nothing?” We can only wonder what he would have said to St Paul, who tells the Christians in Rome that he and his companions are right to “boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” For those who sometimes find the chief apostle a little difficult to stomach, this exercise in apparent spiritual preening might be enough to confirm their worst suspicions. But, as is often the case, Paul is taking the ‘normal’ assumptions of the surrounding culture, both religious and civic, and turning them on their head.
His whole point about “justification by faith” (elsewhere unpacked more fully as “justification by grace through faith”) is not to turn faith into another “work” by which the religious hope to curry favour with God (as Luther tellingly puts it). Instead, something like the opposite obtains. For this is the doctrine that tells us, contrary to popular wisdom, that we are not made whole by what we believe about God, but by God’s remarkable and entirely counter-intuitive belief in us wayward human beings. Paul is saying something quite revolutionary here: that God chooses to by-pass the calculus of merit, and instead to become intimate with humanity through the self-sacrificial love of Jesus’ tortured and crucified flesh, so that even this can be brought into God’s gift of abundant, unrestricted life.
It is only love of this divine quality that can finally overcome the destruction we get caught up in through our twisted desires. And this love is made available to all who seek it, free of charge. That’s the message. God’s transforming, gratuitous love cannot be bargained on to our side through worldly status, religious observance, moral rectitude, meritorious deeds, or special pleading. As Paul knowingly puts it, if you’re going to indulge in some type of special pleading (that’s what he means by “boasting”) let it be a plea based on something genuinely special – the divine invitation to let go of self-justification in order to share “God’s sufferings in the world” – the phrase, echoing Paul, is Bonhoeffer’s, penned from his prison cell.
For what happens when we are joined to Christ’s body, says Paul, is that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit given to us.” What’s more – and this is great news for those of us for whom “religion” is a burden rather than a joy – God’s concern is for the ungodly, not those styled by the inherited system as respectably righteous.
Hope in the triumph of a good able to achieve real change, to turn our grasping world inside out, is not a matter of individual aspiration or wish-fulfilment. It requires a community of character – people trained, through prayerfulness, through human service and through genuine mutuality (what we rather piously call “fellowship”), to go on enduring, in spite of everything. Such endurance becomes possible not via the superhuman efforts of a few spiritual athletes, but through the recognition of us plain, ordinary people that we are empowered by a promise and a possibility that goes way beyond our own capacities – one residing nowhere less than in the heart of God.
“Being church” is first and foremost about nurturing the understanding that this is how things really are – even if the way we behave and the way the world looks to us often suggests something else. Church isn’t primarily about projects, meetings, fine buildings, grand ideas and great deeds. There’s nothing wrong with such things – if they really do embody God’s unconditional love. But if they are simply about our need to boast, to be needed, to neurotically “do something”, then they risk missing the point catastrophically. The point of the kind of community we call “church” is to develop the type of worship, common life and shared purpose that will continue to sustains us in living out Christ’s sacrificial love in every aspect of life, even when the going gets tough.
A tough situation is precisely the context of the end of Matthew chapter nine and its continuation in chapter 10. Here Jesus gathers a band of followers and sends them on a mission to bring hope and healing to ordinary people (many of whom would be unclean and suspicious to the powers that be). It is God’s overwhelming gratuity that is to be lived and demonstrated in even an apocalyptic time, the one here being imaged by the impending wholesale destruction of Jerusalem, the holy city, by the Roman army under Titus in AD70 – the end of the world as the Jews had hitherto known it.
In his Meditations on the Cross, Bonhoeffer similarly writes about living at the end of the world, in a situation of seemingly irresolvable crisis. For him, everyday life was increasingly full of Nazis. In this dark time, as the storm clouds of war gathered, he declared: “The world is overcome not through destruction, but through reconciliation. Not ideals, nor programmes, nor conscience, nor duty, nor responsibility, nor virtue, but only God's perfect love can encounter reality and overcome it. Nor is it some universal idea of love, but rather the love of God in Jesus Christ, a love genuinely lived, that does this.”
A love genuinely lived by a people joined to Christ for the sake of the world. That is the church and its mission in a simple phrase. It amounts to becoming what Exodus 19 calls “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” – a people who are prepared to stand out from the prevailing culture and mediate God by the quality of their lives, not by accommodating to the ethics of Pharaoh. The priesthood involved here is not primarily a cultic one reserved for a few, but a growing body of believers, animated by an enabling ministry, who can (in the words of the First Epistle of Peter, picking up this ancient Hebrew phrase) “show others the goodness of God, for which you were called out of the darkness into God’s wonderful light.”
Simone Weil, the early twentieth century French mystic, philosopher and revolutionary who expended her very fragile life in reckless service of others, once said: “If you want to know whether someone is truly spiritual, don’t listen to what they say about God, listen to what they say about the world.” It is in relation to those who are hurting, grieving, abused and disregarded that we discover whether we have hearts of flesh or hearts of stone. It is those battered by life (who might also include us) that Jesus saw and, says St Matthew, “had compassion for, because they were harassed and helpless.”
In a time of trial, Bonhoeffer suggested, Christians are bound to do two things. First, to develop what he called “the arcane discipline”, confession and prayerful dependence upon God as a matter of daily routine. (1) Second, to act justly as believers and to stand up for justice in the world. For this we need nourishment, and it is close at hand. The resources upon which we Christians depend are not, at the end of the day, fundraising efforts, brilliant ideas or strategic plans – important though those might be from time to time! No, they are a small group of friends gathered around a table to share bread and wine. For in this action, we are not only constituted as a people bound together by the life upon which we depend, we are also recipients of God’s strange belief in us.
There are, of course, many other meanings attached to the act of communion. So many, in fact, that the church has often been tempted to engage in demeaning and Christ-denying disputes over them. (2) But this meaning, at least, is indisputable and truly humbling. In whatever way we interpret it, when we eat bread and drink wine at the Lord’s table, in recognition that “the kingdom of heaven has come near”, and in longing for its fulfilment, God comes into our hands, inviting us to take the divine life, to be changed by it, to share it and to multiply it. (3) Ordinary people receiving life and learning to share it: this, again, is what the church is when it is truly being the church – rather than some kind of warring sect, some variety of self-important institution, some sort of lobby group, or some type of religious club.
In looking at the possibilities that lie ahead for Christians in a post-Christendom era, where we may often have to get used to smallness and vulnerability, this remains the true invitation and challenge. To discover how to be part of Christ’s life-giving body in a variety local and global contexts. For “indeed, the whole earth is mine” says the God of life. “But you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” (4)
(1) See also L Gregory Jones, Embodying Forgiveness: A theological analysis, p.30f (Eerdmans, USA, 1995).
(2) 'The dependence of God' is a wonderful sermon preached by Colin M. Morris at the Methodist Conference in 1976 - it is reproduced in his book of sermons and occasional pieces, Bugles in the Afternoon (Epworth Press, 1977).
(3) For further reflection on the personal and political transformations wrought by Eucharistic celebration, see 'Being consumed again by love' in (ed.) Simon Barrow Fear or freedom? Why a warring church must change (Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia, 2008) - http://tinyurl.com/4h7hw7 
(4) Exodus 19. 2-8a. See also: John Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics As Gospel (University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He blogs at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com  and his website is at http://www.simonbarrow.net . This article is adapted from an address for the Fifth Sunday in Pentecost, given at St Stephen's Anglican Church, Central Exeter, on 15 June 2008. http://www.stephenproject.org.uk/  The book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change , edited by Simon Barrow, is published by Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia.