Tuesday, 5 May 2009

What is church? - An essay

‘I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he trims clean so it will be even more fruitful…This is to my Fathers glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love…My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.’ John 15:1-2,8-9,12

The church can be seen as a vine, its roots spreading out across many nations, its branches representing the multiple people that the church is made up of, with Jesus the middle trunk from whom the Christian church grows and finds its purpose.[1] Here we have an ecclesiology, understanding who the church is gathered to, rather than that which the church is gathered from, for we understand the church as being gathered to Christ, rather than the church being gathered out of the world.[2] The church therefore is gathered to Christ and therefore, those who make up the church are those who are ‘in Christ’[3] and a part of his ‘gathering’[4]. From the words of Jesus in John’s gospel, it appears that the church however is also defined by what it does and the fruit it produces, rather than simply its place within the vine. A church could be understood in terms of how much fruit it bears as a sign to its dependence upon the vine, namely Jesus. Without doubt, in a culture like Britain that is driven by capitalism, anything that is not seen to making a profit and earning success from that which has been put into it is thrown away[5], so one must resist the same attitude and read into Jesus’ words a western capitalist understanding. How one understands what is good fruit is open to interpretation yet we can see that this fruit comes through God and by being in Christ. Fruit cannot come unless a branch remains in the vine. This picture of bearing fruit seems to be something that is active rather than passive. Something is going on. A church therefore could be seen to be something that is active in its desire to bear much fruit, understood in terms of its being in Christ, by the Spirit. What, therefore, is this fruit and how does this help us understand a community as church?

God is a God who sends. At creation he sent his Word and spoke into creation with his Spirit brooding over the chaos. He sent Moses to free his people from Egypt and sent his people to be a light to the world to reveal who he is. He sent his Son to bring redemption to all of creation and then sent His Spirit into the world to make Christ known. He then sends his church to continue in the Priestly ministry of Christ, baptising and making disciples.[6] Therefore, if God is a God who sends, then the Church is called to continue in that sent-ness, making Christ known in the world. God is understood to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a perfect community that displays complete and perfect love. The Spirit is the personal mediator of the love that is shared between Father and Son, a love that is self-giving and absolute. This perfection of love is therefore a goal of the church to reflect into the world and the communities in which it lives and it is out of this love that the Church is sent.

This is the fruit.

There is a calling by Jesus to remain in his love and to love each other the way the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father.[7] Can a church validly understand itself to be church if true love is not expressed, sought or put into action? God is not passive. There is mutual self-giving between Father, Son and Spirit, a mutual and full indwelling between each Person of the Trinity.[8] This activity of love that eternally exists within God Himself is something that the church, by the grace and Spirit of God, should seek to reflect into the communities it inhabits. The earthly ministry of Christ is one of self-giving and total love, committed to the oppressed and needy. Not only that, but as Jesus showed the full extent of his love to his disciples by washing their feet we have a typology of love that the church is called to continue in until Jesus returns. It seems that the greatest struggle that the church faces in the 21st Century is not contextualization (although it is important), is not an understanding of sexuality (although it is important), but an exploration and grappling with how a community loves each other properly. "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."[9] It is from the love that is shown and displayed through a community of disciples of Jesus that the world around will know that this community are a church. Yet for love to be seen, for a community to be seen to love, then something visible needs to take place.

At the baptism of Jesus a visible sign of the love displayed between Father, Son and Spirit is seen. The love of the Son for the Father shown in his obedience to go through the waters of baptism. The love of the Father for the Son as he rises out of the waters of baptism and declares that love by speaking out. And the mediation of that love displayed by the Spirit who rests upon the Son at his baptism. Here we have a visible sign of love shown through the baptism of Jesus. Therefore, for a community to visibly be seen as a loving Christian community, to be visibly seen as a church, then visible acts of love need to be demonstrated. Surely, therefore, it is a ‘participation in the communion of the triune God’[10] that is the goal of all church communities, and this participation is made possible visibly through the sacraments. God is a God who mediates his presence in and through that which he has created. He does not bypass his creation but chooses to speak and act through it. We see this most powerfully through the Incarnation, and therefore, a faithful understanding of whom God is and his action is one of mediation. Consequently, Baptism and the Eucharist are primary examples of how God mediates his love to us and in turn enables us to visibly love one another.

The Eucharist is a symbol, a reminder, that God, in Christ, was reconciling the whole world to himself.[11] Yet it is more than a reminder. The Eucharist is a visible means of grace whereby God administers his grace to his church through this meal. Therefore, as we share in this meal, the Spirit of God feeds us and affirms to us that we have been reconciled to God and that nothing can separate us from his love.[12] In the action of taking the bread and wine, love is actually seen. Furthermore, this meal is a means of grace in the relationships we have with one another. As we receive grace from God, so we can be a means of grace to the community around us. As we receive the bread, the broken body of Jesus, we too can become broken for the community around us. As we receive the wine, the blood of Jesus poured out for us, we too can pour ourselves out for the community in which we live. We receive the grace needed to be a people of grace. Here we have a visible and physical act of love and reconciliation that demonstrates to those present that here we have disciples of Jesus that can also be a catalyst for that love and peace to be taken into the communities the church finds itself in. Yet are the sacraments dependant on a minister and thus is our definition of church dependent on a minister?

Miroslav Volf, in After Our Likeness, interprets Catholic ecclesiology as understanding the church in and through the sacraments, with the office of bishop as an indispensable condition of the sacraments. Therefore, ‘only those local fellowships of believers that are “united to their pastors” are churches in the full sense of the word, others merely exhibit ecclesial elements but do not qualify as churches.’[13] Without doubt, this writer would want to emphasis the importance of the sacraments (as has already been said) and how they are a visible sign of the love and grace of God. Without doubt, this writer would want to affirm the importance of ministry and the calling that God places on some to lead his people. But without doubt, this writer would want to reject the notion that church and the sacraments are dependent upon the one who is called into ministry. Certainly ministry is sacramental inasmuch that God mediates his presence in and through those who have been called by God to oversee his people, yet for church to be dependant on the minister for it to validly be called church is, it appears to me, is attempting to put the gracious and free Spirit of God in a prison, a prison that cannot hold him. The Spirit defines who the church is in ways ‘far more inclusively, far more surprisingly, far more graciously, than we would dare venture.’[14] Christian ministry is to serve and the Christian minister is a servant to Christ and his Church. There is no sense of authoritarianism or hierarchy or dependence upon he minister as such. Certainly God has called some[15] and God has given these some to the Church, yet the church exists not because of the minister, but because of the free and gracious presence of God.

Jesus said that when two or three gather together in his name, he is there in their midst.[16] Here we have a promise of his presence. Here we have an understanding that Christ is in the midst of a group who meet together in his name. If the Church is to be defined sacramentally, it’s being gathered occurring through the mediation of baptism and Eucharist, then when two or three are gathered, it happens sacramentally where Christ’s presence is mediated rather than unmediated. Therefore, if two or three gather down the pub for a beer and a chat about Jesus would it be a stretch to deem this as church? But if two or three gather down the pub and break bread together here we have the mediated presence of Christ, here we have church. Furthermore, it appears that Christ’s promise of his presence in the gathering together of believers in his name is a promise that is preceded by a promise of action by God when two or three agree on something. It is a promise of presence preceded by a promise of action.[17] Perhaps it is through the active presence of believers that Christ’s presence occurs and can constitute as church. Here we see church as active and, in light of John 15 also, the church is church when it is bearing fruit, fruit that will last, fruit that is love.

The church is church when the active presence of love is present.
But what if the sacraments are present, but love for one another is not?

Fifty may gather together and break bread together yet hold no love for one another and display no love to the community they are gathered in. Do we have a group of believers breaking bread together, but no church? Two or three may gather together in a pub and seek ways in which they can actively help the community they are in. Do we have church? What is the ecclesial minimum?

Christ’s presence among a group of people is dependent on their confession of him, not merely with their mouths and outward actions, but with their hearts.[18] To declare that Jesus Christ is Lord is to continue in the ministry of Christ to the world in which we live and to the communities we find ourselves in. A group may indeed declare that Jesus Christ is Lord with their mouths, go to church every Sunday, take communion and shake hands with one another, yet could be nothing more than white washed tombs[19], and thus, not church. Another group could meet in a breakfast café, drink coffee, share their deepest hearts secrets, pray with each other and, it appears to me, be validly seen as church. Yet this writer cannot dismiss that which has been laid before us in scripture and interpreted through tradition, that the church is defined sacramentally where God’s presence is mediated through the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist. Yet God is free. His presence is not determined by the people but by his graciousness, in the light of love. This is a love that cannot be faked through meaningless acts and empty words, but it is an agape love. People will know who the church is by the way that we agape each other.[20]

This writer cannot conclude on how far the sacraments define a community as church, only that this writer believes that God mediates his presence and through that which he has created and commanded his disciples to baptise and share in the Eucharist. Yet this, it seems to me, is done in and through the mediation of a community that loves each other. Certainly that community will fail in its call to love God with all that it is and love each other the way Christ loves them, yet if its hearts desire is to fulfil that love, then I believe Christ mediates his presence to them by his Spirit. What is church then? A community that displays love and declares that love within the context that Jesus is Lord. It is a love that is shown sacramentally. Is church dependant on the sacraments though? Or are the sacraments dependant upon love? These are questions that this writer, as yet, cannot find the answers to.

[1] See Wright, N.T., Simply Christian p 172
[2] For more on this see Colwell, J., Promise and Presence p 67-72
[3] It seems that this is Paul’s primary understanding of the church. See Romans 8:1, 12:5, 16:3-10 for examples of this.
[4] The church as ‘gathered’ remains the primary understanding within Baptist and Free Church understandings. Nigel Wright however argues for us to understand the church as ‘gathering’ rather than ‘gathered, which he sees as static. So we are gathering together and seeking others to be gathering to us. For more on this see Wright, N.G., Free Church Free State p 49-52
[5] Interestingly enough however, the recent drive by the government to put money into failing car industries could be seen as opposite to capitalism. Yet this writer suspects that the government will willingly pump money into the car industry to keep it afloat so that the car industry can continue to generate vast sums of money for the government. If the car industries fail then the government will lose out on substantial sums of money. So the reasons for such a move, I suspect, is based on capitalist priorities and ideals.
[6] Matthew 28:16-20
[7] John 15:9-10
[8] This is known as the doctrine of perichoresis. See McGrath, A.E., Christian Theology p 325-326
[9] John 13:34-35 TNIV
[10] Volf, M., After Our Likeness p 129
[11] 2 Corinthians 5:18-20
[12] Romans 8:38-39
[13] Volf, M., After Our Likeness p 130-131
[14] Colwell, J., Promise and Presence p 258
[15] Ephesians 4:7-13. Great debates have ensued as to whether the work of ministry is to some, or the whole church. In other words, are some called to be prophets, apostles, evangelists, pastor and teachers, or are the whole Church called to fulfil these offices. I suspect the first option is more likely.
[16] Matthew 18:20
[17] Matthew 18:15-20. Here we have something happening. An act of reconciliation. An action of peace. An action of love.
[18] See Mark 7:1-23
[19] Matthew 23:27-28
[20] A great book on love is C.S Lewis’ The Four Loves

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