“…like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.”I Peter 2:1-5
“I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me maybe in them, and I in them.”John 17:25-26
How often I have heard people say, “I don’t have a problem with Jesus but I do have a problem with the church!” Yes, for many people, the church is a stumbling block to faith, an obstacle on the path to believing in God and discovering human wholeness. It is by no means the only stumbling-block, but it is one of them. In fact, if we had to judge by church attendance in Europe and Britain today we might conclude that the church is dying, despite evidence of vibrant life in many places. Yet, ironically, at the same time churches are full to capacity throughout Trump territory, not known for its Christian compassion, and on the African continent and in Latin America, well known for ongoing conflict and corruption. All of which begs the question, well what is the church?
If we were asked to define the church, many of us would be hard pressed to do so. Is it a building, an institution, a bunch of clergy, a denomination? Deciding what the church is seems to be as problematic as answering the question “is there a God?’ or “who is Jesus Christ?” And yet, every week, millions of Christians around the world declare that they not only believe in God, but also in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” even though it is divided into many denominations, not particularly holy, and we are not quite sure what it means for it to be catholic and apostolic! So what goes through your mind if and when you say the Creed or when you hear the word “church”?
I know this all sounds Greek to you, but the word “church” or “kerk,” “Kirk” or “Kirche,” comes from the Greek word kuriakon which means “belonging to the Lord.” It was originally used to describe a church building so you won’t find the word in the NT. In those days there were none. Christians met together in each other’s houses. Only much later were some buildings dedicated to the Lord and called churches. But we all know that the church is more than a building and, clearly, it existed before there were any church buildings. The NT uses a different word to describe this church without walls: not kuriakon but ekklesia. Ekklesia means an assembly of people, in this case a community of believers. If kuriakon refers to the church made of bricks and mortar, ekklesia refers, as the first letter of Peter puts it, to the church built of “living stones,” that is, a “spiritual house.” This does not mean that it is invisible as some have said, or that it does not need buildings in which to gather, or that it does not require institutional structures to sustain and guide its life and work; but it means that before and above all else it is a living community of those committed to Christ.
There are many metaphors and analogies used in the NT to describe this Christian community. St. Paul’s favourite description is “the body of Christ” which is made up of many members each of whom needs the others. A community united in the Eucharist because, as we say with Paul, we all partake of the same bread, the body of Christ broken for us. On this understanding of the church, it is not a bunch of likeminded individuals, like a photographic or bridge club but, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, the church is “Christ existing as a community of persons,” or the church is “Christ taking form in a band of people.” So where Christ is, we could say as some early theologians did, there too is the church, recalling Jesus’ words: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20)
But the church is more than a gathering together of Christians, it is also God’s experiment in creating a new humanity that transcends race and nationality, religion and gender, a new humanity in which, as Paul puts it, the divisions that normally separate people are transcended. As such, the church is a work in progress. It is not yet one or holy, fully catholic or faithfully apostolic. It is a community of people on a journey. Some people today even speak of the “emerging church,” that is the church that is emerging within and beyond denominations and finding its identity as a community committed to God’s mission of reconciliation and justice, to God’s will for human flourishing and wholeness, to God’s will to care for the environment and to share the earth’s resources. As such the church is both an end in itself, and also a means to an end. It is not just a bunch of individuals who like to sing hymns , pray and then go and have coffee, but an assembly of people embarked on an audacious God-inspired experiment to build what Martin Luther King jnr. referred to as “the beloved community.”
King’s description of the church is based on Jesus’ “high priestly prayer” in John’s Gospel chapter 17 in which Jesus prays that his community of disciples may be one and that they may be filled with the same love of God for the world that was embodied in him. This is the “new humanity” that God is seeking to bring into being. a “beloved community” of peace and compassion, reconciliation and justice. A community striving to be one, holy, inclusive and engaged in serving the world. This is Christ existing as church-community.
Yes, the church is a work in progress, an emerging church, building on all the resources that we have received from the past, but journeying into the future with fresh vision and commitment inspired by the Spirit of Pentecost. “Our goal,” as Martin Luther King said, ” is to create a beloved community.” But he went on to say: “this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” In other words, the church cannot be the church unless we who claim to belong are daily being transformed more fully into the likeness of Christ. The church is only the church as we together are being transformed and participating in God’s purpose of making all things new. Yes, despite all its faults and failures, which is true of anym experiment, I believe in the church as God’s work in progress to make the world more just, more compassionate, and so reconcile all things in Christ.
hn de Gruchy
Volmoed 26 May 2016