Saturday, September 16, 2023

The Church as God's mystery. . .

The Church is always being mistaken for an earthly kingdom with boundaries to guard and geography to protect.  It was not something that interested Jesus -- My kingdom is not of this world.  But that is not the only danger.  Even if we do not confuse the kingdom of God with a territory, we do risk presuming that it has more to do with this life then with the life to come.  In this respect, the grave danger is that we look for and look to the world around us to find the Church and the marks of God's presence.  Usually this looks like some form of a secular social utopia -- although that depends upon your perspective whether that looks like a libertine world of no rules or a world in which everything is a rule.  The smoke and mirrors of our various ideas and ideals generally end up in the celebration of a universal humanity -- whether this looks like the liberation of desire from the constraints of law, moral imperative, and order or a society in which liberty exists in order to conform to the ideal.  In either case, the Church ceases to be God's work or God's mystery or God's sacrament and ends up being our creation for our purpose.

Some have decided that God's vision for His creation is not enough.  They would insist that the Church must be relevant to the world around the Church, that God's kingdom address primarily the world for the sake of improving it.  So conservatives would insist that the Church has a policing force in order to reduce sin while liberals would suggest that the Church must be a social force to make better the lot of the poor, the oppressed, and the minorities who chafe under the majority.  For the conservative, the Gospel is a new law that requires people to be holy and sees this holiness primarily in terms of behavior.  For the liberal, the Gospel is also a new law that requires people to be true to themselves wherever that might lead them.  In either case, God is merely the cheerleader for the cause who watches from the sidelines.

Both are sorely mistaken.  While the Lord has indeed left us with the call to love our neighbor as He has loved us, that love is not to be confused with an improvement program to remodel the society, the government, the school, and the home.  The Church’s purpose is to show us Christ.  That is not simply a prime directive but the whole of the purpose for which our Lord established His Church.  The Church is to lead us to Him by the preaching of His Word.  The story of the Church is the story of Christ.  It is not our story.  We are bound to the script, so to speak, of the Word of the Cross and Empty Tomb for it is to this Word, the Spirit has been attached and it is through this Word that faith is created and nurtured.  The Church is the place where God's gives to His people the gifts of His grace in the Word and Sacrament administered by His agents or ministers.  The Church is also then the place where we respond to God's gifts with thanks and praise and serve and obey Him.  The Church exists then only to put us into a right relation to the Father through Jesus Christs, His Son, and by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Church is, from the point of view of the world, a sort of wasted opportunity.  Not a few within the Church often feel this way.  Unless we can prove ourselves relevant and a force to be reckoned with and show the works we do to help improve ourselves and the lot of the world, what worth are we to anyone?  Even pastors sometimes feel this way when people come with mountains of problems that cannot be fixed with a prayer or spiritual encouragement.  Unless we can pay their bills, get them a decent job, improve their marriages, help them raise their children, etc., what good are we as pastors and parishes?  That presumes that we determine what is success as well as what is the mission of the Church.  That is not unlike the problem of Babel.

We do not get to say who is saved and who is not.  We are not ordered to pull weeds but to await God's own time when the wheat and the tares will be separated.  We are to spread the seed.  The growth and fruits and harvest belong to God.  At her best, the Church is always irrelevant to the world and to the pressing agendas of the day be they good or bad.  At her worst, the Church appears to be an enemy of the same. But the Church is God's mystery and His work whether she is at her worst or best.  As Isaiah said of God's Word, that He sends it forth for His purpose and it will not fail in that endeavor, it could be said of the Church that the Lord sends her forth for His purpose and she will not fail in that endeavor -- though perhaps she may fail to be the Church if she departs from His Word and way. 

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