“I’ve got nothing against God, it’s His fan club I can’t stand!,” goes one bumper sticker. Endless scandals, bickering, and declining membership and budgets in many denominations all point to a long, historical track record of failures to be the “enchanted community” (to borrow fellow saint and sinner Bob Henderson’s expression) the church claims to be as “God’s people.”
My own experience has confirmed this. We’re all a bunch of mess-ups a whole lot of the time, and sometimes it takes a visit from a slightly dubious refrigerator man to remind me. (If you’re wondering about the strange entrance of the refrigerator man here, you can read about it in yesterday’s post.) I have found that the people I most admire are the ones who are willing to consistently admit this truth about themselves and about the church, and, in turn, to live without taking themselves too seriously while taking Jesus a whole lot seriously. These I suppose are the “saintlier” ones in our midst.
But what, then, to make of the church? Is it enough to simply confess Jesus as Lord and then disregard the mixed-up bunch of stragglers blathering along behind him? I don’t think so.
Here is where I find Nicholas Healy’s insights, in the last issue of The Christian Century, helpful. Healy argues that while the church in Scripture is called to respond to the Gospel, it does so “haltingly and feebly for the most part, and that’s all right, because God’s salvation of the world is not contingent upon the church embodying or displaying the Gospel successfully.”
The point, I think, is that the church is still called to be the church and to witness to the Good News in Jesus Christ- and, as I often like to recall, compliments of G.K. Chesterton, “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” If this can be said of marriage, child-rearing and important vocational decisions, it can most certainly be said of God’s mission.
Healy goes on to write that the church does not possess the gospel but exists to “point away from itself to the gospel of Jesus Christ.” And, this is where I really want to land: “the church is theologically distinctive because of God’s call, not because of its response to that call.”
The church is distinctive not because of anything it can or cannot do by virtue of being the church, but because of God’s call in Jesus Christ. Period.
These days, whenever I hear Christians on both sides of the political aisle throw verbal mud pies at one another, or learn of yet another inner church leadership squabble over power and egos at stake, I take refuge in Healy’s offer of consolation that the church is still an embodiment of the world’s response to the gospel of Jesus Christ. If “visibly [the church] confuses as much as or more than it signifies,” does this mean that we need to seek a clearer embodiment of the gospel elsewhere? Do we need to assume that God has given up on the church and we, too, can simply disregard it, because that would often be more convenient? These questions, I suspect, are similar to the ones the apostle Paul wrestles with in Romans when he addresses his own confusion about why God’s chosen people have largely rejected Jesus as Messiah.
Here again is Healy giving voice to what has been all along mere intuition shaped by experience on my part: “What we are as Christians and as the church is hidden by our own finitude, diversity, inconsistency and the confusions of our places within the world. This is not to say that, hidden underneath all our worldliness, we are special. For who we are, as Christians and as the church, is what the world is, too. The church is not an ark floating on the top of the waters. It lives and breathes within the waters. The world is the ark of salvation; the church is but the worldly expression of the Christian response to God’s saving work in the world. The church is called, then, to be the world’s Christian expression. We are hidden yet truly called by God, and we are the church irrespective of the quality of our response. Thus the church, our true center, our essential existence, lies outside ourselves, in God and in the world. As the Christian expression of the world, we remain a worldly product, for to be the church as it is called to be, we must be in and of the world; we are not called to leave the world—and anyway, how could we? But we are indeed called, so our lives as Christians are centered in God’s call to us in the world. The world and God are the church; the church isn’t the church apart from both the world and God working in it.”
The church, with all its messiness and small-mindedness and often inflated sense of self, obliges us to reckon with the big picture grandeur of a God whose heart really is for the whole world. This is no small calling, so it’s understandable that we’ll fail to live into it well or consistently, but we need the church for this very reason: as a reminder that God in Jesus still keeps calling the whole world to God’s Self, regardless of how well we respond, and has a mission whose success ultimately does not depend on us even as it summons us. So, in short, if you were hoping for only therapeutic trash talk about the church, which I imagine many of us can unload, I am sorry to disappoint.