Friday, 29 September 2006

Theology for beginners (17): Church

Summary: The Christian community is united as it gathers around the risen Lord and participates in his life; and the life of the community is expressed in the plurality of the Spirit’s gifts.

The Christian community is gathered by the Spirit around the risen Lord. Through the Spirit, the community lives by its participation in the risen life of Jesus.

The community’s participation in the life of Jesus is enacted right from the start, in the bath of baptism. Here, through the power of the Spirit, an individual is plunged down into the depths, united with Jesus in his lowliness, before being raised up into the new life of Jesus’ resurrection. The Christian life begins with this dramatic enactment of participation in the life of Jesus.

As members of the Christian community gather together, they continue to enact their participation in Jesus’ life by speaking – by telling the story of Jesus as the community’s own story, as a story that narrates the truth and meaning of every person’s life. Such gospel-speaking stands at the heart of everything the community is and does – whenever the community gathers, it gathers in order to hear and to tell the story of Jesus.

The most concrete and most dramatic form of gospel-speaking is the eucharistic meal. In this simple meal of bread and wine, the community gives thanks to God and celebrates the death and resurrection of Jesus. This celebration is not only a memorial that looks back to the past – it is above all a participation in the life of Jesus, and thus a participation in the life of God’s kingdom which approaches from the future. It is through this meal that the community is concretely and physically gathered. As they eat from one loaf and drink from one cup, individual members of the community participate in Jesus himself, and so also in one another. Here, the whole dynamic life of the community is realised and expressed. Here, the community exists not merely as an assembled group of individuals, but as a single, coherent event of joyful fellowship.

Jesus himself had announced that God’s kingdom would be a great banquet, a meal of celebration at the end of history. And in each eucharistic meal, the community anticipates this final banquet, this ultimate celebration that awaits all creation as its goal and destiny. In the meal of the community, then, the world receives an anticipatory glimpse of the true meaning and context of all reality – a glimpse of the kingdom of God!

At particular times and in particular places, the community thus gathers together around the risen Jesus, celebrating his death and resurrection with thanksgiving. Wherever a particular congregation assembles in this way, the community as a whole is present. Particular congregations are not merely isolated parts of the whole community – rather, each congregation is itself the whole community gathering around Jesus through the Spirit in a particular location.

The Spirit who gathers the community is, of course, the same Spirit who is at work in all creation. And just as the Spirit brings forth difference and diversity in the created world, so too in the community the Spirit brings forth life in tremendous plurality and diversity. Such diversity is perhaps the most striking characteristic of the Christian community. And this should not be viewed as a threat to the community’s life or unity – rather, the unified life of the community consists precisely in its harmonious coherence-in-plurality, just as the unity God himself is a tri-unity, a unified plurality. The community is unified in its irreducible diversity and multiplicity. The Spirit makes the community one – not by eliminating differences and imposing uniformity, but by accentuating these differences even more sharply, in order to bring the community’s plurality together in joyful harmony, just as the different voices in a choir are gathered up into one harmonious sound.

The unity of the Christian community is thus the Spirit himself, the Spirit of life who indwells the whole community and each individual member as they gather around the one risen Lord. It is the unique power of the Spirit to be able to indwell all individuals without for a moment undermining any of their particularities or differences – indeed, it is through the indwelling of the Spirit that each person’s individuality is most fully realised.

Further, the Spirit is at work in the community as the giver of gifts. Each individual member of the community receives gifts from the Spirit, gifts which enable each member to serve the whole community and to carry out the community’s mission in the world. Such gifts are not merely natural abilities or talents. They are specific empowerments for self-giving service. Properly speaking, these gifts are not even distinct from the giver – for when the Spirit gives us his gifts, he is giving us himself as the life-giving power to love and to serve.

The gifts of the Spirit are the special characteristic of the entire life of the community within each particular congregation. The gifts are not reserved only for a special spiritual or clerical elite – all members of the community participate in these gifts, and the gifts themselves depend solely on the lordship of the risen and ascended Jesus, who freely distributes these gifts through the Spirit. Thus within the community, diverse forms of ministry and service all cohere together for the sake of the community’s single calling: to celebrate and communicate the reality of the risen Jesus, and thus to prepare all people everywhere for the coming of God’s kingdom.

The life of the community is expressed, then, in a rich plurality of gifts. And within each particular congregation, the Spirit gifts certain individual men or women with the ability to bring focus and harmony to the gifts of the whole community. Such persons are “ordained” by the community in correspondence to the Spirit’s gift. The role of the ordained person is not to exercise power or control over the community, but to exercise the humble service of hospitality – to ensure that all members of the congregation feel “at home” with themselves, with others, and with God. This hospitality means making room for each individual with his or her own distinct gifts. It means nurturing an environment of mutual giving and receiving, so that all members of the community can enjoy sharing their own gifts and benefiting from the gifts of others.

Above all, though, the role of the ordained person is to enact the hospitality of Jesus himself – by welcoming people into the community through baptism, by telling Jesus’ story as a story that includes each person, and by inviting all those who trust in Jesus to share in the eucharistic meal whenever the community is gathered. Through such hospitality, the ordained person also encourages all members of the community to engage in the mission of the risen Jesus: a mission of communicating the story of Jesus to the whole world, and of inviting all people everywhere to participate in the life of God’s coming kingdom.

Further reading

  • Anderson, Ray S. An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006).
  • Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Sanctorum Communio (London: Collins, 1963), pp. 115-204.
  • Congar, Yves. I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Vol. 2 (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1983), pp. 5-61.
  • Jenson, Robert W. Systematic Theology, Vol. 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 167-249.
  • Küng, Hans. The Church (London: Burns & Oates, 1967), pp. 150-241.
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. The Church in the Power of the Spirit (London: SCM, 1977), pp. 289-361.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Theology and the Kingdom of God (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), pp. 72-101.
  • Zizioulas, John. Being as Communion (Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985).


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