Monday, October 27, 2008

312. the body of Christ (part 1) - a radical hypothetical

[VERY IMPORTANT PREFACE]

Make note of that word in the title, "hypothetical."
A proposition or statement of, based on, or serving as a hypothesis; supposed but not necessarily true

I stress that word because I've been reluctant to put up this post because while it does serve as an extremely good, very fruitful thought exercise, it's NOT TRUE! As good as it is in stirring the imagination, it's theologically borderline heretical so please, please, please remember that I'm merely posing a hypothetical to make you think.

Maybe "hypothetical" is the wrong word. Maybe there's a better one for what I'm trying to do with this idea but I don't know it (feel free to leave suggestions in the comment box).

One last bit. I doubt I'm the first one to suggest something like this so if anyone knows of books or articles that share a similar idea, please let me know. Thanks.

[end preface]

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 1 Corinthians 12:27 (TNIV)

One of the central teachings of Christianity is the idea that Christ will come again. It's in the Nicene Creed: "He will come again in glory. . ." And Jesus himself speaks of his return in Matthew 25 and 26 (among other places).

Unfortunately, because of a particular brand of end times teachings known as dispensationalism, starting with the teachings of 19th Century preacher, John Darby and later popularized by the Left Behind series of books, the traditional view of the second coming of Christ has been upended. I won't attempt to take on dispensationalism in this post but if you want to read an excellent critique I'd recommend Barbara Rossing's excellent book, The Rapture Exposed (if you want the gist of it you can read her entertaining interview here).

Anyway, for the purposes of this post, suffice it to say that when I speak of the second coming of Christ, I mean it in the more traditional sense: that he will return once back to this earth to judge and redeem all of creation.

In the New Testament, Paul often refers to the church as the body of Christ. There are many examples but here's one clear one:
Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. Colossians 1:24

Do you see where I'm going with this?

What if...

What if the idea of the second coming of Christ actually meant that the church (as his body) is supposed to be his second coming? What if that was what was meant by Jesus' return to earth? What if Paul wasn't using a metaphor when he called the church the body of Christ?

Let me state again that I don't believe this to be the case - I believe that the actual person Jesus will return in person ". . .to judge the living and the dead" (to complete the Nicene Creed quote I began above).

But.

But what if the church as the body of Christ was to be the re-incarnation, the second coming if Christ? What if we (as the church) were solely responsible to bring about the redemption and reconciliation spoken of by the prophets? How would that change the way we thought about church and how churches prioritized their budgets and their mission statements?

See here's the thing. I think there are segments of today's church who are playing a kind of waiting game. They think that because Christ will return one day that all they have to do is wait for that to happen. The only job to be done in the mean time is to save as many people as possible by getting them to ascent to the Four Spiritual Laws and pray the Salvation Prayer. After that, all that's left to be done is to hone their personal spirituality and to try and get their friends and family saved as well.

And I don't want to dismiss the importance of those things with my little thought exercise. I just want to point out that there are other aspects of being the church that are just as important as salvation - that the FSL and SP are not the end all and be all of Christianity, that there's more to be done before Christ returns.

By thinking about what the church would look like if it were the only bodily second coming of Christ we were ever going to have, I wonder if we can get a more holistic idea about what the church is supposed to be (even though he is, in fact, returning).

A few examples would do well here.

If the church were the second bodily return of Christ...

  • We wouldn't be trying to create an alternate Christian entertainment subculture. Instead, we would be working to create viable works of art (in all forms) that existed and competed in the marketplace at large.
  • We wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the claims of environmentalists by citing our mandate to subdue the earth. Instead, we would do our best to preserve the goodness of God's creation for all time and all generations.
  • We would be far more active in trying to combat issues of poverty and suffering and injustice both locally and globally - because there's no way around the fact that they are our neighbor.
  • We might see the church down the street as collaborators (instead of competition) and might work more closely with them by sharing resources and ideas. Because the task of being the body is far bigger than any one church or even one denomination can handle on its own.
  • Despite the divisive nature of topics like abortion and same sex marriage, the church might work a bit harder at amicable solutions that do the most good for the people individually affected by these issues and work a bit less at shouting about which side is right.

Those are just a few examples and I honestly don't know how things would look in practical terms if my hypothetical were true (which, again, it's not) but here's the thing: I think the church would do well to organize its values and priorities as if it were true. Because we aren't called to sit and wait for the second coming. We're called to live our lives as citizens of the Kingdom of God here and now.

I've been saying over and over that my hypothetical isn't true but here's the thing. We really ought to be living as if it were true on both a large, church-wide scale as well as on an individual basis.

This is what it is to bring about the Kingdom of God. Being a Christian means representing the future, redeemed world today, here, now in this broken world.

Take a look at this bit from 2 Corinthians:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! . . .We are therefore Christ's ambassadors. . . 2 Corinthians 5: 17 and 20a

Take note of the phrases, "the new creation has come" and "the new is here!" Paul is speaking in the present tense. These things have already happened. When a person becomes a Christian, they become ambassadors of God's new creation. N.T. Wright puts it succinctly in the appendix of his new book, Surprised by Hope: "Jesus's resurrection is the beginning of God's new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven."

And that's an amazing way to put it - "to colonize earth with the life of heaven."

But one very important thing needs to be made very clear if we aren't to misunderstand this way of reading the Gospel or what Bishop Wright is trying to say about it.

According to conventional wisdom, if you have a kingdom that you think is good and great and gosh, wouldn't the world be a better place if everyone were a part of it, the way you spread your kingdom is through force, violent and bloody. This is where the crusades missed the point entirely. According to what Jesus taught and the way he lived his life, the Kingdom of God spreads, not by force but by loving example - by turning the other cheek, by going the extra mile, by loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:38-44).

In a way, part of this hypothetical case is true. Part of the mission of the church is to become, in every way possible, the physical presence of Christ here and now on earth. But though we, as parts of the church, are citizens of heaven we are not yet wholely redeemed - we still only see part of the picture, not the whole. And so we'll mess up and we'll get parts of it wrong. We'll swing from being too strict to being too lenient when it comes to the law. We'll emphasize certain bits of scripture while ignoring other bits (because when's the last time you heard a teaching about wearing hats in church?). We are redeemed and made new but not entirely, not yet. And so we'll never get it all completely right.

And that's where my idea breaks down. But that's where the truth of the matter comes in and rescues me (us). One day Jesus WILL return to fix things front to back, top to bottom. And so while we'll get things wrong, he'll make all things right again.

Well, someone might ask, why not just wait 'til Jesus gets it right - why get it wrong in the meantime?

There's a parable in Matthew (21:33-44) that tells of a landowner who plants a vineyard. He puts some farmers in charge and then goes away to other business. When harvest time came, he sent some of his servants to get the fruits his vineyard had produced. Well the farmers greedily come to the conclusion that if they beat up and kill the servants that the will be able to keep the profits for themselves. The landowner sends more servants but the farmers do the same thing again. Finally he sends his own son thinking that they will have no choise but to listen to him but the farmers kill him instead. Jesus asks his disciples what they think the owner will do at this point. They respond that he will go himself to the farmers and dole out a beat down.

The parable ends with this ominous warning from Jesus: "Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit," (Matthew 21:43). This statement is given to the Pharisees but I don't see why anything Jesus says to the Pharisees shouldn't apply to everyone else. Besides, earlier in Matthew Jesus says that our righteousness is to "surpass that of the Pharisees." So I don't think it's a stretch to say that those who aren't working to produce the fruit of the kingdom are doing so at their own risk.

And I know this gets into the thorny arena of faith vs works and other really theologically overworked issues. I have my own thoughts about this (which I suppose are hinted at in the above paragraph) but a fuller treatment will have to wait for another post. Suffice it to say that I would personally rather err on the works side of the debate.

1 comment:

leah klug said...

i'm a big fan of us ACTIVELY participating in bringing about the kingdom of God or Body of Christ "on earth as it is in heaven". i enjoy wright's books you mentioned, proposing that we are called to be not passive, but as those called to live out our identity as Christians through love and action. great post!