Monday, August 04, 2008

The Church is Empty

In the last couple of posts, I have been trying to argue, in a somewhat ham-fisted manner, that it is important that we view the work of Christ and the work of the Church as separable, and that we do not consider the relationship between Christ's work and the Church's work in terms of identity. Legitimate questions have been raised by others, and I confess I'm only thinking these things through for the first time right now. My theological opinions are being shaped before your very eyes - bear that in mind when you're commenting!

I think it might be useful for me to walk you through some of the things that happen in the Church, from a human and from a divine perspective.

Take preaching, for example. What does the Church do? She opens the Scriptures, and reads, and hears; then she expounds, and hears. This is all very human. There is no remarkable power in it. It can be done with more or less technical accuracy; it can be done with appropriate passion and zeal, or sluggishly. It can be interesting or boring. It may change people's opinions, but then anyone with a touch of rhetoric can do that. It is frail.

But, and here's the thing, when the Church engages in preaching she does so with faith. The preacher has faith that Christ will speak; the listeners have faith that they will encounter the living Word of God and be changed. But the Church does not, and cannot, make this happen. It is not the Church's work to do so.

Or consider the Lord's Supper. The Church offers us a very small piece of bread - not enough to nourish us - and gives us a mouthful of wine - not enough to refresh. There is an air of hushed reverence, but then any ritual will evoke as much. The Communion table is fairly unimpressive in almost every way.

But the Church believes - trusts - that she feeds on the body and blood of the crucified Christ, partaking in his death, nourishing the inner man, giving food to sustain eternal life. Nevertheless, the Church does not, and cannot, make this happen. That is not the Church's work.

As a final example, though I could multiply them, take evangelism. The Church proclaims in the world the message of Christ. It is a weak and foolish message as far as the world is concerned. It may be proclaimed with more or less conviction, more or less accuracy when compared to the Scriptural benchmark. It may receive a friendly or an unfriendly reception. Most likely, it will be politely ignored.

But the Church goes about its evangelistic work with faith that this message brings new life. She trusts that this very message is the seed imperishable, able to convert the heart and change sinners to saints. But the Church does not, and cannot, make this happen. It simply isn't her role.

These examples show that the work of the Church and the work of Christ are not identical. When we realise this, we, who constitute the Church, must humble ourselves. We are not able to do anything. We do not have anything. We cannot produce any reason why the world should listen to us or even tolerate us. The Church is an empty vessel.

But Christ is powerful! And his power is not confined to or controlled by the Church. It will be present in the Church when he wills it to be - and we trust that he has promised to make it present. But we understand that we don't own it. Christ has not invested his authority in the Church; he exercises his authority from heaven in and over the Church, and indeed beyond her bounds.

If we forget this - if we start to think that the Church has an exalted status, or some vested power - then we will cease to be the Church. Let me give you some examples of what will happen.

Our teaching and preaching programme will change. Instead of being open to the Word of God in Scripture, we will teach our confessions and our established doctrines. Instead of understanding these things as provisional responses to God's word, we will start to see them as enshrined and sacrosanct depositories of timeless truths. Eventually, the 'Church' will just be having a conversation with itself - the preacher speaking for the 'Church', about the 'Church' and to the 'Church'. God's Word will not be heard.

Our engagement with the world will change. Rather than pointing away from ourselves and toward the one who saves, we will start to think that the main thing is to get people involved in the community life, or the worship, or the fellowship of the Church. The pressure will be on to sacrifice parts of the gospel message that are unappealing, or at least to downplay them. Even if we keep the gospel, we will attempt to show how strong and wise it is, how great an explanation of life it offers. We will invite people to see the wonder of our message and philosophy rather than the wonder of the saving Christ. The 'Church' has become a club.

Worst of all, we may become spiritually arrogant. Isn't this what happened to the Pharisees? They stopped magnifying God who had chosen Israel, and started to magnify Israel as the chosen of God. God forbid that the Church should follow them!

We are empty, nothing, feeble, weak. We are nothing and have nothing. But we know that Christ was on the cross, was in the tomb, and is in heaven. And so we point people to that reality.

And that is why I said "the Church is a community gathered around a signpost which points to redemption."

Tomorrow: why the Church is absolutely full of all she needs... Mmm... Dialectic...

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:01 pm

    Daniel, beautifully put. The church is surely cruciform or she is not the church of Christ. If I'm ever convinced exegetically that the whole world will be converted in advance of Christ's return it will not be because of the church's strength in any worldly terms. All overcoming must be by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony, not shrinking from death. (Rev 12:11). When we are weak, then we are strong.