It was one of those mind-numbing events. A six-year-old boy shoots his teacher in Virginia USA with his mother’s legally purchased handgun. In the wake of this a friend of mine, a retired teacher, sent me this quote from Bob Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’. The song presents images of a future where the world is overwhelmed by injustice, cruelty and war:
‘I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children.’
When Jesus speaks of the future of humankind, his vision appears just as bleak. In Mark 13 he speaks of the history of Israel, and humanity in general, characterised by ‘wars and rumours of wars’, earthquake, famine, family breakdown and persecution of God’s people. Alongside this, Jesus had made a promise. On Peter’s declaration of His identity as the Messiah He says:
‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hell will not overcome it.’ (Matthew 16: 17-18)
Paul would later catch the spirit of this when he wrote of Christians shining like stars in the universe (Philippians 2: 15). There may be moral and spiritual darkness in the world, but the community of Christ would be the light of the world, pushing back the darkness, living in step with the Holy Spirit, bearing witness to truth and values that the deepest darkness would never overcome. This community would not only point forward to the coming Kingdom of God but would lead men and women to experience the Kingdom in their here and now.
This is what Paul meant when he said Christians have a ‘citizenship in heaven.’ (Philippians 3: 20). In the same way that a colony lives according to the rule of a more powerful nation, the Church is called to live according to the rule of Christ; to live and work towards the day when that rule will be complete throughout creation.
This vision needs to be our focus in these days of radical change for our Church. Paul and the apostolic community had no understanding of the Church as an ‘institution’. She was a movement of God’s people, a Spirit driven organism, an instrument in the hands of God to redeem humanity and creation. David Watson captured this in his brilliant book ‘I Believe In The Church.’ In ‘The Nature Of The Church’, he unpacks Biblical imagery of the Kingdom of God, the Church of God, the People of God, the Body of Christ, the Building of God, the Bride of God, the Army of God, the Spirit in the Church.
Bring all of this together and we begin to understand Watson’s subtitle: ‘The revolutionary potential of the family of God.’ Plainly this is not like any other human organisation, but one established and driven by God; not just destined to survive, but appointed to be transformative in lives and circumstances.
In our darkest days we may feel that Church is very far from this, but this vision is set before us in Scripture, to aspire to and to realise in every generation. We may baulk at the challenge, but we are promised the gift of the Holy Spirit to energise our proclamation of Christ, to sustain us in His truth and to continually revitalise us in worship and for what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called ‘Life Together’.
The Church is never just ‘good enough’. She must be continually aspiring to realise what Christ holds in His heart for His people.
How many times have we heard that people are not put off by Jesus, it’s the Church that scunners them? We must take this seriously but never let go of Jesus’ great project, to build His Church, the completion of which is the destiny of humankind. In ‘The Screwtape Letters’ C.S. Lewis presents a junior devil given the task of wrecking the faith of a new convert. Screwtape offers this advice:
‘One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans.’
Invisible? Not if we stay close to the vision and believe the promise: ‘I will build my church.’