I once had a dream wherein I met an astronomer who claimed to have built a telescope so powerful that it could look into heaven. Of course, I asked him what he saw when he looked through it. “It was too fuzzy to make out any of the details,” he groaned. “And it’s a shame, because I’ve always wanted to know what heaven was actually like. “Oh,” said I, “I can show you that, and I don’t need a telescope.” “What?” “Yes, come with me.” So I took him on a long walk through the misty lanes of my dream until we stood at the doors of a little white country Church. “I don’t want a sermon about heaven!” I cried. “No,” I replied, “me either. But if you want to know what heaven will be like, just go spend some time with these people. If you don’t see it here, then it isn’t worth looking for.”
Welcome to the Homilies of St. Asinus, reflections of a recycled saint.
In the previous homily, the saintly mule discussed our individual place in God’s redemptive work. This was Christianity’s answer to the big question of what my mission is in the world, what I’m here to do. But for all that Christianity has to say about the individual’s place and purpose, it is not at its heart an individualistic religion, but a collective one. Over and over the scriptures use the language of a nation, a race, a priesthood. That Christ’s death and atonement are made for “the Church,” and it is the Church as a whole that is called his bride, his body, and his people. Nearly all the epistles of the New Testament were written either to whole Churches or to leaders of Churches in their capacity as leaders. There is no way around it. There is no Christian identity that does not embrace the people of God as the redemptive center of God’s work in the world. Or as St. Cyprian so provocatively put it 1800 years ago, “Outside the Church, there is no salvation.”
This emphasis on the corporate is nothing new; it’s been true from the beginning. In the Garden of Eden after declaring all the divine work to be “good,” God did say that one thing was “not good.” That was Adam’s solitude. “It is not good that the man should be alone,” and thus the woman was made as his completer—his other half. We were never made to “go it alone.” And it seems to be a mark of fallenness within us that we so often try to make Christianity into a merely therapeutic addition to our private life. No, we cannot fully grasp Christianity’s answer to the question of our place in the world and our mission in life without acknowledging that we are part of something bigger and grander than our own private ambitions and agendas.
My identity as part of the new humanity is a collective identity. I am part of a new people, and that new people has a character and mission that intersects with my own—to which I am called to submit, and to which I have the privilege of contributing. This is the other half of Christianity’s answer is my place and purpose in the world—the Christian community, the Church.
And if this is true, then my mission as an individual is tied up with whatever the point and purpose of the Church is. If the Church has a mission in the world, and I am part of the Church, then at some level, it’s mission is mine too. But what exactly is the point of the Church in the world?
That is the subject in the final two homilies of this series. Here today the saintly mule will offer a sort of 30,000 foot view of what the Church ultimately is and it’s place in the story, and in the closing homily he shall get very specific about the tasks about which the Church ought to be.
To get at this though, I must make a statement that is a bit scandalous in a world of parachurch organizations and international humanitarian agencies. It is this: that the Church is the unique center of God’s redemptive work in the world. It is the new thing God is doing.
The Church is the unique center of God’s redemptive work in the world.
Jesus started no Sunday Schools, no mission organizations, no Christian colleges, soup kitchens, coffee shops, or artistic communities. As valuable as all these are (I drink a lot of “Christian coffee”), Christ died for the Church, Christ commissioned the Church, Christ sent his Spirit upon the Church. Christ promised his ongoing presence until the end of the age to the Church. Something very profound and unique is beating at the heart of the Church that makes it distinct from all religious institutions and all religious individuals.
I’d like to suggest what I think that is.
There are many ways that the true Church has be defined or described. Some speak of the sacraments properly administered, others of the clerical leadership or the social ethic or even the familial community that exists there. All these may be right in their own way. But I’m trying to draw out how the Church is Christianity’s answer to some of our basic questions. How does the Church tell me who I am, why I’m here, and where I’m going? As such I must offer a particular definition that connects to all the other things I’ve said in this series of homilies.
The Church is the community of people who are seeking to live inside God’s Kingdom reign right now. I know that’s a touch vague, so let me stretch it out a bit—like a skin—over the whole narrative.
You’ll remember that Christianity’s way of getting at the big human questions is through a story involving a glorious divine creation of a world and a righteous humanity entrusted with its care. Then a great human rebellion follows, which fractures both the world and human nature bringing death, despair, and futility upon all things.
You remember the divine promise of one who was to come and take the onus of all this onto himself and restore all things—to “crush the head of the serpent.” This promise was scandalously fulfilled when God the Father sent the Divine Son into the world to take to himself a true and full human nature, and bear the curse of sin upon himself. You’ll recall how he lived a life of perfect obedience to the Father’s mission—declaring that his only passion was the advancement of his Father’s name, his Father’s will, and his Father’s Kingdom. And his commitment to this mission extended even unto death, though innocent, at the hands of godless men.
But God then proved to the world that Jesus was who he claimed to be by raising him from the dead and giving him glory and authority over all things, so that once again a man—another Adam, a final Adam—would sit down upon the throne of creation to rule and reign over God’s Kingdom now born again in the world. In short, this son of Mary fulfills the original mission of Adam by eclipsing him in obedience and righteousness.
If you remember all this, then you are perhaps often surprised to look around the world and see that very little seems to have changed. Great evils still happen—wars, poverty, famine, abuse seems as strong and unassailable as ever they did. This is where we began our exploration at the beginning of this series of homilies. This divorce of reality from vision is what creates so many of our basic questions. How does Christianity explain all this?
If the Christian story is going to be compelling, it must be able to adequately explain the world in which we find ourselves. And to do that, it’s going to have to be nuanced. It’s no good asking it to be simple. Nothing of any value is ever simple.
See, in his resurrection Jesus Christ became the first example of the new thing God is doing. His humanity—his way of being human—became the template for the kind of humans God wants—has always wanted. And so of course this new humanity is really very old…as old as the world. God still desires humans who would exercise the kind of holy authority and possess the kind of glory that God intended in the beginning. Well, now it becomes possible again. How do we know? One exists who has already done it. There is now a king, and therefore there is a Kingdom.
And yet this Kingdom has not come in the fullness that God has promised. The Kingdom of this world has not yet become the Kingdom of our God in any final sense. The fact that we still ask the question meaningfully is proof enough of that. But there is a king, and so there is a Kingdom. And what’s more, there is also an invitation.
An invitation has gone out from the king to all the trapped, lonely, forsaken dregs of broken humanity who lie in the bondage of the Fall. An invitation to leave their dungeons and their caves, to arise from their death beds—Talitha cumi!—and enter this new Kingdom. Join this king in this new way of being human. Leave the kingdom of death and enter life.
It seems that in the wisdom of God—and who could ever have expected this anymore that we could have anticipated a baby in a manger—this new Kingdom would not break upon the world in one glorious swoop—at least not yet. No, this Kingdom will be lived out covertly behind enemy lines in the hearts, lives, and relationships of those humans who are willing to leave off their rebellion and pledge their fealty to this new King and this new Kingdom.
And from that day forward they will cease to call the kingdom of this world home. Oh, they still live and move and work in it, but their hearts and imaginations have been captured by a different vision of what it means to be human. Their ways of living out their humanity have been changed forever. They are resurrected, born again; they have been given back their lives.
Now what is the Church? I’ll say it again, the Church is exactly that community of people who are seeking to live inside God’s Kingdom reign right now. The significance of this for explaining our purpose and place in the world cannot be overstated.
The Church is exactly that community of people who are seeking to live inside God’s Kingdom reign right now.
It means that you and I and every person who has proclaimed their allegiance to this new King and his Kingdom has claimed for themselves the same guiding values as that King—that we will live out together the same values that enlivened and empowered Jesus’ own mission and ministry—that in our midst God’s name would be hallowed, God’s will be done, and God’s Kingdom be made visible with the same immediacy, spontaneity, and intentionality as it is visible already in heaven.
That would certainly change the nature of our marriages and friendships, our labor and our recreation. What would the broken world think if it witnessed relationships that were built, not on predation and power, but mutual sacrifice and generosity? What would the broken world say if it actually encountered people who were content, at peace, kind, gentle, and truthful—who love and nurture beauty and life? I tell you what the world would say…the poor enslaved masses of this world would be the first to acknowledge that here are people “not of this world.” They would recognize immediately that this kind of humanity is not “normal.” They would not know what to do with it, because here before their eyes the very Kingdom of God had been revealed.
Do you see? What is the Church? The Church is exactly that community of people who are seeking to live inside God’s Kingdom reign right now. We are not forced to wait until some far off future. We need not wait until after we are dead or until the end of time to taste of heaven. Truly heaven has already burst forth in our midst. Why? Because the king is present, and where the king is present, where he is honored and his word is law, there the Kingdom is.
Now don’t get me wrong. I do not mean to say that because we are invited to become part of this Kingdom in the here and now, that there is not more to come one day. It is obvious to anyone who has spent any time in any actual church that we do not perfectly enact the vision I have just described. No, we may be seeking to live out the Kingdom, but we do so imperfectly, still torn and broken by the Fall both within our own souls and in the world around us at large.
This would be a false telling of the Christian story if it does not continue to affirm the need for Christ’s return in climactic glory to establish the Kingdom in fullness. The Kingdom of this world must still one day be made the Kingdom of our God, and only the king himself has the power to do that.
No, I should be more precise. What we experience here and now in the Church is not the Kingdom in fullness, but the Kingdom in foreshadow.
What we experience here and now in the Church is not the Kingdom in fullness, but the Kingdom in foreshadow.
This brings us to a key descriptor of the Church—the Church as foretaste…partial, incomplete, but very real. It has the color, texture, and flavor of that reality which will one day be the rule of the whole earth. It is cut from the same cloth and carries the same odor. Remember Jesus words, “here on earth, just as it is heaven.”
In fact, the Church that functions as is should—by means of that commonly shared allegiance to God’s name, will, and Kingdom—could with all integrity turn to the broken world and say, “Do you want to know what heaven will be like? Well then, put down your telescopes. Come in! Taste and see. It will be a lot like this.”
In Garrison Keller’s home town, “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” But Lake Wobegon has nothing on the Kingdom of God as foreshadowed by the Church. Here in this place, the marriages and friendships are strong, labor is filled with joy and purpose, and the children are well loved.
To spend time in the Church is learn to long for heaven, not in the sense I have so often heard— the Church is so dysfunctional and death-dealing that it makes you wish you were dead, but the opposite—If this is what the mere appetizer tastes like, then bring on the main course. If the film trailer leaves you speechless, what will the full movie do to us?
I’m not here to expound all the things the Church doing wrong—how we’ve misunderstood this, and failed to be that, how we must stop quoting this maxim or citing this misappropriated Bible fragment. There are enough pedantic voices on Facebook doing that. The holy ass wants to remind you what the Church really is and can be. How beautiful and glorious the Kingdom is because of our beautiful and glorious King, who has promised to make his bride beautiful and glorious.
When, in C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, the ghostly woman sobs in terror, “What are we born for?” the bright spirit answers back, “For infinite happiness. You can step out into it at any moment.” The Church is God’s down payment on that promise.
St Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth, “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” And that is such a glorious thought that we are tempted to stop there in wonder. And perhaps we should. But don’t linger too long in your astonishment because Paul was not done. The very next verse says, “But God has revealed them unto us by his Spirit.” Do you understand what Paul is really saying? This verse isn’t ultimately about how unrecognizably distant Heaven is, but how near it has already come!
In the day when the Kingdom comes in fullness, in the hour you walk into heaven, yes, you will be agog at all the things you couldn’t have imagined. But Paul is saying something more profound than this. That day you arrive in the final Kingdom will be the day you look around you and also say, “Yes, I suppose it had to be like this. I might have guessed. I’ve seen something like this before.” Like a bit of melody you once heard played by an unseen flute in the woods of a misty morning, that is now bursting forth all around you from the very earth in full orchestration, and for all the earth-shattering wonder that will be yours in that day, you will not say that it is all new, but rather you will turn and remark to the person standing next to you about how familiar is all is. And do you know why you will say this? Because you’ve seen the Church…and that is why heaven will feel like home. It will be the consummation of a theme to which you’ve been dancing for years.
Oh yes, eye has not seen, but the spirit has. The Spirit of God has gone forth and declared it in the life of the Church. And that, my friend, is why the kind of humanity that is lived out in our Churches matters. The broken world will get their first taste of the divine life here, or they will go hungry.
The broken world will get their first taste of the divine life here, or they will go hungry.
In the next and final homily of this series, I will explore in a bit more detail the tasks that make up this corporate life—this foretaste of heaven.
So join us next time at the Homilies of St. Asinus, reflections of a recycled saint.
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