Sometimes I wonder if Christianity is true.
Oh, I don’t mean things like “does God exist?” or “did Jesus rise from the dead?” I actually think those claims work pretty well so long as you haven’t had your brain addled by withering forms of Enlightenment skepticism. No, no, what I mean is that what Christianity says will be true of me just doesn’t seem to match the me I actually experience. For example, Christianity says that in Christ I’ve been set free from sin, yet I still perceive a lot of bondage in my soul. It says that I have been reconciled to God, and yet God often feels quite distant. Christianity says death has been defeated, yet I know that I’m still going to die. How can Christianity claim such things in the face of all my experience? And how am I supposed to live with that?
Welcome back to Homilies of St. Asinus, the Recycled Saint.
Christianity makes many claims that are incredible. Dead men walk out of tombs, divine indwelling Spirits who enable virtue and hope, the possibility of a life filled with real purpose and joy. And opposed to all these claims stands the death of young children, the rushing spirits of racism, injustice, and predatory power, and so many human lives that seem to consist of only pointlessness and despair. Christianity claims Christ has conquered sin, death, and the devil, and yet all three still thrash about causing what looks like the same sort of harm they have always done.
In a previous homily this saintly mule offered his thoughts on why evil still continues despite Christian claims of a victorious Christ. That answer was in short that we live now in the land between two great events—between that time when the darkness of death has been formally conquered and yet has not passed away in the sunrise of the final kingdom.
So whatever great questions remain for Christianity to answer—and there are many—the one that practically presses upon us is “What does it mean to live between these times? What sort of redemption do we actually experience in this time where evil has both been conquered and yet is still at large? I have hinted at this all throughout this series. I have spoken of the great cultural invitation given in the beginning and then compromised in the fall. I have spoken of Christ as the redeemer and renewer of all these things, and how his work allows us to begin to taste of true humanity once again. That because of Christ, it is possible to bring the claims of the gospel to bear upon everything I touch, do, and think—“whether eating or drinking,” working or recreating, I now begin to be able to have as my first intention God’s name, God’s will, and God’s kingdom.
And so, in this, the final homily of this series, it is time to put all of that in the context of this great tension—to talk about what it means for the Church to live in this strange time between the advent of Christ’s Kingdom and its consummation. Everything I’ve just said about the conflicted nature of “living between” is reflected in the life of the church. In fact whatever the tension we feel as individuals, it is doubled and trebled in the life of the church. I made a case in the previous homily for the church being the central locus of God’s redemptive work and that one can even define the true church as that community that is seeking to live within God’s kingdom reign right now. This definition assumes the awkward tension—we are “already” living in a “not yet.” We are the justified who are yet sinful; the sanctified who are yet imperfect; the liberated who are yet enslaved; the reconciled who are yet distant.
Unlike Abraham and the prophets who looked merely forward into the mists of a promised redeemer, we look both backward to a victorious Messiah and forward to a fulfillment of his promises. When St. Paul wrote to the church in Rome about creation groaning in bondage and we with it, longing for the day of liberation, he was writing after the resurrection had already occurred. It is exactly this placement “between times” that gives the Church its particular and peculiar flavor. That is why the Church is both the fulfillment of a promise and a foretaste of what is coming.
The final big question of the series thus can be put this way: What does the Church’s redemptive life and mission look like given the “already-not yet” character of our sojourn?
The answer will be organized into three large categories or values. Each of which has been mentioned in earlier homilies in their proper place. Now it’s time to put them together into a single vision for the Church’s work in the world. The first two are rooted primarily in the redemptive work of Christ and the third grows out of our humanity as given in the beginning. While I believe each of these equally central to the church’s mission and identity, it will be obvious that no particular church does all with equal skill. Just like individuals, church’s will express each of these at the level of their endowment. But every church should always have all three on the radar and be taking steps to “be” the church in each.
The Church is called to live a redemptive corporate life.
The first missional area is inwardly focused: The Church is called to live a redemptive corporate life. This refers to the kind of humanity that Christ inaugurated in the incarnation, won for us in his death and resurrection, and is drawing us into by the power and presence of his Spirit in our midst. We, who are the Church, are becoming day by day redeemed creatures, more fully enjoying a renewed humanity like unto his own. Because of this, we are now called, not just to be redeemed individuals, but to come together to share a particular kind of corporate life—a collective life in the Spirit which reflects what we might call a “true human community.” Just as we are becoming individuals as God intended individuals to be, so too are we becoming a community the way God intended human community to be.
The authors of the New Testament are constantly trying to create this sort of community in the various churches to which they write. Paul wants the Church in Rome, Corinth, and elsewhere to grow together in faith. Peter wants the churches of Asia Minor to respond to suffering as true humans. John wants the Church to learn how to love. The letters of the New Testament teach us on every page what sort of communities we ought to be—communities that are peace-loving, faithful, diligent, wise, and so on.
As such, this life we live together will consist of a constant rehearsal of the story of our redemption—teaching of the scriptures, worship, mutual confession and submission to one another and legitimate human authorities. We are called to exhort and even discipline where necessary to enable and encourage us to we grow into holiness—what theologians call sanctification.
All this is definitional to the church, and where a church fails to live this kind of life together, that church is perpetuating the brokenness of the fall and failing to “be” the church. This is why church’s that are relationally abusive, theologically dysfunctional, or morally compromised represent such a tragedy; they have in some real sense ceased to be the church inwardly. The gospel is to be lived in the church, not just spoken of. Lived—person to person, minute to minute, in the warp and the woof of life together. Any version of Christianity that does not reconcile us to one another and create a new human community governed by the ways of the kingdom is no gospel at all.
The Church is called be a testimony to the fallen world.
The second missional value of the church is outwardly focused: The Church is called be a testimony to the fallen world. The church is to call out to the broken world inviting it to abandon its rebellion and come home to its true king. The old trade word for this was “evangelism”—the declaration of the good news outwardly to the broken world, and it goes go hand in hand with the first value . The church that does not proclaim outwardly will see few enter the new human community, just as a church whose inward life is broken will have no real community to bring others into. They stand together. Christ wishes to redeem us both “from” and “for.” We are saved from—out of—the hopelessness and despair of the old humanity, and we are saved into—for the sake—a new life lived in holy community.
They are related as well because the inwardly directed community life exists both for its own sake and for the sake of the second value. God desires our holiness first for its own sake, but when this holy community is lived out before the world, it also becomes a call or proclamation. The broken world sees us living in the new way, and—we would hope, in addition to our words—it too invites them to join us.
In fact our words—our verbal proclamation—will have very little power if the inward community life contradicts it. But the opposite is also true. Simply living this life—without any words—will call few, because people’s attention is not usually drawn to the quiet, loving community life the scriptures advocate. Our words—our active proclamation within the culture—serves to bring it to their attention and then they look, evaluate, and decide. The holy proclamation of our churches cannot be either words or deeds—it must be both. You might as well say that art consists only of painting and not in talking about painting, or that music consists only in playing the piano and not discussing music theory. Every real artist or musician knows that they go together. There is a joy found in painting and a whole other sort of joy in discussing art. They are not mutually exclusive. They reinforce and enable one another—together part of the common life of any artist or musician. So too the proclamation of our words and the proclamation of our corporate life are both central to the identity and mission of the church.
The Church is called to engage in acts of creatural stewardship of every kind.
The third missional quality of the church is of a different kind and is often the hardest to explain effectively. People continue to want it to be something other than it is, to make it merely a subset of one the first two values. The Church is called to engage in acts of creatural stewardship of every kind. This is a broad category of things—as broad as our humanity itself. It consists of everything from engaging in acts of social justice and responsible stewardship, to promoting human proficiency in the arts or athletics, to the inventive and technological, to the academic, political, and culinary. To put it bluntly, it is the church’s mission to be involved in music, art, social work, politics, and sport. It includes the whole of the human condition and the whole of the human cultural project.
Now the thing people most often get wrong about this in my experience is that they act as if and perhaps even believe that this value is primarily evangelistic—that is, that it is really just a sub-category of the second value—we do these things because they are evangelistic. You can recognize this tendency in the church that is always agreeing that it should engage in acts of justice, or support local artists, or be politically active because it’s a means by which people get saved—meaning they are valuable and should be done because they have evangelistic value. Now I do not disagree that art (for example) can be powerfully evangelistic. Many historical depictions of the crucifixion were painted for the very purpose of drawing people to the cross, and it is the stated objective of iconography to do just that. But this is a different point. Just because art can used toward such end—and a worthy end I might add—does not mean that this is the reason art exists, any more than to say that because a pickup truck can haul a piano, that this is the reason pickup trucks were invented. That I would give a cup of cold water (an act of justice) with the express purpose of opening a door to evangelism is not wrong, would that we would do it more often. But at the ground level, the reason water exists is because thirst does. If I may misquote Karl Barth here, every aspect of our human experience—“from a Mozartine symphony to a dead dog”—can be a vehicle to draw the sinner to Christ, but that is not the first purpose for which either exist.
I simply do not believe the basic purpose of art is evangelism any more than I believe the reason we feed hungry persons is to make them open to the gospel. They may become so, and I pray they do, but this an additional good. These acts are not first rooted in the redemptive work of Christ, but has as their foundation the creational work of God in the beginning. It is the aspect of the human mission that we share with all other humans—even broken ones.
This value is distinct from the first two values, in that, while these acts may result in “salvation” or “entrance into the community,” they have value beyond it. You, I hope, could stand in solidarity with a secular humanist against human trafficking simply because it is evil, and not because it’s a good way to introduce people to Jesus. You could composed a piece of music or bake a lasagna alongside an atheist or a Hindu because composing music and baking lasagna is first a human project rooted in our common humanity—because music and lasagna are both good gifts from God to be received with gratitude.
Now there is a difference in my lasagna and the atheists (particular recipes or course notwithstanding). As I’ve discussed in an earlier homily, I do my art, my baking, my acts of justice or conservation “to the glory of God” (and I refer you back to that homily for more discussion on what that means), but they do not exist as tasks for me simply because of their evangelistic value.
I understand that what I’m saying may be controversial to some. I have interacted with many churches that are skiddish around any event or activity where they could not clearly enact the second value—active proclamation of the gospel. Many good organizations will not hand out the cup of cold water unless they can say it comes from Jesus. I understand that, and respect their integrity, but I think it’s a category mistake. They have conflated their human-creaturely responsibilities with their redemptive ones. Yes, whenever possible, we should give the water “in Jesus’ name,” but when we cannot, we have no right to withhold the water. Other grounds remain upon which that deed is still an obligation.
It is good to paint a picture of the crucifixion in order to call others to the cross, but it also good to paint a picture of a sunrise or a city street simply because they too in their own way are beautiful. It is not greater or lesser good—it is a different good. The richest glass of red wine is not better or worse than a slice of perfectly baked bread. They are simply different pleasures that each have their place in the human experience. So too with all the cultural artifacts of man. They are good because they are gifts of God, not because they are mere tools of persuasion.
Cultural artifacts are good because they are gifts of God, not because they are mere tools of persuasion.
Now of course because I do try to enjoy my wine and bread to the glory of God, as Paul advised, eating and drink have become religious experiences—experiences that point to the presence and goodness of God. But that too is a very different thing than saying that their primary raison d’etre is evangelism. They are used as energy for my body just as they are in any pagan’s. They are goods that are shared by humanity in general, not uniquely by the Kingdom citizen. Remember, God causes the rain to fall on the just and unjust alike, and thus their gardens grow.
The point of this third value is that whatever the human project is, the Church has a vital share in it. These things belong to us as well, and we need not apologize for being in the thick of them. In fact I often wonder why the Church has been become so artistically dull, celebrating and advocating for only the most banal and tedious forms of music and art. And I wonder, is it because we have only accepted these good gifts as forms of religion and not fully received them simply as humans should…with gratitude? We turn them into tools for something else, for which they will serve admirably, but for which God may have first intended humbler and homelier applications.
When Jesus said not to throw what is holy to the dogs, we read him one way…but I wonder, when speaking about the good and holy gifts of creation, if it is not the Church who has grown rather canine.
Can we believe that the glory of God and the good of our neighbor can be advanced by a classic car well-maintained, a nature poem well-crafted, a lasagna well-baked…not as tools to some other good, but as simple goods in themselves—a minor good, perhaps, but still a good? If the Church is a foretaste of the future Kingdom, then we best learn to play as well as work, to worship in common things as well as the sublime, to rejoice in the ordinary stuff of creation without airs or presumption. This too is part of our mission, and it may teach us more about what God is like than many a more religious deed.
So there it is. Three great invitations—to live together in holy community, proclaim the Kingdom to the broken world, and enjoy the good gifts of the creation which God has made, all for the glory of God and good of our neighbors. So go be the Church; go live out the kingdom. If there is another chapter of the story yet to come, then the sort of creatures we make of ourselves here is of great importance in preparing us for the work that will one day be ours when Kingdom comes.
It’s been a pleasure walking with you through these big questions. Come back and see us again at the Homilies of St. Asnius, Reflections of a Recycled Saint.
 Romans 8
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