Fleshing out what kind of church the world needs

One of my seminary professors recently asked this question. What a fertile question. It gives us a chance to consider the needs of the world. What is the status of our world these days? Where are there hatred, violence, and chaos? Where are there famine, disease, and scarcity? Where are there hopelessness, illiteracy, and neglect?

Our world is filled with these things. Some of them are right under our local noses. Surprisingly you don’t have to drive far to encounter some of these needs. So what kind of church is needed to face the needs of our world?

I think you could say lots of things. You could go lots of different directions and still answer this question in a satisfactory way.

The world needs a church that is loving, so loving that it sees every living thing as part of God’s holistic creation and takes every chance to embody God’s love for the cosmos.

The world needs a church that is adaptive, ready to abandon the old, tired ways of organizational thinking for new ways that bring life and vitality.

The world needs a church that is Christ-centered, focused on the words and ministry of Jesus and how they can bring transformation to our world today.

The world needs a church that is compassionate, never using our status or position in the world to bring harm, but only to bring healing to those who are over-looked.

The world needs a church that is self-sacrificing, willing to give away property, buildings, and money so that others can be better off than they were before.

The list goes on and on. I hope you have your own way of answering the question, because it is an important one. Because really, the question is not about the church, the question is about you and I. What kind of person does this world need? How do I live my life more faithfully for the sake of the world?

My heart always goes back to the sacraments and the assembly. So my answer would be: “The world needs a church that continually gathers around God’s story and table, and then embodies that story and food for the life of the world.” I think telling a better story and sharing food is what the world needs from us the most.

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Thoughts on the Sacraments

Some of my old acquaintances know that I’m in a different space now. If you knew me from school, or from seminary, or from ministry pre-2007, I don’t hold all the same theories and beliefs that I once did. That being the case, the praxis (practicing idea) of my ministry has evolved. It’s all about the journey and what you learn along the way. I don’t claim to be right about everything, but this is the place where God has currently led me, and I want to share some of it.

In recent years I have experienced a paradigm shift in my understanding of the sacraments. I have moved from serving in and being schooled by the “believer’s baptism” tradition, to serving in and being opened up to the “infant baptism” tradition. I recently read a book by Leonard J. Vander Zee’s called “Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.” A chapter entitled “Christ Is the Quintessential Sacrament” (p. 45-51) successfully captures many of the suppositions I have experienced in my sacramental shift.

“Paul calls Christ the visible “icon” of the invisible God (Col 1:15), and analogously, the sacraments are visible and material signs to us of the now invisible Christ.” (p. 45-46) To paraphrase, in the incarnation God came to us in the form of Jesus Christ, and now Jesus Christ comes to us in the form of the sacraments (baptism and Eucharist). One of the first steps in my shift was the recognition that Christ is present in the elements of the Eucharist. If Christ is truly present everywhere and “in him all things hold together” (Col 1:17), then the celebration of the Lord’s Supper can be more than a private remembrance and personal reflection. It can also be prolepsis – the eager anticipation of the feast to come at the wedding banquet of the Lamb. This quote from Vander Zee about the “invisible Christ” reminds me of a quote from C.S. Lewis in “The Weight of Glory“: “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat, the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.” There is an acknowledgment of the inherently “tov” nature of man, a Hebraic concept. What God has created is good, and the goodness of Christ is always present despite common distortions and diminutions. If Christ is truly “hidden” in our neighbor, Christ is possibly more visible around us than we think.

“It seems to me that the Bible and the early church fathers spoke very differently about how God’s grace in salvation comes to humanity. In the biblical worldview, God decisively acted in Christ so that the whole course of human history has changed. God’s action in Christ places every man and woman’s relationship to God on a whole new basis. God is reconciled to them. Jesus Christ is Lord of all. All humanity, all of Adam’s race, has been regathered into the one new humanity, under the headship of the new Adam.” (p. 48) The next step in my sacramental shift was an awakening to the lack of control we have in God’s relationship with us. As it was in previous covenant-relationships with God’s people, God is both the initiator and fulfiller of the covenant. We basically just have to let it happen.

“Apostolic preaching is not shaped around the announcement of a hypothetical possibility that you will be given salvation if you believe in it. It is based on God’s stupendous act of reconciliation that through his Son involves all humanity and, through his death and resurrection, reconciles all of humanity to himself. ‘You are reconciled, so be reconciled.’” (p. 50) Reconciliation and the sacramental life have less to do with your beliefs about what happens during Eucharist or who is illegible to be baptized and what that baptism means. It is more about the way you live the other six days a week. It is more about seeing and treating other people through the lens of your reconciliation. In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), neither the righteous nor the eternally punished ones know what determined their fate. They both ask the question “When did we see you?” Their fate was determined on whether they acted with kindness toward their neighbor. Maybe Lewis was right. Maybe our neighbor is even more sacramental than the meal and the water?