Sunday, March 25, 2012

Christian Believer: Week Twenty {Belonging}

Faith of our fathers, living still,
in spite of dungeon, fire, and sword;
O how our hearts beat high
with joy whene'er we hear that glorious word!
Faith of our fathers, holy faith!
We will be true to thee till death.
('Faith of Our Fathers", Fredick W. Faber)

Lesson twenty one was "The Church: God's Called Out People" (God's Called Out People). I really enjoyed reading about and discussing the way we are "called out".  It's funny because I always associate that term with it's modern connotation, which I think is quite negative, so this was really eye opening!

We actually didn't get to watch the accompanying video this time, because yours truly left it at home.  We did have some good discussion mostly about the Scriptures we read.  We talked about how we saw in Mathew 16:13-20 that Peter is the "Rock" of the church and we briefly touched on the Catholic belief that all Popes are his successor.  We then discussed a passage in Acts (15:1-31) and how it relates to authority and conflict in the church.  Finally we read Revelation 21:1-14 and talked about what it meant for a Jewish/Christian audience.  We also talked about how we are all "different tools in the toolbox" and we all have different jobs to do that are part of one overall goal.

Of course, I just had to watch the video later. The presenter that week was William H. Willimon, who a Dean of the Chapel and Professor of Christian Ministry at Duke University.  The first thing it said was that just as God called light into being and it became light, God also called the church into being and it became the church.  It then stated that someone has said that "the greatest heresy of modern religion is that "religion is a private affair".  It gave a short history of what the "church" looked like before Jesus.  Israel in exile created the institution known as the synagogue.  The word synagogue means "coming together" and it was the means by which these people, strangers in a strange land, met together to "sing the songs of Zion, tell stories of the past, and integrate the young into their peculiar way of life". This meeting together kept Israel as Israel during their exile.

The next thing Willimon said was  that being faithful to a living, righteous God is too  great a challenge to go it alone and there is strength in numbers.  However, the  church is more than a warm hearted gathering of like minded people.  The Greek word for church is Ekklesia and means "called out".  The church is God's idea, not ours.  Israel existed because God wanted a people to witness to all other people that he ruled and that is now the responsibility of the church.  Most human institutions are held together by race, class, or gender because that is the way the world gathers people.  But the church is gathered by the initiative of God.  The church exists because God keeps calling people to come forward and be  the church.  Someone has said "God has no grandchildren", meaning there are not "second generation Christians". But God is faithful to both call the church and preserve the church. The word Ekklesia reminds us that we are not only called, however, but called out

Willimon went on to say that Vatican II (the great reformation of the Catholic church in the 1960s) described 1 Peter 2:9-10 as "the most succinct statement of the meaning of the church".  He then went on to break this passage down.  Why were we chosen? For special privilege or reward? No.  We are chosen to be a royal priesthood.  But what do priests do? They mediate between God and the world; they intercede with God on behalf of the world: they represent Christ to the world.  In church, we're all priests and this is what the Protestant reformers meant when they talked about the "priesthood of all believers".  We are now a "holy nation" a the church, holy meaning "set apart".  Notice that the church is described in collective nouns- priests, nation, people- we're all in this together.  The Christian faith is meant to be lived in community.

We are "called out" for a job.  Our human job as church members is to declare, in word and deed, the gracious God who called us out of darkness into light.  As Christians in our culture, as we begin to feel marginalized, we are in a great position to rediscover the meaning of church as "God's called out people".  We need each other in a sometimes hostile, usually apathetic, world.  While we live in the world, we must be different from the world if we are to be truly for the world.

The workbook reading was good, too.  The first point that I really liked that the book made was that we are not called simply to be blessed, but to be a blessing.  The book then talked about Israel and how, though they weren't the first to have a system of laws, they were the first to have laws focusing on holiness.  It discussed how sometimes Israel's sense of being separate could be offensive to modern readers and gave the examples of God telling Israel to wipe out an entire people.

The book went on to say that when we are so often disappointed by the lack of unity in the church, we should really be surprised by how much there is, because all the laws of human nature are against it.  It talked about how early Christians were persecuted and how this led to them "congealing" as a local body, but also to a spirit of isolation and even superiority.  It finally discussed again about how our purpose is to be a blessing and how the secret to the church's survival is it's allegiance to Christ.

Here are my highlights from the Scripture and text readings:

"How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty.  My soul years, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh cry out for the living God...Better is one day in your courts than thousands elsewhere." -Psalm 84:1-2, 10

"And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." -Revelation 21:3-4

"The Church, then, is called Catholic because it is spread through the whole world, from one end of the earth to the other, and because it never stops teaching in all its fullness every doctrine that mean ought to be brought to know...It is called Catholic also because it brings things into religious obedience every sort of men, rulers and ruled, learned and simple, and because it is a universal treatment and cure for every kind of sin whether perpetrated by soul or body, and possesses within it every form of virtue that is named, whether it expresses itself in deeds or words or in spiritual graces of every description." -Cyril of Jerusalem

"Two or three Christian believers united together are a church in the narrowest sense of the word." -John Wesley

"...It looses it's character as the church when it concentrates on itself, worships itself and seeks to make love of Church the first commandment." -H. Richard Niebuhr

"The basis of the Christian community is not the family tie, or social or economic equality, or shared oppression or complaint, or mutual attraction...but the divine call...By our common call to the New Jerusalem, we recognize each other on the road as brothers and sisters.  Therefore, as the people of God, we are called ekklesia (from the Greek kaleo=call; and ek=out), the community called out of the old world into the new...But sometimes a false type of like-mindedness can narrow our sense of community...There is great wisdom hidden in the old bell tower calling people with very different backgrounds away from their homes to form one body in Jesus Christ.  it is precisely by transcending the many individual differences that we can become witnesses of God who allows his light to shine upon poor and rich, healthy and sick alike." -Henri J. Nouwen

"The Church is both a fellowship and an institution...The Bible in its various types of literature carries in a relatively stable form the meanings that mark the Christian community in distinction from other human groups...The communication and interpretation of its meaning depend upon the existence of certain offices and rites.  The ministry exists in part to make living and internal the meanings carried externally and objectively in the Bible.  The Lord's Supper is a rite in which the significance of the death of Jesus Christ is remembered again.  Liturgies as a whole carry out for each congregation a pattern of meaning in which mean can participate." -James M. Gustafson

"The first disciples of Christ had the consciousness that they were "called", called by him to an assembly of unity, to an ecclesia.  Not to be faithful to a new "religion", nor to be partisans of a new ideology or social teaching.  What untied them was not the reception of some theoretical "principles or "axioms", but the reception of the call which radically changed their lives: It transformed individuals, detached units, into a single body, the Church.  Their gathering is not exhausted in a simple meeting together; it is not a passing, causal event.  They live as a church, as a single body of life, they share life as "brothers"- just like brothers who draw their existence from the same womb- they are "members" of an organic, living "body"...The church is also this one chosen people, the "new Israel", with a new historical mission: to reveal to the world God's new relationship and covenant with mankind "in Jesus Christ". -Christos Yannaras

Because we the church believe we are a people called out by God for mission in the world, I will gladly join that mission.

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