In the morally and ethically confused period through which we are currently living, what with issues of gun-control, homelessness, huge prison populations, record number of refugees worldwide, hunger, immigrant status, arrogance of the wealthy and greedy, racial and sexual prejudice, and on, and on … there inevitably comes the question above, can the church be part of this moral and ethical darkness? And the answer comes: Absolutely! No question. From the outset of its history, the church has always been tempted to be conformed to the mores of the culture around it, to make friends with the forces of darkness, to forsake its calling to be a holy nation, to be a light in the midst of the darkness.

Let me see if I can put a foundation under that charge. In the New Testament documents upon whose authority the church finds its definition, there is one over-arching and cosmic reality, and that is: that in the coming of Jesus into the human scene, that God’s future has entered into our present, that God has come in Christ to recreate all things, to bring his light into our darkness, and to cause all to conform to his own dominion and purpose. This is indicated in the repetitive references to Jesus and his apostles preaching the gospel of the kingdom. Those who hear that message and respond make the decision to, henceforth, be inhabited by the very life of Christ himself by his Spirit. This means that his kingdom and his ethical and moral teachings become those of us who have chosen to be his followers. Jesus never ceases to remind us that those who obey him, who are responsive to his teachings, are his true disciples.

This reality emerges in its communal expression in the church, which is the communal expression of this new creation. The church is dwelling-place of God by the Holy Spirit; it is referred to as: the body of Christ. The consequence of this is that it becomes the human community as God intends it to be, and incarnates in the midst of this present cultural and spiritual darkness the very divine image. It is the doer of God’s new creation, of his will.

A caveat here: this does not mean that others, who are not followers of Christ, are not also very often the doers of his will. Theologians call this reality common grace, or God’s preserving grace. One sees this so wonderfully displayed in humanitarian organizations (such as Doctors Without Borders) which are staffed by, and whose purpose is in harmony with the ethical, humanitarian, justice seeking, and peace-making teachings of Jesus. Christian and the church are thankful for these and become (as one described it) co-belligerents with them against the darkness.

But, back to the beginning: when ostensible churches become obsessed with their institutional life, their liturgical pageantry, their comfortable (what Bonhoeffer called) ‘religious Christianity,’ and fail in their calling to the radical kingdom ethics taught by Jesus, … then they become a religious dimension of the darkness, and so deny the water of Life that Jesus intends for those who are his Bride. In this Holy Week, and in this period of ethical and moral confusion in our society, any community which claims for itself the designation of being his church needs to examine what are the fruits of its being inhabited by, and obedient to, the life and teachings of Jesus.

And (parenthetically) after the incredible display of righteous indignation by millions of young people protesting the absence of gun-control this past Saturday, one needs to ask where the church’s voice is on such a threatening issue? Who is the church responding to? With whom is the church engaging as co-belligerents in the causes of righteousness? How is it the community of the Light, of God’s New Creation in Christ?

And also, note, this is not a safe calling. How’s that for a Holy Week reflection?

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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  1. margaret harris says:

    Excellent! A calm message for us who are followers (or trying our best to be) of Jesus Christ. The world is twirling. We must seek answers to how we can be a positive influence. God, please show us the way.

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