There is something awesome (and maybe a bit humorous) about the meeting this past week of the heads of the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches. Here were the leaders of two of the major and ancient branches of Christ’s church which emerged as the result of a breach of the church’s unity at the end of the first millennium. Think of the history that has transpired since then. Think of the many expressions of that church that have emerged over the centuries over differences of identity or of points of doctrine or self understanding, etc. Think of the opposition of empires and cultures and empires and dominant philosophies, and assaults on its existence that have taken place. And yet it survives, … and in the unlikely setting of Havana, Cuba, the two very colorful pontiffs from the long estranged branches meet and embrace. It recalls the words of the hymn: O, where are kings and empires now, of old that went and came, but Lord thy church is praying still, a thousand years the same.

It also reminds one of Mark Twain’s comment that the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. Periodic articles and editorials lament the demise of the church as some of its expressions fall into decay. But these are by those who don’t really understand its dynamic. The church is never a reality that is humanly explainable. As a matter of fact, the church is humanly impossible. Jesus never told his followers to “build the church.” Rather, he told them to make disciples and that he would build his church. He told them that it would be the communal demonstration of his New Creation, … but then he never told them what form it would take. He only told them that where two or three of them were together, that he would be there with them. He told them that this New Creation, this Kingdom of God, would not come with observation, that it would grow like leaven in a lump of dough. And so it has.

The apostle, later in the church’s teaching, reminded Christ’s followers that God used weak things to confound the mighty, foolish things to confound the weak, lowly-born to confound the high-born, and even things that are not to confound things that are. And so it has been demonstrated. The infant New Creation community, the church, was birthed (launched) against the hostility of the established religious powers of Palestine, but even more against the the vicious opposition of one of the mightiest empires that the world has ever known. Yet within a few generations it was itself one of the strongest presences within that empire.

And how did this take place? Who were the agents? Mostly just ordinary folk with ordinary talents, but empowered in a way that (again) is human in-explainable. When the British empire reached the southern shores of the sub-continent of India in the 17th century (?), what did they find? The found the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar in existence ostensibly since the missionary work of the disciple Thomas those many centuries before. How did that happen?

And today, for sure, we are experiencing the diastrophism resulting with the demise of the Christendom era, and this is demolishing many human structures and traditions that came along with that in Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, and independent Christian movements. But it doesn’t mean that the church is disappearing. It keeps emerging in new forms and fresh expressions. It faces huge cultural, secular, and governmental hostilities, … but it keeps emerging in new incarnations as well as outbursts of life within older incarnations. H. Richard Niebuhr, several generations ago, pronounced denominations as the moral failure of Christianity, and that was prophetic as these formerly useful structures now deteriorate into shadows. At the same time, the Pope and the Patriarch are reminders that the church is not predictable, on the one hand, and, too, eight followers of Jesus meeting with Bibles on the patio of the coffee house remind us that the church emerges in ever new forms, and in the most unlikely places on the earth.

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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