A reflection by Dan Spragg

Sort of as a follow up to last week but mostly as I have reflected during and now coming out of lockdown I want to write this week about ‘the church’.

Be warned I mostly have questions!

Last week’s idea was quite a big idea, quite a concept for our western world brains to get our heads around perhaps. We like to think too much about the individual over and above the collective. There is something about it however that really grabs my attention. From the words in the creation narrative at the beginning of the book of Genesis “let us make humankind in our image”, comes an evocative idea that it is not you or I, or even us as our church community that is the image of God in the world, but rather, all humans ever! The ones who are alive now, the ones who have come before us, the ones who have come after us, every single one of us together forms the image of God in the world. The implications are big because potentially this means that every single interaction I have with anyone else is indeed interaction with this sacred presence of God in the world. It speaks of a deep solidarity we have with one another and a responsibility towards one another as I think of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:

…for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’

In all, we see the face of God and together we are a beautiful mosaic of God’s representation in the world. When one of us is joyful, let us be joyful and celebrate. When one of us is hurting, let us all feel that hurt and work for healing. 

Of course we might look around the world and see the standouts among us which unfortunately are usually the ones we would rather not be having to deal with. The dictators, the narcissists, the egotistical maniacs, the greedy, the violent, the racists, the sexists… Including these into our image of God raises questions! Even including ourselves at times into the image of God might raise some questions too! 

I really do think I’ve made a friend in Gregory of Nyssa from the 4th century. On the question of the presence of evil and the participation in it (sin), Gregory would say that “evil and sin are always accidental conditions of human nature, never intrinsic qualities; all evil is a privation of an original goodness”[1] 

All evil is an absence of something that is normally present.

When for whatever reason goodness is absent, then evil takes its place. 

And so this is where the work of Jesus and then the risen Christ takes place. 

We are shown ‘the way’ and Christ’s presence in the world gathers us all to return us to our true nature as good and at home with God. In Christ we are free. In Christ, we are made whole. As Paul says in the Ephesians reading today, “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love… to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

As Christ dwells in our hearts, may we be filled with the fullness of God. 

Which leads me to questions about The Church. 

It is the work of Christ that reconciles us back home – knowing who we truly are with God. We don’t do that part. 

So what is the work of The Church? 

If all are the image of God, and Christ’s work is reconciliation and the restoration of goodness in all, then what are we to do as ones who believe that we are called together as Christians – followers of Christ – in the world? (That was a long question, sorry).

What do we do as the church?

Who are we as the church?

Why do we do what we do?

When God is the one responsible for ‘salvation’ (not us)?

When there is the absence of goodness in places?

When no-one seems to be lining up to join us?

When new Christians appear to be few and far between?

When we can’t even be together as a church?

I do know that some of you have had some questions that have been raised about church and our activities during our period of lockdown. As we have been forced to push pause these questions have arisen. 

Do you have any questions about church and our activities that have arisen during the last months?

Across the Presbytery some have been able to share their questions in a video interview. You may have watched the interview with Rev Don Fergus in Takaka. There are now 11 videos and they are all worth a watch. Perhaps you might like to take a look sometime. Here – Alpine Presbytery on Youtube.

I don’t know if you’ve ever taken a look at the entire book of Acts as one story before. It’s quite a story! In a nutshell it is the story of the first Christian church scrambling as fast as it could to keep up with where the Spirit of God was leading them. 

It is a good story to interact with as we ask questions of ‘The Church’.

There are some characteristics of the church in the book of Acts that could help us as we sit with our questions as we emerge from lockdown. 

For the sake of brevity I’ll bullet point them!

  • They understand their purpose as to bear witness to the good news that Jesus taught and lived.
  • The Spirit led them and enabled them outwards beyond their own groups.
  • Any structures or organisation they had, had to respond to God’s leading and adapt as they went.
  • Their essence can be seen as three dimensional:
    • Up – through worship and prayer they grow in their relationship to and understanding of God.
    • In – they grow in their relationships with one-another sharing hospitality and resources.
    • Out – they reach out to and share the good news in words and actions to those around them.

In particular their ‘agility’ seems very important. Mostly by necessity as the Spirit seemed to be leading them very quickly and things were growing quickly they had to adapt their practices and structures in response to what they were encountering. They were literally scrambling to keep up. 

In our world today things are changing very quickly, all the time. 

And that was before we had a global pandemic! 

Microsoft’s board now limits its strategic planning to 12 months ahead – they simply don’t know what the world of Information Technology will hold beyond that – so they plan as best they can and then adapt. 

‘Agile’ project management is now a legitimate field of study and work especially in software. It is fast becoming standard practice. It is based on the idea that products will be launched before they are finished and that there will be many small and fast adaptations along the way as customers engage with the product.

In our context it seems that being agile is how we need to engage with the world. Which when combined with the characteristics of the church in Acts leads me to more questions! 

Are we as the church agile?

Do we change our structures & traditions in response to what we encounter? 

Or, do too often our structures & traditions remain fixed and immovable?

Do we listen to God’s Spirit and go where we are led?

If the essence of church is three dimensional – Up / In / Out, do we need things like buildings, finances, clergy, Presbytery, General Assembly, the Book of Order to be the church?

I suspect not… so what are these for? And can these help us or hinder us in being agile?

Finally (because i think I have enough words on the page for one day already) 

When we consider our solidarity with all humans in every time and place. 

When we consider the activity of Christ to draw all into the fullness of God.

When we consider that church is something that God calls forth.

When we consider what the essence of that church might be. 

And, when we consider the context of our time and place in the world.

I have one (maybe two) final question(s)…

What is the point of us being church?

I know we are not here to serve ourselves.

I know that we are here to call attention to the love of God, so that all may come to know the fullness of God in their hearts. 

I wonder:

How might we follow the Spirit’s lead and be agile in our response? 

Can we be agile enough to follow where the Spirit is leading, not for our own sake, but for the sake of those who are still to know the fullness of the love of God in their hearts?

…………..

I’m very interested in if you have had questions about the nature of church and our activities during the last couple of months. If you would be interested in getting together with a small group to sit with and discuss these questions together then let me know! I would love to make this happen. 


[1] In, David Bentley Hart, That all Shall be Saved: Heaven, Hell & Universal Salvation, Yale Unversity Press, 2019, p143.