What is the church? End of post. You can now sit and contemplate what you understand it to be.
It is a big question and Jesus call to Pater in Matthew 16:13-20 is open to many different interpretations. Is it the Church of Rome, is it the Orthodox Church, and is it the church after the protestant revolution? Is it an institution?
We often say the church is the people. We are the church, a rather loose throw-a-way interpretation allowing us to avoid the deeper questions of what, how and where we worship.
The church has become an integral part of the developed social mores, morals and practices and has played both a positive and a negative role in the development of society due to its privileged position. Education, health, social welfare and the defence of human rights in areas such as slavery, racism, poverty, child rights and more have benefited from the place the institutional church has had in society. At the same time such religion has been used to validate western colonisation, war, the treatment of women and children and racism to mention a just a few.
As we discussed last week, Australians are about to be asked on vote on marriage equality. At the same time our state government is seeking to bring in legislation on assisted dying for those facing terminal illnesses and who wish to take control of their own lives. Both these campaigns are challenging for the church as, for some, it flies in the face of what they understand their faith teaches and for others it appears to threaten the freedom to practice your religion without fear of being in conflict with the law and your reading of the scriptures.
What was Peter asked to do? Was he asked to develop an empire with its own right to be recognised as the centre of all decision making within another state? Or was he simply asked to bring in the kingdom of God through a surge for wholeness through respect and justice empowered by love?
If it is the first then we may be mistaken into thinking that we have the right to practice our religion outside the laws of the state and fear anything that challenges our right to do as we please as long as it reflects our world view and our reading of the scriptures. Our many years in cohorts with those in power have cemented this expectation in both the institutional church and in the minds of individual Christians. Yet have we not been poor at sharing this right with others? Muslims, atheists, indigenous and more? Has not it always seemed to be just about us?
If it is the second, then it was not a call to empire but to exile, a call to the margins in direct conflict with the concept of empire present in Jesus’ time. This mixing up of what the church is, empire or exile, can leave us fearful of the changes we are experiencing.
Centuries of being at the centre has left us comfortable but vulnerable to change and the reality that being for the kingdom of God may place you outside the state. The Gospel values of justice, compassion and love will challenge and be challenged by the state. Being in this in between place of exile we are called to be true to what we understand but to accept that that will not be what those not for the kingdom understand and support, even some who appeal to the scriptures.
We have taken these words: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” to mean we are to build an impenetrable structure to withstand all opposition.
Yes we do have the keys of heaven but those keys are not the keys to unlock or lock up earthly laws and respect for others different to us. They are not the keys of control and power but of freedom. They are to let loose the politics of the kingdom – equality, justice, love, respect and freedom – and not just for or accessible only by us. If all creation, including those who don’t understand the world the way we do, are created in the image of God with the capacity to create and recreate, then the spirit of God is free to share these keys with those with ears to hear, eyes to see and hands to do.
The challenge for the church today is to move to the margins, into exile and begin to recognise what it is like for all who now live there. When we do we will begin to read the Gospel from a place of dadirri, deep listening and connecting with the spirits and Wisdom of God only to be found there.
Exile is the place of the defenceless God and his defenceless church. Note, defenceless not powerless, because powerlessness sets up a conflict with power while being defenceless is a choice, a decision not to use power for ones one benefit. It is time for a defenceless church to implement the values of the kingdom and to avoid a battle based on power.