Friday, July 26, 2019

The Holy Spirit and the Gathering of the Christian Community

1. The Work of the Holy Spirit
To speak of the Christian community and of the Christian faith is to speak of people for whom reconciliation with God is real not only objectively but subjectively. But as sinners we are unwilling and unable to participate in this reconciliation on our own. So for us to be members of the Church and Christians, God must free us for himself. This God does through the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit is holy because he is the Spirit of the Father and of the Son. As the Holy Spirit he bears witness to Jesus Christ, the Son who obeys the Father, and by his power he awakens us to knowledge of our living Lord. By his power we are freed subjectively for humble obedience to Christ. Christian community and faith exist, then, only where first established and then daily renewed, miraculously, by the Holy Spirit.

2. The Being of the Church

We affirm the Church as the work of the Holy Spirit
The Church is a daily renewed event. Church happens when God calls, enables, and commands certain people to witness to the reconciliation of all people with him in Christ. Church happens when people awakened by the Spirit gather together to obey the law of the Gospel.

Because of all this witnessing, gathering, and obeying, the Church is always visible. It was visible from the very beginning, with the calling of twelve particular individuals to serve as apostles, became even more visible at Pentecost with the ingathering of thousands, and has remained visible to our own day. If we believe in Jesus Christ, the Word of God who became flesh, then we must also participate in the visible community he gathers together by the power of the Holy Spirit.

While the gathering of this community is a historical phenomenon visible to all, the character or truth of this community is invisible without the eyes of faith. The Church may be evaluated in sociological, cultural, or psychological terms, but its meaning cannot be defined in these terms. The special character of this community is that its living Lord is Jesus Christ. Just as the glory of the Son of God was hidden in the form of a servant, so the glory of the Church as those gathered by him will remain hidden until his own glory is revealed to all on the last day. Until then, the meaning of the Church will be the real but invisible lordship of Christ.

Jesus Christ rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father. But he also continues to live on earth in the form of his body, the Church, of which he remains the Head. The body of Christ on earth is the community of individuals who live already by the power of the Spirit in humble obedience to the verdict of the Father executed and revealed in Christ. The Church consists of those individuals chosen solely according to Jesus Christ to know and witness to this verdict on behalf of all people in all times and places.

We affirm that in the Holy Spirit the Church is one
Because the Church is one, we may speak properly of “churches” only when referring to spatially separated congregations. Nonetheless each congregation, in its own location, is the visible form of the one Church, established by the one Lord of heaven and earth, in obedience to the one Gospel, by the power of the one Spirit. The proper plurality of churches, the one in which the unity of the Church is affirmed, is that formed by these local congregations in their differentiated unity. All other pluralities, such as that based on different denominational traditions, indicate improper divisions because they lack biblical and spiritual justification. These illegitimate divisions in the Church deny the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit confessed by the Church. This is a scandal of which we can only be ashamed.

We may not properly respond to this scandal by withdrawing from all churches, because then we withdraw from the one Church into which Christ gathers us. Nor can existing divisions be healed when churches seek external unity by affirming the lowest common denominator of shared beliefs or practical goals. This is because all visible disunities simply reflect a break in the Church’s relationship with its Lord.

Now is not the time for an uncritical faith, a sense of indifference, or especially an ignorance of the issues at stake. Instead, beginning in the congregation and denomination in which we find ourselves, we must stretch humbly yet critically and boldly toward the one Church we acknowledge. Just as we confess that individually we are sinners and yet move forward to life, so we must confess that as congregations and denominations we are shamefully separated and so move forward to genuine communion. But we may do this only as we open ourselves to our living Lord, to his Word and Spirit, who has promised to dwell in our midst despite our disunity. Only as we open ourselves to the trial by fire described in 1 Corinthians 3:12f., will we come to know what of our particular tradition may be affirmed joyfully and what must be abandoned with grateful relief.

We affirm that in the Holy Spirit the Church is holy
To be holy means to be set apart by God. Jesus Christ is holy because he was set apart to be the single reconciler of the world to God as God’s eternal Son. The Church is holy as his body. Individual people are holy, are saints, only as members of that body because the Holy Spirit always gathers people into his community.

Because Jesus Christ is holy, the Church is indestructible. It cannot lose its distinctiveness. Its holiness is the work of the Holy Spirit, so it can neither be taken away nor denied. The body of Christ may always be more or less ill, its faith, love, and hope more or less faded, but Jesus Christ remains its Head. For this reason, criticism may always be in order but must always be made responsibly. The authority of the Church based on Scripture is always relative and provisional and therefore disputable. But any criticism of the Church based on Scripture is also subject to these same limitations.

Because Jesus Christ is holy, his Church is holy by the power of his Spirit. This has three implications. First, the Church does not determine what is holy and therefore what alone may properly be called Christian. The Church has distinctive activities, such as preaching, and some of these truly are holy because they truly do bear witness to Jesus Christ. But Jesus Christ determines which activities do so. We pray our words and actions will be holy. But Jesus Christ alone determines when and to what extent we have prayed rightly. If Jesus Christ does not give the Holy Spirit to the Church, then everything it does, no matter how religious or enthusiastic or popular, is profane.

Second, holiness does not take place automatically simply because people come to worship on Sundays, or receive baptism, or burn over issues of social justice, or refuse to smoke and drink. Claiming to be a Christian, and actually being awakened to faith and made a holy member of Christ’s body, are two different things. So who are the true Christians? Those willed, created, and sustained by Jesus Christ as his own saints. So, when looking at others, we do well to remember that we may see ourselves as saints only through faith in Jesus Christ whose death justified us as sinners. And if this is true enough for us, it is true as well for all others. Only on the basis of Christ’s lordship, and with this mutual respect, can church discipline be exercised properly.

Third, while holiness is strictly Christ’s gift and visible only in faith as we look to Christ, we are his body and it is his gift and he is our Lord. So he does question us, instruct us, guide us, and call us to obedience. And we as members of his body, saints in his name, cannot trust in his holiness without likewise expecting to be called constantly to pick up our crosses and to follow him in humble obedience. His holiness is not a coating of sugar to lick but a pillar of fire to follow. We cannot make ourselves holy but, as his unprofitable servants (Luke 17:10), the Lord as Lord commands our obedience.

We affirm that in the Holy Spirit the Church is catholic
When we say that we believe in the “catholic” Church, we mean that the Church may embrace a great deal of diversity yet remain unchanged in essence or character. The Church remains the same regardless of the country in which we find it. Second, its character remains identical despite the diversity of its members, at least as long as Christians and the Church put being Christian and Church first. The Church remains identical in character despite continual change through time. Fourth, the Church is catholic in the sense that the faith of the community is normative for the faith of its members and is not, therefore, merely the sum or lowest common denominator of those various individual faiths.

It is this identity which separates the true Church from the false and protects it from all threatening alterations caused by changes in location, time, society, and membership. No Church has survived all these threats unscathed and some have even succumbed. Consequently, as with its unity and holiness, the catholicity of the Church is determined finally by Jesus Christ alone. Catholicity is a gift of the Church as Jesus Christ speaks and acts in its midst by the power of the Holy Spirit and, in doing so, calls and enables and commands the obedience of the Church.

We affirm that in the Holy Spirit the Church is apostolic
Here we come to the most significant adjective describing the character of the Church. One means there is nothing like it. Holy is why it is unique. Catholic is the essential identity it maintains across time and space because it is unique and holy. Apostolic is what keeps the Church one, holy, and catholic. Apostolic means under the discipline and authority of the apostles. This again means that Church is not an enduring institution but a daily event. Church happens when a community is schooled by the apostles, listening to them and being examined by them. Being an apostolic Church means being caught up in the same movement in which they found themselves. The peculiar witness of the apostles to Jesus Christ is the one rock upon which Jesus chooses daily to build his Church and the unique mouthpiece through which he chooses to speak authoritatively. In hearing them, we hear him. In hearing him, we receive the power by which we may respond in obedience.

3. The Time of the Community
The time of the Church is the time between the resurrection of Jesus Christ and his coming to judge the living and the dead. The Church lives between these two visible encounters with Jesus Christ and moves from the one to the other.  This movement of the Church is one of both strength and weakness.

It is a movement of strength. By the awakening power of the Holy Spirit, the Church is gathered together in faith in response to the apostolic witness that Jesus Christ is the living Lord who justified sinners. The Church is the community living this pardon even as it proclaims this good news to the world. It is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic community gathered, sustained, and led by Jesus Christ to serve as his witness as it waits for him in joyful hope. It waits to see what it now knows: the reconciliation of all people to God in Christ. It is strong because in its conflict with the world it alone is for all people.

But the Church is weak because it walks by faith and not by sight. Even the disciples who saw Jesus Christ after the resurrection were thereafter utterly dependent upon the Holy Spirit and so on faith. If those who actually saw the risen Lord were so dependent, how much more are we. Yet even the apostles could not see, but only know in faith, that in the resurrection life of Jesus Christ was hidden their own life and the life of all people. So like the apostles, the Church can be strong enough to overcome all danger only in faith by the power of the Holy Spirit.

God might have eliminated this time between the resurrection and last judgment by making the first coming of Jesus Christ his last. He might have done this because the resurrection of Jesus Christ already proclaimed the justification and sanctification of sinful humanity and therefore the final judgment. In this way the first coming of Jesus Christ already was the end—just not in its ultimate form. The time between his resurrection and last judgment, then, may more properly be called the end time.

Without this end time, the time of the Church, God still would have fulfilled the covenant and reconciled all people to himself, but only through a wholly autonomous act. Since God from all eternity chose freely to love us, he graciously extends to us this extra in-between time so that we may respond with gratitude to the utter graciousness of Jesus Christ.

Copyright © 2019 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.