Saturday, July 27, 2019

The Holy Spirit and the Upbuilding of the Christian Community

1. The True Church
There is a Christian community only when the Holy Spirit is at work. A Christian community is visibly the true Church only when, in the power of the Holy Spirit, it shines and so is distinguished from the darkness of both the world and its own sinful tendency to proclaim itself. But the being and visibility of a Christian community as the true Church are seen only with the eyes of a faith graciously awakened by that same Spirit.

The Christian community exists visibly as the true Church only in a history in which its own very human actions are initiated, sustained, and ruled by the Holy Spirit. This history is a movement toward a goal: the provisional representation of the sanctification of all people already accomplished fully in the exaltation of the Son of Man. The Christian community actively serves its Lord as this provisional representation insofar as Jesus Christ himself builds it up and it in turn participates in that edification. The activity of Jesus Christ is the source, center, and goal of its own activity, but the Church also has this activity to do.

To build up or edify means to integrate. The Christian community is not simply a collection of individuals. It is a group of individuals gathered in faith by Jesus Christ and then united in freedom for the sake of witnessing to his lordship. This unity in freedom is one which both affirms the uniqueness of each individual and binds them together in common cause. Edification, then, is not a matter of conforming to an abstract moral code. It is a matter of that active love and those loving acts by which the community is integrated and so enabled to be the provisional representation of man’s sanctification.

2. The Growth of the Community
The Christian community actively integrates itself as a community based on and moving toward its Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit. One characteristic of this active integration is growth. By the sovereign power of the Holy Spirit, the Church demonstrates its freedom to increase the number of people participating in it. But this outward, horizontal, numerical growth—while important—is never an end in itself. It is always subordinate to inner growth. Always the quantity of those participating in the Church is subordinate to the quality of that participation. Growth which truly upbuilds is vertical and spiritual. The constant movement of the Christian community along this way is its only alternative to the fatal sleep of sloth.

3. The Upholding of the Community
The Christian community is always threatened with danger from both without and within. The question is how to maintain its existence and edification, its life and growth, despite these threats.

In the context of the world, the Christian community calls attention to itself by following a very different Lord, by proclaiming a very different message, and by increasing the number of people called out of the world and into its fellowship. The world will regard all this as bothersome if not dangerously revolutionary. In response, the world may persecute the community with more or less severity. Perhaps the world will simply pressure the community to take a more positive attitude toward it and accept a few reasonable compromises. Perhaps pressure will be applied more heavily to a few of the community’s more visible members. Perhaps the pressure on the community will become sufficiently intense that many Christians will question whether the cost of discipleship is too great.

But the world attacks the Church with more subtlety and seriousness simply by ignoring it. Sometimes, in a tolerance of the quaint or traditional, the world will indulge the Church by asking it to participate in weddings, funerals, and graduations.

The Christian community also faces threats from within. The world not only exists outside the community. It also exists inside the community because Christians themselves remain sinners.  So there is no form of sin confronting the community from without that cannot also be welcomed from within. For this to happen, the community need not openly repudiate the lordship of Jesus Christ. All it needs to do is relax just a bit the tension that Christ’s critical and instructive lordship causes between the community and the world.

Danger from within comes in the form of either secularization or sacralization. Secularization occurs when the community listens to a voice from the world alongside or instead of the Word of God, when it allows that voice to interpret the Word rather than following the Word’s interpretation of that voice. The community may follow this alien voice in an attempt to avoid persecution or it may do it to grow into a force to be reckoned with. Either way the Church as the salt of the earth loses its savor (Matthew 5:13).

If secularization is preservation or power through acculturation, sacralization is the grab for power through self-assertion. Through it the community exchanges humility for influence, faithfulness for success, and proclamation of its Lord for proclamation of itself. In doing so, it become just like the world even as it seeks to keep the world at bay. When suffering from sacralization, the community separates itself from the losers, sinners, and sufferers of the world in order to exercise the influence of winners.

Every Christian community constantly faces these four dangers. One or more of these may actually destroy it. This is not only because Christians themselves are weak and sinful. It is also because these dangers represent a concerted attack on the community by the power of death. This power was decisively defeated by Jesus Christ at the cross. It can in no way hurt him. But in its death throes it tries to annihilate the Christian community witnessing to the victory of Jesus Christ. Nothing in the world is as threatened as the Church and nothing consequently stands so desperately in need of someone to uphold it.

The Christian community, however, has been upheld always by Scriptures as these continually become the living Word of God communicating the very power of God. And Scriptures become this voice and exercise this power because Jesus Christ the living Lord speaks and acts through them as they are read and heard in his community. And as death cannot defeat him, so he will not permit it to destroy the community in whose midst he stands.

4. The Order of the Community
The edification of the Christian community takes the form of order in opposition to the disorder of chaos. It follows a law in opposition to lawlessness. Its growth takes place in this form according to this law. Its preservation in the world despite mortal danger vindicates both its form and law.

If the Christian community is going to be a provisional representation of man’s sanctification in Christ, and can only be this in a definite form according to a definite law, we must begin by acknowledging that Jesus Christ as Lord is the primary acting subject and his community is always secondary, that Jesus Christ is the Head of his body the Church. So the Christian community provisionally represents sanctified humanity only because and as the Holy One rules it and it obeys. This irreversible relationship between Jesus Christ as Lord and the Church and Christians as his servants is the primary source of order and basic law of the Church.

Because Jesus Christ is Lord and the community is his obedient servant, the whole structure of its life must be formed by his Word rather than by rules created abstractly or adopted from other groups. Church law is always law in obedience to Christ and therefore, in opposition to both legalism and lawlessness, is always law developed by the Church in obedience to the voice of Christ it hears attested in Scripture by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Church law developed in obedience to the living voice of Jesus Christ our Lord is always a law of service. Jesus Christ serves his Father and therefore all people. He calls Christians to his service and in it to mutual service. Ministry is the true order of the Christian community. There is not a law of rule and privilege for some alongside the law of obedience and service for the rest. The law of service to Christ, and in Christ to one another, is the only law, it applies to every aspect of community life, and it applies equally to every Christian as well.

Second, Church law developed in active obedience is always liturgical. Jesus Christ is the center of the Christian community. His community is truly edified in worshiping him. Church law grows out of the community’s service of worship to order the community’s life as a whole. It is in worship that the Christian community, the body of Christ on earth, stands out by representing in its history the particular history of Jesus Christ between his conception and ascension. It is in worship that the sabbath stands out from the six days of work preceding and following it. It is in worship that Christians abandon the scattered, anonymous, and private character of their daily existence and to stand together at a specific time and place and give definite form to the communion of saints provisionally representing the sanctification of all people.

Third, true Church law is always alive. This is because Jesus Christ is the living Lord to whom the community listens continually for direction. This daily commitment to listening and obeying expresses itself in a canon law capable of developing new answers to various issues of community life and of expressing these answers with the greatest possible clarity in the form of legal propositions. However, for all its confidence and clarity, canon law is only human law and also subject to the one law having absolute authority over the community: Jesus Christ. Only in constant submission to its living Lord can canon law remain alive. It is also in this obedience that canon law may even perhaps improve as it moves from the best laws of yesterday to those of tomorrow.

Finally, true Church law is always exemplary. The Christian community may contribute to the upbuilding of the civil community by witnessing to the law it has developed in obedience to Christ. In doing so Christians may demonstrate to non-Christians the true relativity of existing civil law. The Church cannot speak definitively on civil law, but it may speak on what it has done provisionally in obedience to Christ and in that same obedience point to something better. In doing so the Church witnesses to the active lordship of Christ in the world as he himself guides lawmakers.

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