Just as our own theology is comprised of both thought and action – what we believe and what we do in response to what we believe – the message of Jesus was both word and action. The words of Jesus emphasized worship of God, acting righteously in the world and the coming of the Kingdom or Reign of God. To describe the coming Reign, Jesus almost invariably used a formula in the “kingdom” parables that can be summed up, “Someone did something righteous.”
That which Jesus actually did in his life on earth also worshipped God, by giving God the glory, and demonstrated righteousness. Since tradition claims that the church was instituted by Jesus to exhibit the Reign of God to the world, it would seem to me it ought to do that in word and action as well. The church, however, teaches “belief in Jesus is all it takes”, “salvation through Christ”, “all one needs to do is accept Jesus as Lord” and any number of other tenets that point to the identity of Jesus as savior and not the way of being and worshipping that he emphasized.
God became incarnate in the human form of Jesus, I believe, to continue to deliver the message of living in righteousness. This time it was by example. I have great difficulty believing that Jesus’ crucifixion bought humanity’s salvation, which was already secured, or that God orchestrated his death to conform to a plan. Rather, as Jesus was killed by evil in the form of human action, God acted in the moment and through Jesus on the cross called again for forgiveness. The resurrection is the event that provides the very real hope for all who are damaged by evil acts – the moment that demonstrated eschatological hope in concrete form.
Without belaboring the point, since I have written about it so many times before, the church exhibits decidedly unrighteous behavior, while promoting primarily its own significance in the process of salvation. The church has and does run the risk of being accused of being self-promoting, self-serving and self-perpetuating, while minimizing or leaving silent the call to be elevating, serving, protecting and caring of the “other”. Instead of ensuring the righteousness of its own behavior, it calls into question the legitimacy of others’. The church, or at least many of its leaders and members, sees itself as the arbiter of God’s will, the determiner of right behavior and morals, the claimant of the “one right way” and the entity guaranteed to exist for all time no matter the expense. These are, of course, gross generalizations, but are certainly truer than not of the majority of churches.
Just as the Israelite’s never actually possessed the land promised to Abraham in the covenant, because of repetitious unrighteous behavior resulting ultimately in exile, I wonder if Christians will ever see the coming Reign, the object of the “new” covenant through Christ. While scripture records God representing both parties in the covenant in Genesis 15, it becomes obvious throughout the remainder of the Hebrew Scriptures that God did expect something in return – mercy, justice and right relations in the land.
The absence of this behavior delayed the arrival in Canaan, made life in the land difficult and eventually cost the Israelites exile from the land. Inheritance of the land is still a promise, but the delivery date is uncertain. In a sermon given at Cambridge University, I likened the promised land of the Jews to the coming Reign of God for Christians and ended with the question, “What if, just like the land eluding the Jews, the Reign of God will be delayed until we are righteous in our dealings with creation and its inhabitants?” Delaying the Reign would not equate with conditioning salvation on our behavior, but would place conditions on the realization of Christianity’s eschatological hope – the culmination of Christ’s ministry.
I recognize the thinness of the ice on which I am treading, but this vision of the relatedness of righteousness and hope provides me with the impetus and courage to continue in ordained ministry. I believe the institution of the church is flawed, and I believe it will remain so, but that does not preclude the church from learning to act as well as preach righteousness in the world. Numerous reformations in church history have called the church to “be in the world but not of it” and, as previously noted, the church is called to constant reformation.
When the church simply reflects the world back to itself, as it has done so much in history, it participates in oppression, alienation, and political and economic hegemony. It represents dominant culture over and against most of the “other” populations of the world and, indeed, God’s creation itself. God is, I believe, still calling humanity to righteous behavior and the church is the most ideally suited to be the new prophet in word and action, but to do so will require a change from within. Movement is visible, in rather small quantities, but visible nonetheless. If more and more people begin to recognize the church as an agent of God’s justice, mercy and right relations, rather than as an arbiter of God’s will, the change can gain momentum.
Authored and written by Rev Andy Little