In the first chapter of Images of the Church in the New Testament, Minear explores four basic functions that images perform. I am particularly interested in the third function: advancing self-understanding. He writes, “[The person’s] achievement of integration and his sense of direction will derive to a large extent from the inner acceptance of one of these images as dominant, as the mirror of his authentic self. Once he believes firmly that a picture is right for him, he will shape his emotions and actions accordingly. And much will depend on whether the picture is authentic, and dependably so. (24)”
I’m interested in how images function in the discernment and deepening of our identities, both as individuals and as congregations/judicatories/denominations. We feel, deep down, things about ourselves but until an image or word describes that feeling, it remains largely inaccessible to us. We can’t express who we are, even to ourselves, because we lack pictures and words to help us. And when our identities (code) remain hidden, we easily fall into patterns of thought and behavior that create dissonance between identity and behavior. In our culture, we love personality type indicators like the Teen Magazine quizzes and the Myers-Briggs type indicator because they give us words and images that help us describe ourselves. As we gain language and images that correspond to our deepest sense about ourselves, we more easily shape our lives so that our thoughts, emotions, priorities, and actions match our identities. The ability of our lives and ministries to witness to the kingdom relies in part upon whether the image we’ve attached to is authentic, and whether our actions actually correspond to an authentic image.
We don’t always attach to images that are authentic to ourselves. If we attach to an inauthentic image, the dissonance between reality and perceived reality cause “subtle signs of malaise, followed by more overt tokens of communal deterioration. (24)” Conversely, if we verbally subscribe to an authentic image, but our practice denies it, “there will also follow sure disintegration of the ligaments of corporate life. (24)” Discernment is an ongoing process, always calling us to look realistically at both joyful and painful truths about ourselves. Our tendency is to tame our true identities, to make God’s call in our lives less disturbing and less disruptive.
In this book, Minear examines 96 different Biblical images for the church. Some of the images, like salt and vineyard, are minor images. Others, like the people of God, the new creation, and the body of Christ, are major images. The plethora of Biblical images for the church makes me believe that some images are more helpful than others to particular groups at particular times. Small groups, congregations, judicatories and denominations can try on various images, listen for the leading of the Holy Spirit, and discern if they “fit” as images that describe and direct their body. As the body accepts one or more images as dominant, mirrors of the body’s authentic self, the body can shape its ministry accordingly.
One of the congregations I’m serving is in the middle of its mission study. They’ve struggled mightily to discern who they are. What are their core values? What is their code? What can they say about themselves that feels right, and not just at a surface level? And if they are able to accept images for themselves that are authentic, will they have the will to shape their ministry accordingly? They are able to say that they love to eat together, they love great organ and choral music, most of them are not overly close to God, and some of them like to serve the community. If I had it to do again, perhaps I would have spent time this summer with the mission study committee examining Biblical images of the church. Is God calling them to be salt (“the ones through whose persecution the earth will be seasoned, judged, purged, and preserved?(30)” What does it mean that they are the Body of Christ? What does it mean that they are the New Creation? The committee might be able to find images and language that help identify the congregation, and then help shape their vision for the future and the call process.
A New Creation
I’ve been thinking a lot about the outward and inward dimensions of the Church’s function. Minear, in considering the constellations of images that gravitate around 1) the activity of God in creating a new humanity and 2)the church as a fellowship of saints and slaves, offers a series of images that complement and challenge each other.
New Creation: These images attribute to the Church “a genuinely cosmic beginning, vocation, and destiny. (67)” Within the context of these images, the Church is held within God’s eternal glory and life. Because the fulfillment of God’s glory and life is the redemption of the world, the Church is a trustee of redemption for its members and the world. The church, in large part, exists for the sake of the world.
In Chapter 4, Minear explores images that bind the church to its background in the covenant history of Israel. In chapter 5, he expands the assertion that Israel is comprised of all those who live as God’s new creation. Now, Israel and those whose lives are in Christ/Logos are included in God’s new creation. (“If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation. . .”II Cor. 5:17). We may experience this new creation as being first fruits brought forth by the word (logos) of truth (James 1:18). We have put off the old nature and are new humanity (Col. 3:10). “Old Adam” has been replaced by Christ, the “Last Adam” (Rom. 5:12 and I Cor. 15:21-22) or “Son of Man.” As Son of Man, Jesus’ mission is to inaugurate the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom comes as God’s creation of the new heaven and the new earth (of which those hidden in Christ are the first fruits).
Part of the Church’s “first-fruitedness” is manifested through its practices. The Church is to be fighters against Satan (Eph. 5) and to live as the incarnation of God’s Sabbath, or rest (Matthew 12.3-13, Luke 5.39-6.10) and God’s glory (I Thess. 2:12). The pattern of these practices looks like this: 1) God reveals his glory to the church, and in doing so, shares it with the Church. 2) The Church’s reception and sharing of God’s glory looks like glorifying God by doing the work assigned and doing it to the glory of God. 3) Glorifying God precipitates conflict with the devil. This conflict brings the church into participation with Christ’s humiliation and suffering. 4) During its warfare on earth, the Church will be transformed from one degree of glory to another. 5) The end of this transformation is the inheritance of an incorruptible resurrected body. 6) This doxological circle will finally include all creation, marking the final victory over death and the devil. 7) The Church already shares in the heavenly authority of Christ, proclaiming and living into the coming triumph of the cross (126-127). In these images, the Church exists primarily for the sake of the consummation of God’s reign of glory in the world.
In the next reflections, I will mine out some the images relating to the Church as a fellowship of saints and slaves whose lives are marked by a unique sharing of gift and vocation. Where the images of new creation point the Church outward, into participating in the consummation of God’s reign in the world, the images surrounding the fellowship of faith are slightly more inward, helping us understand why Christian community, as it is living into God’s grace, often looks different from the culture that surrounds it. The push and pull of outward and inward images gives the Church a sense of constant movement, like waves moving in tidal pools, that brings a constant stream of nutrition and fruitfulness both to the church and the world.
Sent Out Saints
Fellowship in Faith: These images characterize the Church as a fellowship of saints and slaves whose life together is distinguished “by a unique kind of mutuality in gift and vocation (67).” These images highlight the interdependence that, at their best, people within the Church experience.
We are “those sanctified in Jesus Christ” and “called to be saints” (I Cor. 1:2). The term “sanctification” refers not so much to any efforts we make to live holy lives, but to the ongoing work of Christ through the Holy Spirit in each one of us. In making us saints, the Father unites us with Christ’s death. Becoming hidden in the crucified Christ, rather than our own selves or our own works, is the substance of our sanctification (I Cor 1:30, 6:11). The Holy Spirit has been poured out onto the community of those whose sanctification is Christ, and this community is the temple in which the Spirit dwells (this image relates to the Church’s participation in the new creation since the coming of the Spirit signals the coming of God’s reign).
Minear suggests an outline for describing the ethos for human relationships that rises from the sanctification of the Church. 1) The Church’s sanctification “confers upon it the task of witnessing in the world (138).” Saints are sent into the world by the One who sanctifies them. (John 17:18-26). 2) In this mission to the world, the Holy Spirit goes before the apostles, “falling upon” people, making them saints. Other saints then recognize them as fellow saints. This is the way that Gentiles are added to the Church (Acts 10:44-47, 11:15-18, 15:6-11). 3) Within the Church, the Spirit gives the saints (which the Spirit has created) whatever gifts are needed as equipment for their ministry (Ephesians 4:12). Every Spiritual gift is given for the common good (I Cor 12:1-11, Rom. 12:3-9). 4) This fellowship of saints is fully qualified to arbitrate disputes that arise, although the need for arbitration signals a failure to live by common sanctification (I Cor 6:1-11). 5) Saints are to regard holiness as something to be “perfected in the fear of God (II Cor 7:1).” This holiness is accomplished by daily presenting their bodies as a holy sacrifice (Rom. 12:1) and by putting on the new humanity (Col. 3:10ff). Saints’ lives will be marked with the fruits of the Spirit (compassion, meekness, patience, forgiveness, love. . .). Saints exists in community; the New Testament lacks an individualistic ethic. To be a saint entails becoming a participant in the common good (an action requiring saints to become what the Spirit has already made them). Because sainthood is inextricably linked to action for the common good (the common good not just of the local community, but of all that God has created), discipleship (living into sainthood) inevitably leads to mission (working in the world for the common good – which a disciple could define as working to articulate or incarnate God’s kingdom in the world). Participants in this life lived for the common good are participants in a Spirit-formed and Spirit-led koinonia.
This image of sainthood has both external and internal movements. Saints are created by the Spirit to be sent into the world, recognizing other saints who have been “fallen upon” by the Holy Spirit. Saints also live in community with other saints, learning (as disciples) to live into holiness, to become more fully hidden in Christ’s death and resurrection, to use the Spiritual gifts and ministry roles which are granted each person for the sake of the common good.
Take Up Your Cross
Minear writes, “According to all four Gospels, the work of Jesus Christ as God’s Messiah entailed his calling [people] to be his followers, as soon as he had received the authority of the Spirit. [Those] who responded became disciples. (145)” This invitation to following and discipleship becomes a model of the church because each Christian 1)inherits a relationship to Jesus similar to that of Jesus’ inner circle (James and John) (146), and 2) each Christian is adopted into a relationship to the Father that is like Jesus’ relationship with the Father. No Christian is called to live these relationships in isolation: The New Testament witness is that Christianity is practiced in community.
Christians (people who have inherited an intimate relationship with Jesus and the Father through the Spirit) are marked as disciples when they recognize Jesus’ “whence and whither (151).” Whence: Jesus, “the Way,” is the only mode of access to the Father. Leading people to the Father is the basic objective of Jesus’ work. Whither: The way to the Father is the way to the cross. “In this Way the destination was made inseparable from the going, the whither was manifested in the direction of walking. It was in laying down his life for them that he showed ‘the way where I am going.(150)’” Just as Jesus was sent by the Father “[t]o Jerusalem to be lifted up on the cross, to wash feet, to give his life for others(151)”, disciples also are sent to “wash one another’s feet, to feed his sheep, to bring others into the same fold, to complete the task of loving as he loved.(151)” In this way, discipleship inevitably leads to care within the community and mission to the world.
Through the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the infilling of the Holy Spirit, disciples journey toward Jesus’ Father who is revealed through Jesus’ ascension. The disciples’ works become the Father’s works, “greater even than those of their Lord, because they would be works stemming from his power as crucified and ascended.(151)” The works are done in the world, just as Jesus’ works had been done in the world.
As disciples do the Father’s works in the world, the world’s hostility is inevitable. To follow Jesus requires standing at the intersection between the reign of light and the reign of death. The pressure of standing at this intersection eventually causes a confrontation between Jesus and the disciple. “Who do you say that I am?” The disciple must decide whether to continue following Jesus to the cross (thereby gaining life) or seek to preserve his/her life (thereby losing life).” The disciple is invited to join the community of witnesses (from the Greek root martys), embracing the self-emptying that participation causes, or join another community where the cost doesn’t seem so high.
Luther’s theology of the cross leads the sinner and the saint alike to their deaths at the foot of the cross. Whether our works are evil or good, if they are not hidden in the death and resurrection of Christ, they cannot be righteous. Our good works are actually the works that threaten most to condemn us, tempting us as they do to trust in our own righteousness rather than at every moment throwing ourselves upon the mercy of Christ. I resonate with the theology of the Cross. However, for Luther, the final work of faith is receiving salvation. (For Luther, there is no sanctification; only justification lived into more fully, which looks like but is not sanctification). Justification fully lived into probably does lead to a life in which the disciple “looks like” Jesus, doing the works of the Father. However, Luther’s teaching is easy to truncate, leaving Christians moldering at the moment of personal salvation, failing to draw them into mature trust in the fullness of their justification which brings with it responsibility and power for doing the works of the Father in the world.