Amy Plantinga Pauw, “The Graced Infirmity of the Church,” in Feminist and Womanist Essays in Reformed Dogmatics

The Blessedness of the Common Life

Calvin writes, “Though God’s Word and Spirit are given to the church, they do not thereby become the church’s possessions.  Christian trust rests finally in God, not in the Church.(191)”  God’s Word didn’t used to mean much to me – I read and studied it out of obligation and it was dry, like dirt in my mouth.  Obviously something good was happening – it was enough to call me into Ordained Ministry.  But the Spirit came to me in a new way (Lutherans point to the confirmation part of the baptism service as a time when the Spirit surely comes to live with the new Christian, but I am experiencing the Spirit in whole new ways), and I can’t get enough of Scripture.  Like Jeremiah, I am eating the scrolls.  They’ve never tasted so good.  As I read, Paul, Jesus, and the prophets might as well be sitting next to me as beloved teachers.   Why was a missional “base community” able to ignite faith in me like years of loving instruction by devoted Church teachers never did?  I don’t know.  What I wonder is if, having experienced the “more” I was starving for, I’ve taken possession of the Spirit and Word in a way that is unhelpful.  I wonder, if in my desire to share that same “more” with others, I move from a position of helpful lighting of the path to mandating how the Spirit and Word must be experienced?  I am continually noticing the difference between God’s ability to speak into a person’s life with just the right words, just the right mix of love, compassion, and justice, and my clumsiness in expressing those things.  The days my ego is out of the way are slightly better.

Schleieremacher talks about the Church as a “common life” into which we can sink ourselves, “allowing it to work on [us] in a life-giving way. (193)”  This is a recognition of the web-like relationships we have with Christians in our church community, with people (Christian and not) who are in our towns and cities, and with people (Christian and not) who are all around the world.  Systems theory tells us that we are not people functioning independently, but that we are all pushed and pulled, for better or worse, by the relationships (which span place and time) that surround us.  Individuality comes into play when we recognize that, if we can muster the courage to act in a way that aligns with a principle (rather than being tossed by waves of emotion) our small contribution can make a big difference in the common life.  One person choosing to meet a difficult situation with the serenity born of trusting God’s providence can help anchor the entire emotional system, allowing it to function with less anxiety.      

I resonated with the idea that even the victims of the church’s oppression and violence are also perpetrators of violence and injustice against others.  This is a radical call to humility, where we are all sisters and brothers in our sinfulness, where finally, to the extent that we can all stand convicted and forgiven at the foot of the cross, we can be on equal footing.

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