24 June 2003

there is another king: ix

(continued...blah, blah, blah...)

Church

As resurrected Lord, the justification received by Jesus is, in turn, shared with those who receive the Gospel in faith, thereby becoming the messiah’s people and partaking in the forgiveness and vindication he secured and received. Thus the church becomes the locus of a new humanity, where we begin to live out what Jesus has done so that God’s justice is manifest (2 Cor 5:21). Therefore, insofar as the as the church is a forgiven and forgiving community of people sharing an ordered common life together, the church also is the practice of a new politics.

That the church is, in some sense, a “political” community should be evident even from the political, social, and economic terminology that the New Testament applies to the church: assembly, kingdom, city, nation, citizenship, community, people, partnership, warfare, and so on. The New Testament is rife with political terminology applied to the church, thereby presenting the church itself as the center of a new kind of human community. But the kind of community the church is supposed to be is not the kind of “political” community the world envisions. It is a community that instead follows the way of the cross, one whose weapons are not the world's weapons, and one in which authority is neither by might nor power, but by the Spirit of God, through one-anothering service and openness to risk.

The New Testament draws out this new ecclesial politics in various stories and images. As one example, in Acts we find the Christian ekklesia juxtaposed against that of pagan Ephesus and apostate Jerusalem. In common Greek usage, the ekklesia of a polis was the ordered assembly of its citizens gathered for official business. But Luke ironically narrates the ekklesia of Ephesus as a riot where “some cried one thing, and some another, for the assembly was confused and most of them did not know why they had come together” (Acts 19:32, cf. 19:38, 41). The chaos at Ephesus is paralleled in Acts 21 by similar events in Jerusalem, showing that even the city of Yahweh had devolved to the level of a pagan city-state.

Luke’s portrayal is all more ironic in that the Greek polis was founded on the aspiration to master chaos, to order society, and to exercise justice, all interwoven with the cult of the patron deity, social class and status, and forms of ritual inclusion and exclusion. Jerusalem finds itself acting the part of a Greek polis, accusing Paul of bringing disorder, discarding the law, and defiling ritual boundaries. In both cases, however, Luke shows the purported aims of the respective ekklesiai to deconstruct into their opposites in the face of the Christian Gospel: Ephesus falling into disarray, miscarrying justice in the heat of human passions and Jerusalem disregarding the legal requirements of Torah, provoking the intervention of Gentile authority.

Both episodes, thereby, uncover the real workings of merely human politics, as Peter Leithart argues,In these two incidents Luke pronounces his (and the Lord's) verdict on the old world's ways of ordering human life, on the cultures of the old creation. When the people come together in ekklesia, the true character of their civilization is revealed and unmasked. In the assembly, it becomes clear that the future hopes of the world for peace and justice cannot lie with either of the ancient ekklesiai, with either the city-state of the Greeks or the temple city of the Jews.Adamic humanity, left to itself, can only erect temporary measures towards order, measures that, in the face of the Gospel, are revealed as possessing an underlying and inherent violence.

In between the two accounts, however, Luke tells us what happened when the Christian ekklesia of Troas came together at the end of Passover, on the first day of the week, to break bread, representing a liturgical alternative to Ephesus and Jerusalem (Acts 20:6-12). Instead of shouting and chaos, we find the people of God gathered, listening to and dialoguing with Paul, a scene so tranquil that poor Eutychus falls asleep. Leithart comments,This is not a place of chaos and confusion but a new life, a new order of human life and society. Its assembly is a passage, a Passover, a transitus that moves its participants from death to new life, signified when (at midnight!) Eutychus goes through the window to his death but is raised to new life and is received into the feast.The breaking of bread together here, in eucharist, is a sacramental alternative to both the temples of Diana and of Israel, offering not merely one way of being a community among other options, but rather “an alternative ekklesia, which formed the heart of an alternative polis, an alternative city, an alternative culture, a new world.”