Does the Church come through the salvation of the world?

One of the traits I love most about Moltmann’s work is that he has the unbelievable knack of turning a question on its head.  I tend to call these moments “WWF smackdown” moments, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere.  In reframing a question, Moltmann puts on his superhero cape and rescues us from the tangled mess of stuck theology and gently places us down in a clearing where everything once again makes sense. This morning’s WWF smackdown moment comes over the navel-gazing argument many theologians have had over how wonderfully supreme the Church is and how the Church will singlehandedly save the world. OK, so perhaps that’s exaggerating a bit…but some ecclesiology does tend to place the Church upon a pedestal that seems far too high in my opinion.  The pedestal becomes most obvious and most dangerous when the Church attempts to speak in a totalizing voice, as if only we are allowed to speak with finality about the universe.  In more benign forms, the Church (or more usually, the little “c” local church) lets the pedestal keep them from seeing their own brokenness, and that isn’t exactly following the cross, either.

Much of this debate begins at the question of the role of the Church in history.  Moltmann discusses in thef The Church in the Power of the Spirit his understanding of the Church’s place and role in history (both past and future) in light of the person of Jesus Christ.  Moltmann distinguishes from the onset that the church’s history is a Trinitarian history.  In being so, the church’s history is not abstract (Barth would, no doubt, concur here) but is grounded in the revelation of Christ, as well as the overarching work of God and the Spirit in and through the world.  The church participates in the ongoing movement of God, and therefore knowledge cannot be seen as fixed but as partaking in this divine movement.  (As I quoted last week, ours is a tradition in which it is impossible to rest.)  So here comes the WWF smackdown question.  Rather than trying to search history to find examples of how the Church has saved the world  (“Does the salvation of the world come through the church?”) Moltmann rather asks, “Does the church come through the salvation of the world?”

In my opinion, there is a “rightness” in asking how God’s work in the world actually beckons the church into its very existence.  We are BECKONED, you see, all of us, when we see the salvation of the world poking out from under all the rubble.  We are called.  But we cannot be so bold as to think we are the only ones who have received this special calling, or that we have received it in a higher form than anybody else.  (No totalizing ecclesiology, people.)

The church is to see itself as a vehicle for God’s mission for the world and as a proclaimer of God’s action within the world.  Moltmann writes, “If the church understands itself, with all its tasks and powers, in the Spirit and against the horizon of the Spirit’s history, then it also understands its particularity as one element in the power of the Spirit and has no need to maintain its special power and its special charges with absolute and self-destructive claims…We cannot therefore say what the church is in all circumstances and what it comprises in itself.  But we can tell where the church happens…The church is present wherever ‘the manifestation of the Spirit’ (1 Cor. 12:7) takes place” (64-65).

I also really love the shift from “what” church is to “where church is, don’t you?  Isn’t that a MUCH better question?  A less navel-gazing, we-are-so-important-and-nobody-else-can-do-what-we-do question?  The Church comes where the salvation of the world is taking place, and that can be- and often is- in the most unexpected locations.  No need to make every place look the same.  (Isn’t this the primary argument of post-colonialism?) Trust that the Church has come, is coming, and will come where God is working out the salvation of the world.  No need to own it or control it or domesticate it.  Just point, joyfully join in, and say “Amen.”

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