Moltmann Monday: The Church Is Not A What But A Where

Welcome to Moltmann Monday: Midnight Edition! Just barely making the deadline today, after spending all day at a conference. But I wanted to share with you this selection from The Church in the Power of the Spirit, about the role of the church, and more to the point, the open nature of the movement of the Spirit:

If the church understands itself, with all its tasks and powers, in the Spirit…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. It then has no need to look sideways in suspicion or jealousy at the saving efficacies of the Spirit outside the church; instead it can recognize them thankfully as signs that the Spirit is greater than the church and that God’s purpose of salvation reaches beyond the church…

We cannot therefore say what the church is in all circumstances…but we can tell where the church happens…We shall have to say more comprehensively: the church is present wherever ‘the manifestation of the Spirit’ (1 Cor. 12:7) takes place.

We’ll pause there for just a moment. I love how Moltmann proves it is possible to love the church dearly and also to refuse to allow the church to take precedent over the work of the Spirit, which moves both in and outside of the church. If we understand ourselves as the church living in the power of the Spirit, then we recognize that we are not THE work of the Spirit but A work of the Spirit. We don’t have to be jealous when we see good work outside the walls. We can be grateful for it. How wondrous, to serve a God who works everywhere!

And I love this turn of phrase, which I’ve quoted often, that the church is not a what but a where. It is not a building, or an institution. It is less like a dropped pin on a map and more like a Doppler radar reading, moving and changing color based on where the Spirit is moving and going.

Moltmann then offers 4 descriptions of the true church:

The church participates in the glorifying of God in creation’s liberation…The true church is the song of thanksgiving of those who have been liberated.

The church participates in the uniting of men (sic) with one another, in the uniting of society with nature, and in the uniting of creation with God…The true church is the fellowship of love.

Love participates in the history of God’s suffering. Wherever men take up their cross and in their self-giving are made like the one who was crucified, wherever the sighings of the Spirit are heard in the cry for freedom, there is the church. The true church is ‘the church under the cross.’

But in suffering and under the cross the church also participates in the history of divine joy…Wherever the joy of God can be heard, there is the church. The true church is joy in the Spirit.

It’s not a typical definition, but I love the images and ethos this invokes. The true church is a song of thanksgiving and liberation, a fellowship of love, a participation in God’s suffering (and, I’d say, also the world’s), and joy in the Spirit.

Can you imagine if the next time someone asked where we go to church, ¬†we answered, “Wherever the joy of God can be heard, there is the church.” It might not be a definition that can do all we need, but it seems right to invoke a sense of openness, curiosity, and wonder in a word that has grown stale for so many.

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