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Church as Witness to the Kingdom of God
 
By: Rubel Shelly

The church is a pilgrim-community of people deeply committed to Christ and collectively constituting a “third race of humanity” in which God can put on display the life he originally intended everyone to experience. And that life is not one of an isolated individual standing against the world so much as it is the close connection of people to God and one another that lets them experience fulfillment, joy, and divine presence in this world. Yes, the pilgrimage eventually unfolds into life after death. We will be raised from the dead, just as Jesus was. But the journey itself is hardly inconsequential. The total process is participation with God in his purpose to make all things both whole and holy. And the church is an important element of that process.

The church is not buildings and property. It is not religious assemblies and ceremonies. It is not alignment with certain social causes or political parties. The church is a community of redeemed people in process of daily surrender to the reign of God. The church is the community of Christ that models a distinctive way of life to people who are not yet Christians. As one writer puts it, the church must learn to “be the message it wishes a watchful world to hear and embrace.” The church is Christ’s “second incarnation” in the world. It offers a vision of the Kingdom of God in microcosm as an invitation for others to come and participate in it.

Yes, the full and complete redemption of this fallen world must await the return of Christ. The final enemy (i.e., death) will not be destroyed until his coming. But the church is called to put on display the sort of purity, joy, generosity, and holiness that reveals God to those who either do not know him or whose vision of him has been distorted.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us (1 Pet. 2:9-12).
What God does to restore humanity on a personal, individual level is a microcosm of what he proposes to do for the Body of Christ at large. What he does for the Body of Christ at a corporate level is what he will eventually do for all of creation. In the meanwhile, the individual believer, the waiting church, and all creation is “groaning as in the pains of childbirth” (Rom. 8:22).

With the imprint left by Constantine, however, this vision for the church faded. The church lost its identity as an organism and became an organization. Lost its virtue as the corporate expression of Christ and turned into a religious corporation. Fled its calling to be a microcosm of the kingdom reign of God for the sake of becoming a location, an event to witness, a political force, or an entity whose favor could be courted by the world. The church gradually ceased being counter-cultural and became the dominant culture.

Along the way in Christian history, the church morphed into something more like a business enterprise or human government than the living, breathing Body of Christ in the world. Christians became consumers, and churches competed with one another to sell their theology, their worship, and their ability to meet felt needs. God never willed for such things to happen. He meant for the church to be a microcosm of the Kingdom of God and to put the holiness, generosity, and service to others Jesus modeled on display to all centuries and peoples.

Christians belong in the marketplace of ideas to be what Martin Luther dubbed “a sort of Christ” there. But we have turned the church into Christian ghettos and isolated ourselves from the world. We have put our hope in Sunday-morning worship in church-owned properties rather than in the power of the Holy Spirit to disperse us into all the places we go to demonstrate that the One in us is greater than the Evil One who is prince of this world.

May it be so in our own time – and until he comes. Thus we pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth"

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