Saturday, May 23, 2015

Church -- the invisible in the visible.

You might say that Pentecost was an event. Something happened that caught the attention of the people in Jerusalem (Acts 2).  The Spirit opened the doors and the windows and got things going.  And here we are, today, centuries later, wondering what actually the church is.  Is it people or a building, a community or an institution?

I've been reading a book entitled Karl Barth's Christological Ecclesiology(Cascade, 2013).  It's a scholarly work that helps us understand the development of Barth's understanding of the church. As I was reading I encountered a chapter entitled "The Origin of the Church as the Fellowship of the Spirit." Those who have read Barth know that his is a dialectical theology, in which he seeks balance between two seemingly opposite points. Thus, for Barth the church is both visible and invisible. In exploring this dialectic, Barth avers that church is event. As Kimlyn Bender, author of this book suggests, for Barth "the real church is not to be sought apart from, nor even behind, its historical manifestation, but only within its historical form. Only by looking at what is seen, the visible church even in the midst of its imperfection and sin, do we perceive (by faith!) that which cannot be seen, the invisible power of the church" (p. 171).  I quote here from Bender, who summarizes Barth, because there is the belief held by many that the only church we need to engage is that which is invisible. But, according to Bender we cannot engage that church without engaging the historical manifestation. Choosing one pole over the other leads either to the heresy of docetism or that of the Ebionites.

The church may be a human institution on one level, but it is also a church that is created and empowered by the Spirit.  Here's a quote from Barth:

It is clear however, that to see and understand that which is effected by God, the Church, in its true reality, we have not to lose sight even momentarily or incidentally of the occurrence of the divine operation, and therefore concretely of the divine work of upbuilding the community by Jesus Christ. The Church is, of course, a human, earthly-historical construct, whose history involves from the very first, and always well involve, human action. But it is this human construct, the christian Church, because and as God is at work in it by His Holy Spirit. [CD IV.2, 617, quoted in Bender, note 18, p. 172].

So, as we celebrate Pentecost let us remember that the Spirit has come to empower a church to bear witness to the Gospel.  It will do so in visible form, even if the Spirit is not always visible!

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