Carrying on from yesterday’s post, perhaps a more appropriate parallel to the experience the church is currently undergoing is to the experience of the early church – and not because it is desirable or represents some sort of aspiration that underscores fidelity if we mimic it – neither of these is right.
This parallel is more appropriate because it scraps talk of exile and roots how we cognate our understanding of church in the way the first churches thought of themselves. They thought of themselves in a struggle – a struggle for their integrity as Christ’s people (as it was there ‘geographical’ relocation in Him that would save them, in real terms, from the historical, violent judgment of Israel coming in their foreseeable future). This integrity meant they would suffer as they lived as an alternative politics, an alternative community in the midst of the Roman Empire. (Consider the words that finish the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 – ‘to the one who is victorious…’ in the midst of things, as they struggled and suffered would be recognized as faithful and be rewarded.)
If the church takes up this identity – a community faithful to the struggle for integrity in self-understanding and praxis in the world, it will find that the world at large will, due to its own commitments and definitions, be hostile. We do this because this is what Christ expected and did and has called his disciples to (Mark 8:34-38).
The church, when that which it is not is excised from its persona, exists as that which is awkward and uncomfortable. It is an alternative community and politic that will read as strange in the society and neighbourhoods in which it lives – and there is hope that we might be that again.
Christendom is falling to the ground around us and in the rubble we are finding ourselves to be wholly irrelevant in a world we helped create – and for good reason. We have been rendered at worst anonymous and at best out of touch. The exile we speak of sits quite comfortably in a context that we can name as a mistake, rooted in false conceptions of who we are and what the church is to be. We have been exiled from a position in which church may not have actually been the church.
God did a new thing in the 1stcentury in establishing the church – and exile is not an experience connected with this church that we should find acceptable or sufficient precedent or point of reference for in the story found in our Scriptures.
The church, as the eschatological vision of the NT suggests, exists in an age that has come. It’s future is unknown – the NT imagined struggles that vindicated the church and Jesus, the Son of Man, in 70CE with sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, followed by a later judgment of Rome for oppressing the churches. From this point on the church’s future is open and the only precedent given us is that the church’s identity be founded in understanding our radical otherness to the world we inhabit because it is here we can seek what is truly good for this world.
“The church” can name its experience as that of an “exile” because “the church” has more than arguably not been the church – for too long has what we call “the church” been the religious veneer of various political agendas that come under the umbrella of Christendom.