Grounded in the Resurrection: The Church as a Community of Kinship

Piotr J. Malysz
Friday, May 1st 2015
May/Jun 2015

Late modernity (that is, our day and age) has proved to be surprisingly communal in its ethos. We seek our identity in the groups we affiliate with on Facebook, in the beards and hipster clothing we wear, football teams we religiously root for, professional conferences we attend, dieting strategies we swear by, organic food stores where we shop, and not least, congregations and community groups we have joined. Our desire, in short, is to belong: to find ourselves under the protective umbrella of a community. Nonconformism is decidedly passé unless it means group contestation of some other group's outlook. This may come as a surprise when one considers that modernity, as such, is characterized by individualism and the idolization of subjective perception, intuition, and choice. "Dare to think for yourself" was how the German philosopher Immanuel Kant summarized the outlook of the Enlightenment; (1) whereas on American soil Ralph Waldo Emerson extolled self-reliance and being one's own man. (2)

This communal backdrop must not be ignored when we evaluate the turn to the tradition, both liturgical and theological, among today's Christians. For it, too, at bottom represents a quest for community. The church is in! The example of Roman Catholicism is particularly instructive. Rome has, of course, always boasted an uncompromisingly corporate view of the Christian life. Yet it has also experienced a notable shift of emphasis from the priest at the altar to the table fellowship of the faithful, only to find many of the faithful now actually opting for the more priest-centered liturgy of the Latin Mass! The late modern communal ethos, when it finds itself in the church context, is not satisfied with the community at hand but seeks to give it roots in the remote past. The cloud of witnesses, made up of generations of participants and devotees, has a verifying function. It helps identify the truer and more authentic, the genuinely catholic and thus universal. Perhaps more importantly, it minimizes the risk of wrong commitment and guarantees stability. Among Protestants, a case in point is the rise of the New Calvinism as an unambiguous alignment with the tradition, not to mention the popularity of high-church Anglicanism or even Eastern Orthodoxy. This traditionalism has a liturgical dimension: liturgical worship makes the community visible and continuous. And it has a theological dimension: retrieval of the theologies of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, or Calvin endows our communal endeavors with an abiding significance. The body of worshippers in a particular time and place finds itself connected through liturgy and theological pedigree to the believers who have gone before. All this goes against the grain of subjectivist and individualistic piety, bestowing on today's believers a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves, larger than the individual, and larger than life.

There is certainly much that is encouraging in the current liturgical and theological recovery of the Christian faith's corporate dimension. Christians are not Gnostics whose identity boils down to an individualistic experience of inner enlightenment. There are no armchair Christians, as if being a Christian involved nothing but believing in one's faith. Nor is sanctification one's personal self-improvement project. It is determined, first of all, by the needs of one's brothers and sisters in Christ. But if I am indeed correct in seeing the current ecclesiological turn, with its liturgical and theological emphases, as part of the late modern search for a communal shelter, then we must also consider the phenomenon from a more critical angle. What we learn from Augustine's dismissal of pagan virtues as splendid vices, and from Luther's insistence that even the best of works can be mortal sins, is that one can do the right thing for the decidedly wrong reason.

At stake here is the church's self-understanding and the way it communicates this to the world. The late-modern idealization of the communal ethos is, from the perspective of the church, a deeply ambiguous phenomenon. We should laud its intellectual, psychological, and sociological assault on naive modernist individualism and self-reliance. But it should not put us in a celebratory mood. The fundamental problem is that the vast majority of today's communities are, to borrow Benedict Anderson's term, "imagined communities." Each is constituted by a founding act of choice on the part of its members. "The choice," writes sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, "is restated daily and ever new actions are taken to confirm it" (3) ‘if only through maintained awareness that there always are other options. What characterizes late modern communities, Bauman continues, is that they are held together by bonds of affinity. Affinity, to be sure, boasts "the intention to make the bond like that of kinship." But even as it works assiduously to cement it, affinity can never quite shrink from keeping some options open.

If this is an accurate picture of our society, then the church must be careful how it articulates the irreducibly corporate dimension of Christian existence. Liturgy, especially the way it builds up to the Lord's Supper, is not simply an appealing embodiment of the worshipper's desire to belong. Theological traditions are not just ideological safe havens that cloak our individual lives with meaning. Fundamentally, the church is not a community hanging "on the thin thread of conversation," (4) whose goal is to talk over, and distract people from, the precariousness and even meaninglessness of existence. If it is, then Christianity is another communal vision that offers an arguably stronger, more genuine, and more satisfying sense of togetherness. The church is then a purveyor of yet another community in the marketplace of meaning, either appealing or off-putting to all those who are in search of an intellectually and affectively compatible home.

What Bauman helps clarify is the need for the church to understand itself in distinction from communities based on affinity and thus, fundamentally, in distinction from communities whose center is a human enactment of togetherness’however traditionalist, liturgical, or theological in its appeal. How is the church to do this? How is the church to embody a unique community of kinship? I submit that Christianity, insofar as it aspires to be God's church, must build its self-understanding not on how it realizes a communal ethos, but on a sense of the gospel as God's ongoing action.

The New Testament points to God's ongoing action when it speaks of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and, with it, the resurrection of all flesh. What this connection emphasizes is that Jesus' resurrection is no mere announcement of what the future will bring, what awaits when God at long last wraps all history up. It is, in other words, not a foretaste of what will come nor even a declaration of what God will one day bring to pass in all of his creation. It declares what already is the case! The choice between the future tense "will" and the present (perfect) may seem a trivial one, a matter of mere rhetoric. But no less than the nature of God's action in history, and with it biblical ecclesiology, is at stake.

Jesus' resurrection is evidence of what God has already begun to do with all of his creation. The new creation (2 Cor. 5:17) is none other than the present reality of Jesus' resurrection. Consider, first, the alternative: If the import of the resurrection is merely a hope in the future, then the church emerges as a fundamentally human reality, a community of the interim. Confined to an anthropological plane, the church is only a negative community, set against the world by its own story, which means simply the refusal of other available stories. With this founding story the church comforts itself in words spoken and symbolized through practice. The church may even be tempted to engage in explicit competition and seek to make a case for the superiority of its story.

By contrast, an altogether different reality comes into focus if the import of the resurrection is that, beginning with the risen man Jesus, the new creation is already underway. So understood, the resurrection certainly does not obviate the need for human speech and practice, yet it fundamentally reorients them. For now the gospel is not a mere message but, above all, it bears tangible witness to God's present action. Here we must be even more specific: the gospel attests to God's redemptive-creative work. It is, in fact, God's own self-attestation. This takes place not merely in the hidden and treacherous recesses of the believer's heart, but also in the midst of creation, breaking into history's flow and showing in the here and now the futility of death's grip, the absurdity of sin, and the obsolescence of the demonic.

How does all this take place? It is already in the present that we truly are buried into Christ's death and raised with him to newness of life (Rom. 6) in an act where Christ himself, in the words of Luther, "is present at baptism and in baptism, in fact is himself the baptizer." (5) And it is already in the present that grain and grapes yield not only bread and wine, but also a heavenly feast, as Irenaeus states so eloquently! (6) God at work in the here and now is our comfort and our hope. This is the gospel, the good news of the new creation already being called into being. Through and around this gospel, we too are being gathered as a people made by God unto himself. God's unceasing work on behalf of his creation transforms us from our former nothingness, rescues us from our empty ways, and renews us in our minds; it is our new birth, which will find its completion in no less than bodily resurrection and incorruption.

What sets the church apart from the world, in distinction from both modernist individualism and its late-modern communitarian avatar, is not simply the church's communal character. For the church does not represent yet another community. Rather, through the church, in creation's very midst, God publicly displays his faithfulness and carries out his promise. With Christ as its head, the church is thus the reality of the resurrection (God bringing it about) between the resurrection of the One and the assured rising of all. Even with a story to tell, the church is no mere rhetoric, or even worse, a language game to satisfy our desire to belong. Rather, the church is God's own people in the vivifying, recreating, sacramental presence of their risen and now ascended Lord. The church is God's people who, raised with Christ to newness of life, repeatedly find their sustenance in his body and blood and, precisely in doing so, "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Cor. 11:26).

In summary, the late-modern turn to a communal ethos, exemplified in the recovery of liturgical and theological continuity, is a mixed blessing. For what justifies the church is not that it does community well, or that its sense of community transcends time and place, but that it has something more ancient to offer. The church is not another club. What justifies the church is the ongoing work of God through which he gives birth to his own people. God's work alone forms the church, and so forms it into a community of kinship, or in the words of Calvin, "the mother of believers." (7) If the church's liturgy embodies this truth and its theology testifies to it, then the church will find no excuse to proclaim or market itself. For the church lives by the gospel alone: the gift of God himself. And it has nothing but this to offer.

1 [ Back ] Immanuel Kant, An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? (1784). Various editions available.
2 [ Back ] Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance" (1841).
3 [ Back ] Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2003), 29.
4 [ Back ] Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory ofReligion (New York: Anchor Books, 1967), 17.
5 [ Back ] Martin Luther, "Concerning Rebaptism" (1528) in Luther's Works, vol. 40(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1958), 242.
6 [ Back ] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, bk. V, ch. 2.
7 [ Back ] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.I.iv.
Friday, May 1st 2015

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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