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Thinking Out Loud

The Church's Deaths and Resurrections

by Michael Jinkins | Nov 24, 2015

Church's ResurrectionG.K. Chesterton, the delightful curmudgeon of Christian orthodoxy, once brilliantly described the ironic expertise that the church brings to its own life, death and resurrection. “Christianity,” Chesterton wrote, “has died many times and risen again; for it had a god who knew the way out of the grave.” Later in the same essay, Chesterton draws a distinction between mere survival and the power of resurrection. “The Faith [of the church] is not a survival. … It has not survived; it has returned again and again in this western world of rapid change and institutions perpetually perishing.”

Chesterton points toward the consciousness within the church, historically at least, of a life that does not depend ultimately upon its skill, its wits and wiles, or even its wisdom (or, as some these days might put it, its executive competence, technical expertise, strategic planning and marketing ability). Neither does the church depend ultimately upon its own faithfulness, theological or moral. The church’s life depends upon the power and faithfulness of God to raise the Body of Christ from every death. Our life as church is a continuing participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have a God who knows the way out of the grave.

One form of ecclesiastical life diminishes and eventually disappears from history, while another surprises us by arising. Resurrection is always historically unprecedented. Indeed, resurrection is always impossible. Resurrection is not a feature or a characteristic of history. It is as unforeseeable as death is inevitable.

Powerful orders and forms of ministry and expressions of churchly life, seemingly impervious to decay, fall to hubris, intrigue, persecution or simply time’s relentless pace. From the Templars to the Shakers, from Constantinian Christendom to the Orthodox Church of pre-Bolshevik Russia to the Protestant Establishment in the United States, ecclesial entities flow and ebb like the tide. But to rise from the dead is not as inevitable as the tide. It is an act of the divine. And what rises does not always closely resemble what was placed in the sepulchers of the past. Entire movements of the church are hunted down and expurgated from history, while other movements within and of the church simply drift over the brink of historical cataracts and disappear into the currents below the rocks. When the church renders its life to God in death, it does not hold a trump card of its own survival, and it cannot count on resurrection as an indemnity.

I once quoted Dr. Samuel Johnson’s famous quip: “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” The implication being that impending death, at least the threat of death, might help us focus our attention creatively, might assist us in summoning the courage to respond to the moment in which we find ourselves. But, it is also true that threats to our existence can paralyze us in a state of perpetual anxiety or, alternatively, cause us to become nervous wrecks of unproductive over-functioning or make us became vicious toward one another and voracious in our greed for scarce turf.

When Jesus (in Mark 8:31-38) calls his followers to lose their life for his sake, knowing that grasping and clinging to their lives will cause them to lose life, I believe that Jesus’ words are not just spoken to individuals but to the church itself. “If you want to become my followers,” Jesus says to “the crowd with his disciples” (surely a wonderful description of the church in every age), “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the good news, will save it.”

To face death may mean that we collapse in dread, grasping trembling at survival, and clinging to whatever bloodless thing promises another day of existence. But facing death – in recognition of the impossible possibility of God’s resurrection power – holds the possibility that the church may, in fact, face up to its vocation, may own its baptism and offer up its existence in the Spirit of Christ. For what other reason do we exist as the Corpus Christi but to pour out our common life in response to the call of Christ? In so doing we participate in the suffering and death of Jesus. This mission is who we are.

The irony, of course, is that each Eucharistic feast the church celebrates prepares us and calls us to do precisely this, to offer ourselves up in the Spirit of Christ and thereby to embrace our unique identity in the world. The church meets death in the death of Jesus at the Lord’s Table, week after week. We are nourished by the continual self-offering of Christ. Yet the church does not seem to anticipate its own offering, its own suffering when it moves from liturgy to life, from poetry to prose.

The world, without knowing it, eagerly awaits the presence and action of a church that does not cling to its survival, but empties itself, assuming the form of a servant. The world longs for a church that is more concerned with the other than with its own survival. Indeed, the world, unaware of its own great needs and hungers, hopes it will witness in action a church careless of its survival, unshackled by the lesser loyalties and the fears for security and safety that preoccupy the world itself.

We know this to be true, do we not? The call to follow Christ is not just a matter of individual piety. It is the vocation of the church as Christ’s Body. While it is true that the reign of God is not restricted to the church, nevertheless, if the church is not the church, its particular mission will go wanting. No one else possesses the church’s peculiar calling among the nations and peoples of the world. Ironically the church is most attractive when it pursues its vocation unconcerned with its own survival. But this fact tenaciously resists institutional manipulation.

Editor’s note: This blog is based on my recent revisiting of the first chapter of a book, The Church Faces Death (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) which I wrote several years ago. I was mostly just curious how well the thesis of the book has held up.

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