The doctrine of the Church starts from the doctrine of God. Who God is will decide what the Church is. Whatever we say about the Church must be controlled by the Church’s own teaching about God. We will not follow the custom of some contemporary ecclesiology to start with sociological pronouncements about the Church. In their place we will assume the competence of God to make whatever he will of his people.
1. The gospel
4. Reconciliation and unity
5. Responsibility of theological statement
Great is the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.
We are the body of Christ. In the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body
Through him thou hast made us a people for your own possession
1. The gospel
The gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is announcement of the reign of God. The maker of the world is coming to us. The king is about to return to his estate. He will judge those he appointed to act as his stewards. He will release of those unjustly held in captivity by them. Suddenly, out of nowhere, comes the voice of someone announcing that the time of our grief and imprisonment is up. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
God comes to be our judge
But the gospel is not good news for everyone. There is resistance to this release from captivity. The vineyard of God (Isaiah 5.1-7) has been given to tenants who have allowed it to become run-down. The wicked tenants who have exercised authority without themselves being under the authority of God have not given justice to the poor. They have received warning and are now to be evicted. They will resist, but – for their own sake, as well as for everybody else’s – their resistance will be overcome. God ‘planted a vineyard…at harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard… He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying They will respect my son. But the tenants said to one another This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and the inheritance will be ours’ (Mark 12.1). God asks us to judge between him and his people. ‘Judge between me and my vineyard. What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?’ (Isaiah 5.1-7) The Lord takes his place in court; he rises to judge the people. The Lord enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people: ‘It is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?’ declares the Lord, the Lord Almighty’ (Isaiah 3.13). He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others’ (Mark 12.6).
So whether the gospel is good news for us, or unwelcome news for us depends on us. Have we been good stewards and faithful servants? Have we passed on all the good things given to us? Have we passed on to the world the news of the truth of God? Or are we those who have been set over the ‘least of these’ to provide them with all good things, the rulers and stewards God has put into office? Have we exercised responsibility with the generosity of God towards the least of these? Or have we been the ‘least of these’, those who have been shut out of the good things and full participation in this society? If we are, we can certainly pray to God to come quickly to save us. We can ask him why he delays.
Or have we simply taken (economic) power for ourselves and exercised an illegitimate force over his people? Are we the under-dogs, or the top dogs? (Mark 10.42) Those who are regarded as rulers of the gentiles lord it over them. Have we made exercised power without authority and without doing so justly? Have we asserted a disguised or undisguised leadership claims? Do others, the least of these, need to petition God against us, because we exercise power over them without giving them justice?
The gospel judges the Church
We must ask whether we, the Church, are able to receive the gospel as good news. Could it be that we cannot read the signs of the times, because we make untruthful claims about our rights? Have we enfranchised the poor, or are they witnesses of our failure? We must ask ourselves whether we have made ourselves immune to the gospel, and whether we are the first obstacle it has to overcome. Can we recognize the gospel at all? Does the gospel not come first by breaking the Church? The first reaction must be not only joy but fear. The gospel of Mark tells us to decide whether we can hear this news as good, or whether we have become deaf, like those wicked tenants in rebellion who are ‘ever hearing but never understanding, ever seeing, but never perceiving’ (Isaiah 6.9). If the gospel is good news for those who have been ignored and abused by us, we can only misrepresent it to ourselves, as we misrepresent it to others. Only when we can see that we have held others bound, can we see that we are ourselves bound, and only when we see this can we be released. It is us who are called to account, and who have been defeated and dethroned, by this gospel. How is that?
The gospel and the cross
Let us celebrate the mystery of faith…Christ has died…
It is sometimes claimed that the gospel is not coercive, peaceable not war-like, that it is a matter of grace, not of law and coercion. But the cross is violent and coercive, and the good news is bad news for whoever does not receive it as good news. Jesus is standing against us and exercises his veto against us. On the cross, Jesus portrays the effect on the world of our action and inaction, and portrays the effect that this action will have on us. It will become constitutive of our character, until it is us who squirm in anger, misery and distress, until we become this piece of perfect distress not only to the whole world but even to ourselves.
God has halted us
God has resisted us and halted us. He is against us – for the world’s sake. He has protected us from the consequences of our acts. Now, in the cross, God no longer holds back. He lets us have the consequences of all our acts. All the violence we released into the world returns to us. But this returning onslaught does not punish and overcome us. It does not take the form of a general battle in which we are all overcome by the violence we have caused. It takes the form of the cross, suffered not by us all, but by Christ alone. On the cross Jesus plays us. He is overcome by the rage and distress we have released into the world.
This world of distress was about to engulf us. But Jesus steps in the way and catches it all. He absorbs the whole shock and trauma of this collision. He is the rock that stands, and the flood succeeds in making no impact on it, but is broken on it and dissipated by it. ‘The rain came down, the wind blew and beat against that house, yet it did not fall because it had its foundation on the rock’ (Matthew 7.25). ‘The Lord Almighty… will be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall’ (Isaiah 8.14, Luke 18.28).
The violence we released comes back to us on the cross, but not to all of us, but just to one of us. After an infinitely long period of nagging by the poor of the earth, the disappointment of God finally turns to rage, and comes directed like a tidal wave, a flood, that surges and is about to crash against all the assembled world-leaders (who failed to lead, and give justice). But in the last instant this wave focuses at a single point, and instead of taking out the whole line of the assembled rich it crashes down on and takes out precisely one single individual – this servant – the only one (the one they have all hated) who has done the right and entirely rendered to every man the best that God intends for every man. The Servant of God takes it upon himself to step in the way of the wave of this rage. He focuses this wave, that represents all the pleadings and lament, fear and anger of all the oppressed, on himself. He absorbs it, as a rock absorbs the energy of the whole flood, dissipating it away. The Son undergoes the baptism of the enmity of all. He has waded `through, and drunk down, the resistance of the whole world.
He was handed over
The Son of God was handed over to us and we laid our hands on him. We thought he was in our power. It turned out not to be so. Who is able to seize and capture whom. Satan took the bait, intending to chomp him up and swallow him down. The unrighteous took the bait, bit the hook, and the hook bit into man, and man was caught. Just as we are going to take and bite into this bread, so the unrighteous attempted to seize and consume the righteous.
On the cross Jesus has showed us our death. On it the innocent parodies the destruction of the rich and feckless rulers. He has showed our future destruction, but halted, hung up on the cross, defeated, no longer rushing towards us, but so we can see that it is now no longer our fate. It is not necessary or inevitable. The cross demonstrates the remains of our own claim to autonomy and power is shattered. Jesus has pulled out of its concealment the destructive force everywhere at work and on the cross broken this force. The crucifixion is the bounds we intended to hold him by. The resurrection is his escape from us. He is now the single one who is free – and we are the bound – now bound, not by our own self-imposed bonds, but by him. We are not in Satan’s power but in God’s. Because Jesus is alone against the world, and the resurrection distinguishes him from the whole world, the whole world is defeated by this resurrection. The world is therefore all his prize and the plunder he has won. The world divided and held down by the rival gods he re-integrates into a single domain – his own.
The obedience of the Son takes the form of suffering alone the contradiction and resistance of the whole world (Isaiah 63.3 I looked, but there was no one to help, I was appalled that there was no one to help, I was appalled that no one gave support; so my own arm worked salvation for me and my own wrath sustained me). This single Israelite has undergone the baptism of the enmity of all. They are not his hosts and fellows, but his enemy. They are the cup he has to drink, and the river he has to go through. Only by passing through him can they become the river of healing that flows from him, and through which even the gentiles may pass into Israel. The resurrection demonstrated the cross to be the enthronement and exaltation of the God of Israel over his enemies. He is raised from them, but the cross which is the form of his exaltation over us remains the covering thrown over us, permanently characterising us as the conquered.
Why should we adopt the military language of this Classical Christology of cross and glory (Christus Victor)? It is not that Christ is an aggressive military God. Rather, leaderless humanity has fallen into militarised bands, all competing with each other, and in rebellion against the leadership of God. We are holding out against the one figure who really is prepared to be our own best champion. We are like child soldiers, once kidnapped, but now fatally identifying with our captors, and fighting against our own people. We have been preying on his little ones: once merely bad shepherds, we have become wolves. It is we who have made ourselves into fighters, now embattled, having forgotten any other form of life. God acts against us to stop us acting against one another: our violence means that we must be confronted and means that God must act like a warrior.
The victor takes captives
The question put to the messiah in the gospel of Mark is how the messiah can come without his army. The answer is twofold. We will be first his captives and then become his army. And that Israel’s leader will appear not all at once as ruler, but stage by stage, as servant. He will not devastate us by appearing in all at once in his glory.
The Son is raised from his enemies. The resurrection demonstrated the cross to be the enthronement and exaltation of the God of Israel over his enemies. The Son is raised from us. He kicks us off. But the cross remains the form of his exaltation over us, permanently characterising us as the conquered. The resurrection baptised the world in this cross. It remains the covering he has thrown over us. Now it functions as a protective medium. By our baptism into this medium, the cross, it also becomes our support, and our light and easy yoke. The resurrection is not the undoing of the event of the cross, but the transformation of the place of that event from our fallen cosmology to God’s place in which it is the finished work. The cross is the path pioneered by the Son. The Spirit leads us along this path through the desert into the promised territory of the resurrection. Resurrection is exodus from Egypt and return from exile.
We are captured by this warrior. We have become his booty. We are his. ‘Ask of me and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the world your possession’ (Psalm 2.8) He has snatched us from all corners of the world, selected and collected us to form his assembly, the ecclesia. We are the seized. He stole us back from the house of the strong man and now we are his. Jerusalem now finds she has acquired so many new children she asks: ‘Who bore me these? I was bereaved and barren, I was exiled and rejected. Who brought these up? I was left all alone, but these – where have they come from?’ (Isaiah 49.21).
The theology of glory is the theology of the cross, of triumph and compassion. The gospel holds these two themes together. He is the imperial ruler of heaven and earth, the glorious king. And he is the servant the king sends. He is the young man, the servant, the boy, the heir. He is the commander of the king’s forces. He is the one who charges into the line of the enemy and is swallowed up He ‘gives’ himself to the enemy. He is the spear hurled against the enemies of God, the magic bullet discharged into them, to kill or cure.
Election is election to service. In answer to the question ‘why have I been chosen in particular?’ the answer is – ‘No reason’. We are picked at random. This is not a doctrine of double predestination – some for heaven and some for hell. We have not been predestined, but merely destined. Each has been given a new destiny. We have not been chosen while others are abandoned, but precisely so that others are chosen, through our ministry.
We have been called out of the people of the world, and gathered together to make a new, distinct and holy people. This people is to be the means of the regeneration of the old creation, and the first batch of the new. As such this whole people, taken together as a single unit, is priestly. The Church is a new creature, a new ethnicity, made up of all ethnicities, something quite unanticipated by the nations, and which represents the end of their mutual opposition. We have been brought into relationship with the living God, who acts, and who does something new, something which has not occurred to us. He is creating a new species. We must not insist that we already know what man is, but understand that something new is underway here. The Church is the inauguration of this bright new body. We are woven together to make one new fabric. We are all opposites and incompatibles, brought together and made compatible, made (different) members all serving a single body.
God selects some from the world. This unilateral act of God is referred to as the doctrine of election. God chooses some to form a distinct community, which will display the character of God to the world, and to show the world what God intends it to be.
Christ is the whole future world. This whole world has come to us as one person. He contains the whole future. He stands before us. But that future looks blank and indecipherable to us, as dark and puzzling as a man from who all life has been taken away, as undesirable to us as death. We thought he was blocking our way, and that we had to roll it out of our way, but it is the gap through which we must pass. He is the one way in for us. We are baptised in him.
Baptism is the act of God for the world
God chooses some in order to make all others notice and demand that they are chosen, and clamour to God to be admitted to the community he is making. Thus the doctrine of election teaches us that some are chosen so that all will want to be chosen; our election is for the world. Baptism is a public act which the whole world can see. It is for this reason that water, oil and candles are used to amplify this act so even distance on-lookers can see it. It is the act it is because God, and the whole watching company of heaven, make it their act. God acts, and the words spoken are the words of God, and they are received as the words and act of God by the attendant company of heaven and earthly congregation.
The baptism of any Christian is for the sake of the whole on-looking world. When any Christian is baptised the world is renewed. The Church is re-constituted by every baptism, and the world is renewed and strengthened by the renewed life of the Church.
God makes a distinct community, in the world
God makes a community that worships God. It thanks God for everything and thereby identifies him as the provider and judge of everything, and thus as Lord and God.
When we worship the Lord only, we cease to feed and source these other lords. The members of Christ’s community are taken out of the orbit and power of other lords and gods. Baptism is being cut off from one set of authorities – put to death to them – and it is being connected to another authority, our Lord.
We are baptised into the death of Christ
The Son has undergone the baptism of the enmity of all. He has waded through, and drunk down, the resistance of the whole world. The resurrection has made the cross a new environment which baptises and immerses us, altering our metabolism so we acquire his form, character and action. Immersed in his Spirit, we are part of the train of servants who stand behind him.
You are head-hunted or press-ganged away from a company and into another. We are recovered from alien powers who had taken us away from our Lord.
We are dressed and commissioned for a work. We are given a new identity and authority.
Baptism is proclamation
The community is told to baptise, and so it does so. It baptises new members and its baptizes its children. By this it understands that it is simply to tell them about Christ, it is to preach the word – and so to let the Word convert and captivate them. Thus it does not contrast preaching and baptising. St Paul only makes this contrast in 1 Corinthians 2 because of the Corinthians’ own misapprehension that at their baptism that they were given the power specific to one apostle rather than another, and thus received a larger or smaller share of grace, as each apostle was competent to dispense it. They did not appreciate that the Spirit dispenses himself, and is not hampered by the ability of any apostle, thus any baptism is of the whole Spirit, not of a lesser or partial spirit. Paul tells the Corinthians not to imagine that the Spirit is defined or constrained by the mode of his delivery, and so to give up thinking in terms of parts partitioning the Spirit, and worship parts (this or that apostle) rather than the whole.
The water of baptism
The use of water is simply this breath and its reception making itself visible. It is the event of the world receiving again the Word who made it, made visible. The water of baptism is entirely equivalent to the breath we employ in speaking. As someone speaks to us they breathe on us, and their breath enters us and becomes our breath. As they orientate themselves to us their spirit enters us and becomes our spirit. But as they tell us about Christ, they are Christ commanding us, and are Christ filling us with himself, driving other authorities out of us. The baptism is simply a more deliberate demonstration of what has already started. As breath (air) is a thinner, more fleeting and less visible mode, so water is a thicker, slower and more visible mode. But breath and water are both physical modes of the Spirit. The Spirit is unlimitedly thin and thick, fast and slow, fleeting and lasting, penetrative and resistant. Breath and water are the Spirit, at work on us, and making this work apparent, audible and visible, to the on-looking world. The word (breath) and the act (water) are acts of the Spirit. Though the Spirit is not exhausted by them, he makes himself really known and confessed through them. Though he is not captured or contained by them, by them he captures and contains us.
Baptism is conversion, empowering and ordination
Baptism consists of two acts. The first of these is baptism, in which the individual enters the water, being stripped of old powers. Baptism is an exorcism: all other spirits are expelled, the devil is driven out. The second act is confirmation. In this second act, or second aspect of the one act, the individual Christian is given his or her particular office in the congregation. The anointing (chrismation) is his being clothed with a new relationship with Christ and his body. Though baptism-and-confirmation is notionally one act, sometimes these two acts are separated by some years, to allow a child to grow to an age of responsibility.
Should we baptize children?
Those opposed to child baptism rightly point out that each of us must be converted to Christ and give him our full consent, and this presupposes that we are in our right mind. The problem with this is that none of us is in our right mind until we are in Christ. Conversion – which is what baptism is – always takes place against the will. No one, and so no godparent, can stand in for us, except Christ, who established us . Many other masters, guardians and parents, tell us that we don’t need any relationship except those that they represent, that they can represent us in every way and remove from us the need to be involved personally. They say that this culture has an adequate relationship with Christ, and that we do not need to ask Christ for any closer relationship for ourselves. But no other master can secure us, or come between us and Christ. They cannot speak for us. They cannot give us the life we need, or protect us from the ravages to which we are exposed, most particularly the impositions they themselves make on us. Only Christ can make us distinct persons. He can do this freely and without reservation or limit, because he does not guard his being from us, or make any impositions of his own on us. We are made individuals by Christ and given our distinct being by him. And yet we are not saved by our assent, and those who cannot give their assent, at least in such a way that we can understand it, because of mental disability, must also be baptised.
4. Reconciliation and unity
God is one. There is one Spirit. God created a distinction between the people of God and the rest of the world, between Israel and the gentiles. He did this for the sake of the gentiles. But Israel took this gift to be for her sake alone, and fortified herself against the gentiles and the world. The demarcation line around the children of Israel became a wall. The light still burned inside, but it had become useless to the world, because invisible to it. Though the light was only given to draw the gentiles in so that the circle of the chosen people expands and widens to embrace more of the world, this expansion had stalled. Now there is a stand-off between two armed camps of Israel, which conceals this light, and the gentiles, who are without it.
But Jesus Christ breaks through this wall. The light himself breaks out, burns through the wall. He destroys the wall that has divided and has made the one world, two armed camps. ‘He is our peace who has made the two one and destroyed the dividing barrier, the dividing wall of hostility’ (Ephesians 2.14). From him light radiates out to all the world. He has re-established Israel’s task of witness to the world, and maintains it by the community has won for himself.
The Lord is the Spirit. The Spirit means the Son resurrected and accompanied by his train of patriarchs and servants. The Son is no longer Jesus alone, but Jesus with all the prophets and servants of Israel behind him. The Spirit makes a great company, the train that follows the Son and which is his glory.
The Spirit is the executive arm of the whole company of heaven. This company includes all the generations of the people of Israel, and the gentiles Christ is now adding to them in the Church. The Holy Spirit is the whole history of the whole people of God, united and at once all present. This totality cannot be broken or divided. ‘The Spirit searches all things, even the deep the things of God…no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God’ (1 Corinthians 2.10). The Spirit penetrates but is not penetrated. We cannot penetrate or perceive him. There is therefore no access to this knowledge for those outside the Spirit. The Spirit…searches (penetrates, analyses, knows – as does Wisdom in Ecclesiastes 8.22). The Spirit knows everything, but is not known by anything. So now, in the Spirit, the Christian community no longer knows Christ ‘according to the flesh’ (2 Corinthians 5.16), from a worldly point of view, as those who have no hope. It knows Christ in accordance with the full knowledge that results from the resurrection: we now know that his crucifixion is the crucifixion, defeat and division of the world of the many masters in defiance of God, and the raising of the new world reconciled to its one new and original Lord.
This Holy Spirit gives us a spiritual body, which cannot be penetrated or split up, and so which is no longer subject to decay. Nothing can separate us from God, for God is able to protect us from the incursions of other gods. He can hold on to us. He makes his people one with himself.
The First letter to the Corinthians is a manual for the maintenance of unity in the new community. The middle chapters of 1 Corinthians deal with Church order. We must understand this as Israel’s marching order through the desert (see Book of Numbers). The specific rules that are designed to make the community united and invincible against the threats of division by other spirits from outside. The Spirit is one, and can hold together and keep as one this community against all attempts to split it up or pick off any of its members. The Spirit gives many gifts, but they all make the community of the Spirit one. The Spirit divides and discerns all things, but is not divided (1 Corinthians 2.10-16).
1 Corinthians demonstrate a number of ways by which division, dissension, divorce and idolatry attempt to creep into the Christian body. Its central chapters tell the community how to identify and avoid such division, and so how to maintain the discipline that will keep the ranks of the troop unbroken. The rules and rulings offered are designed to keep the community united and impregnable against the threats of divorce and division by other spirits from outside.
The victory of the God of Israel reconciles and brings together all things. It overcomes the divisions and oppositions imposed on the world by the rival gods. Their defeat is now visible in the unity of the Christian assembly. The divisions and separation they imposed are now gone, so the powerlessness of all rival gods is made plain.
The Church is the meeting of opposites. It is the public display of the reconciliation of every opposition. It is universal, catholic and ecumenical. The whole future world is present in it. The Church is not be divided by time or place. The alien powers had held the world divided, but the cross has broken down their dividing walls, so they no longer hold the world divided and ruled. The first sign of this is the unity witnessed by the Eucharist.
5. The responsibility of theological statement
Theological statement must be complex and responsive. It must show that the Church is:
1. those seized by God
2. those displayed in his train as his slaves without rights
3. those who have become his troop
4. those who have become his officers and servant members of his household
5. those who will become his friends.
The Christian confession that Christ died for us is not self-explanatory. We have to unpack this very dense summary statement and relate it to the various teachings about God’s action to us that are laid out by the Old and New Testaments.
But the theology of the cross does not remain truthfully about the cross unless it is accompanied by a theology of the resurrection. The resurrection shows the cross for what it is. God has raised his Servant from the death we imposed on him and demonstrated that his power is not constrained by ours. A classical theology, in which God does not suffer our aggression, and in which is impassible. This must refute that modern theology which demands that God must show that he experiences the very worst of our experience, and which gives priority our own self-experience over the authority of God.
All theological statement is committed to making statements about the world properly complex and to preventing every would-be definitive statement of the world until the world is reconciled with its Lord. Theology is to prevent us from making hubristic anthropological claims. So the most urgent atonement statement (announcement, not model) is epistemological. We must be told that we do not know each other or know the world as we think we do it. We are deluded. Theology is the control on the discourse of anthropology. It tells us that we do not know man, that man is not ours but the possession and work and secret of God. Only a long, slow lesson from God and about God will provide us with any information about man who is the creature of God. We may come to know others only as they are entrusted to us, given to us on leasehold and we are responsible to God for their well-being. When we fail to know them in this custodial way they are taken away from us and protected from us.
‘Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.’
Christ has died:
1. We have died, and were killed by him, but
2. Christ has diverted this death and absorbed it himself.
Christ has risen:
1. He has rejected the life we attempted – and thrown it back at us.
2. He has escaped us.
3. By this escape from this body of sin he has opened for us the route that he will lead us out by.
Christ will come again:
1. He will come in compassion and in fury.
2. Let us take the warning.
3. We must pray both ‘Come, Lord Jesus’, and ‘Be patient, Lord, do not demand repayment’ (Matt 18.16).