Happenings, News

Functions of the church

WHEN Joshua and the Hebrews crossed the Jordan into Canaan, the waters parted so they could cross on dry land.

Then God told Joshua to have elders from the 12 tribes go back into the river bed, gather 12 stones, bring them back and pile them up on the bank, so that “when your children ask, what do these stones mean? then you shall tell them the story … ” (Joshua 4:6-7). Tell them the story of how God had delivered them from Egypt, led them through the wilderness, brought them to this place, and formed them as a people of faith.

Telling the story (Christian education), forming a people, shaping identity – this is the first function of the church. Placing Christian symbols in our sanctuary, using teaching pictures in our classrooms, telling Bible stories to our children, passing down the tradition – all these are ways of answering the question, “What do these stones mean?”

The second way of being the church is described in the second part of the Old Testament, the prophetic literature, also in response to a question – “Is there any word from the Lord?” (Jeremiah 37:17). Jerusalem is under siege, ringed by the Babylonian army. King Zedekiah has been assured by his advisers that just as God delivered them from the Egyptians long ago, so they could trust God to protect them this time as well. But Zedekiah is not convinced, and summons Jeremiah by night from his prison cell to confer with him, confident that he will tell the truth.

He asks, “Is there any word from the Lord?” And Jeremiah answers, “There is! You shall be handed over to the king of Babylon.” The Babylonian conquest, says Jeremiah, is God’s judgment on the people for their sins of idolatry against God and injustice against the poor.

Jeremiah spoke the unpopular truth, challenging the consensus of the prophet-advisers who said what they thought the king wanted to hear. Jeremiah spoke truth to power, even when it meant imprisonment and disgrace. He took the risk, spoke the unpopular word, and paid the price. He stood against the majority, and declared God’s word of judgment.

To be a prophetic minority, to speak the truth as God gives us to see the truth, to challenge the consensus, to name the wrong, to call the rich and powerful to account is the second function of the church just as Elijah confronted Ahab and Jezebel over their theft of Naboth’s vineyard and Jesus healed on the sabbath and cast the moneychangers from the temple

The third way of being the church is embodied in the Old Testament Wisdom literature – Job, Psalms, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. It too is epitomised in a question – “And where shall wisdom be found?” (Job 28:12). This question points to two kinds of wisdom – backward to the conventional wisdom, and forward to the wisdom that leads us into the presence of Mystery.

Conventional wisdom is reflected in the first part of the book of Job, in which his friends try to comfort him by saying that his suffering must be due to his sin. This is the wisdom of the Deuteronomic tradition – the wicked suffer, the righteous prosper. If you meet misfortune it is your fault. If you receive material rewards it is due to your merit. But Job knew this was not true in his case. He was a righteous man. The conventional wisdom did not fit his circumstances, it was reliable only up to a point.

The book of Proverbs is replete with the sayings of conventional wisdom: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise.” (6:6). “Pride goes before a fall.” (16:18). “Better is open rebuke than hidden love.” (27:5). And many more.
But this only goes so far. Conventional wisdom is all right as guidance for ordinary life. But it does not help us when we face the boundary experiences of life, when we encounter the Mystery, when we come to the edge of the abyss where there are no rules, no answers, no explanations. Such encounters call for another kind of wisdom, and this is addressed in the book of Ecclesiastes – “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” (1:2). “All are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.” (3:20). “And I thought the dead … more fortunate than the living who are still alive.” (4:2).

This, too, is a way of being the church – to stand with people in the face of Mystery, to walk with them through the valley of the shadow, to acknowledge that we do not always know why, but we can always know Who is present with us – in guidance, in comfort, and in strength.

A prominent architect at the peak of his career, a committed Christian active in the church, a man who serves on the city council and who takes unpopular stands on civic issues based on his Christian convictions, is struck down with a cerebral haemorrhage. He is kept alive on life supports, but is diagnosed as brain dead. After three days his devoted wife makes the agonising decision to “pull the plug”, and he is gone.

Why was he taken? Why is a devoted, capable, righteous man cut down in the prime of life? He has so much to offer, so much to live for, so much to give. Yet he is gone. This is the Mystery. We have no answer. We cannot explain “why bad things happen to good people”. But being the church means that in such circumstances we walk with people through the valley of the shadow, conveying to them by our presence and support that God is with them as they suffer.

This is the wisdom of Mystery – to trust God when we cannot explain, to be with persons when there are no answers, to be a community of the Spirit together, to embody wisdom in our companionship and support.

What do these stones mean? Is there any word from the Lord? Where shall wisdom be found? In our response to these questions we are being the church – telling the story and forming Christian identity, challenging the popular consensus and speaking truth to power, inculcating conventional wisdom and teaching people how to live, and being present to people in the midst of suffering and standing with them as they encounter the Mystery. It is by these age-old standards embodied in the Hebrew Bible that our faithfulness as a congregation must be judged.

This is a summary of a sermon given recently by Dr Douglas Wingeier at Kampong Kapor Methodist Church. Dr Wingeier retired as Professor of Practical Theology and Director of the Doctor of Ministry Programme at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. An ordained minister of the United Methodist Church, he had lectured at Trinity Theological College, and speaks fluent Mandarin.