A Scandalous Community (Or: ‘The Church’)

A community of people who have no right to be in relationship with one another

This is fast becoming my definition of the Church, or at least one of its core elements.

I’ve come to this conclusion due to my reading of the letter to the Ephesians, wherein the author (I’m happy to call him ‘Paul’) describes how Jesus of Nazareth—in his life, ministry, death and resurrection—has “…destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility”, bringing Jew and Gentile together into one family of faith.

Using Paul’s words,

[Jesus’] purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Ephesians 2:15b-18

The concept is profound.

Through God’s work in Jesus, formerly warring parties have been united. Once they were enemies, now they are family. But, even more than this, the kind of reconciliation described here forms, for Paul, the basis of the hope towards which God is working: the reconciliation of all things. The Church is God’s ‘Exhibit A’, the example God is showcasing now as the foretaste of what is to come (Ephesians 3: 10).

What this means, I think (if I am making any sense of Paul’s words), is that the Church is the place where people who do not belong together—who should not even be in the same room as one another—are brought together in deep unity through the reconciling work of God in Jesus. The Church is, or at least should be, the one place on earth where all of the symbols of exclusion that keep us divided us as humans are overcome. It should be the place where wealth and status and race and gender and all of the other tribal markers that we use to divide are brought to nil through common faith, and where humans relate to each other simply as humans (created in the image of God). It is the place where such markers of exclusion are to be rebuked and scorned, rather than celebrated.*

This, it seems to me, is the essential core of what it actually means to be Christian: humans who, in reconciling with the Creator, are reconciled with one another and with the rest of Creation (and this last bit obviously has some other profound implications which I won’t go into here).

The Church should—nay, must!—be a symbol of the potential of true human community.

The challenge is rather simple, then, it would seem: do our churches reflect this?

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* I feel the need to point out that I’m not arguing here for the loss of all that constitutes ‘difference’. Difference can be a wonderful thing to celebrate, and I firmly believe that the church should be a symbol of ‘diversity in unity’ rather than uniformity. What I’m talking about here is the sort of tribalism which uses difference as a means of exclusion.

A Ministry of Reconciliation

Reconciliation

I am convinced that Christians in Australia—if we are truly to call ourselves Christian—must engage deeply with issues of ‘reconciliation’ between Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Peoples and other Australians. In fact, I have come to the point where I think this needs to be at the very core of the ‘good news’ that Christians in Australia should be embodying.

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I have not always taken this seriously enough, but I’ve (eventually) come to this conclusion for two main reasons. Firstly, I am convinced that the heart of the Christian message is the multi-faceted concept of reconciliation, and that this is about much more than some individualistic notion of personal ‘salvation’. Reconciliation, in a truly Christian sense, entails right relationship with the divine, with one another, and with our environment (and each one of these elements must be present). Secondly, I am convinced that the Christian message must embrace a certain sense of contextuality and adaptability everywhere it finds expression.

In terms of illustrating this point, I would suggest that the 1st century C.E. context of the relationship between ‘Jews and Gentiles’ is a good place to start. Indeed, it is this issue that lies central to so much of the New Testament writing, and is certainly at the very core of the so-called Pauline material. I am hoping to offer a fuller treatment of the ‘Letter to the Ephesians’ at some point in the near future (particularly noting the prominent call to abandon any notion of nationalism in the light of the Jesus story), but I want to highlight just a few points here in a broader sense as (what I consider to be) a poignant illustration.

Though the clearest specific reference to the concept of a ‘ministry of reconciliation’ appears in the apostle Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (5:17-20), I believe it is actually best illustrated in the letter to the Christians in (and most probably around) Ephesus. In this letter, the relationship between ‘Jews’ and ‘Gentiles’ is front and centre, and the author1 spends quite a bit of time and effort outlining the ways in which there is now (through the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth) opportunity for peace between the (formerly and constantly) warring parties. Indeed, this peace is not only possible, it is the very demonstration of God’s purposes in the world! A few examples from the text might suffice to make the point.

For [Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Ephesians 2:14-18)

In this passage, Paul seems to be suggesting that, due to (his understanding of) the work of God in Jesus, there is a new possibility available for human relationships. This new possibility is not contingent upon one party recognising that the other was ‘in the right’ all along, offering ‘peace’ by essentially denying the identity of one group and allowing it t be subsumed by the dominant party. It is, rather, setting the two parties on a level playing field and offering a whole new framework of understanding. Though it is not immediately evident from this one passage, it also does not mean losing the essential identity markers of either party. The New Testament abounds with examples of ‘Gentiles’ entering into this new possibility for human relationships without losing their essential identity (or, perhaps, taking on the identity of another). Indeed, much of the work of the apostle Paul was convincing those he spoke to that the really innovative work of God was that now Gentiles did not have to become ‘Jews’ first in order to be ‘Christians’! In the same way, there was nothing to stop ‘Jews’ bringing to this new situation an essential ‘Jewish flavour’ (i.e., social and cultural expressions of tradition). The point was, quite simply, that those things were no longer barriers. These ‘identity markers’ no longer distinguished ‘us’ from ‘them’, but were simply a matter of preference.

But Paul takes it a step further.

In addition to indicating that this new possibility was available, Paul seems to indicate that it is actually the prime demonstration of God’s work in the world and the hope for the future:

[God’s] intent was that now, through the church, [his] manifold wisdom should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.

God’s ‘manifold wisdom’, it seems, is (at least meant to be) on display in the Church. That is, the people who form the early Church are those who were formerly enemies but who have now been drawn together in this new possibility for human relationships. This reconciled people, then, is the very demonstration of God’s work in the world. There is no way, Paul seems to suggest, that this could ever have been accomplished by anything other than the work of God, and therefore this group of reconciled people is being held up on display—as ‘Exhibit A’, so to speak—as a small-but-significant demonstration of what God desires to do on a much grander scale in time. God holds up this example to the powers and structures and systems of the world, indicating that a new possibility has appeared that does not buy into the old structures of separation and fear and hate and division. A new day has dawned.

It is no wonder, then, that Paul offers the extraordinary prayer that he does in very close succession to this point.

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Amen indeed! Paul acknowledges that this new possibility is only available because of God’s empowering Spirit at work amongst us, and he prays that the people he is writing to would really, really get it.

In the same way, I pray that us Christians in Australia would really, really get a grasp of this idea too.

Now, I’m not saying by any means that the analogy is precise. The relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the first century was complex, and was (in a good many ways) quite different from the (equally complex) relationship between modern-day Indigenous Australians and other Australians. Having said that, the similarity in regards to ‘dividing walls of hostility’ is strikingly apparent, and it is this reality that offers us a connection here.

What I would like to think through, then, (getting back to what I noted at the beginning) are the ways in which this ‘ministry of reconciliation’ might be contextualised in Australia. If this ‘good news’ we preach (and attempt to embody) really is based around the idea of reconciliation, and if this is going to truly make sense in the modern Australian context, what might it look like?

What I think this looks like, as a starting point, is Christians in Australia engaging, firstly, in humble and deep repentance towards our Indigenous brothers and sisters and, secondly, actively embodying the new possibilities for reconciled human relationship in all we do and say.

The first point is, I think, simple. ‘Christianity’ has not necessarily been ‘good news’ for Indigenous Australians. In many ways, it was used as a tool of, and justification for, those who desired to dominate. It has also been responsible for the active destruction of much Indigenous culture, through the pursuit of a form of Christianity which could not separate the ‘good news’ from a certain (white, British) understanding of culture (and ‘civilisation’). I don’t wish to push this too far and to ignore, for example, the many missionaries who sought to actively preserve Indigenous languages and cultural traditions—many of whom dedicated their whole lives to service of Indigenous Australians. I also don’t wish to ignore the Christians who, though now seen as participating in cruel policy, were simply trying to make a terrible situation a little less destructive by implementing Government policy with at least some concern for the wellbeing of those affected. However I think that, overall, it’s pretty safe to say that Christianity has simply not lived up to its name in terms of being ‘good news’ for our Indigenous population.

As such, I think there needs to be genuine, deep repentance on behalf of Christians in Australia to our Indigenous brothers and sisters. I think this needs to be implemented in individual congregations, as well as at the denominational level, and it needs to be done in a ‘no strings attached’ kind of way. Unconditional repentance is the only way for it to be real.

The second point is a little bit tricky, because some could understand what I am saying here to mean that what I am really desiring is for all Indigenous Australians to ‘become Christian’ first, and then there will be ‘reconciliation’. Please let me be completely transparent on this point: I desire for every person in the world to understand and embrace the new way of being human that I think is demonstrated in the life, ministry and death of Jesus of Nazareth. I think that his humble example of selfless love—love demonstrated—is something that our world needs desperately.

But what I am talking about here is not contingent upon people becoming Christians first.

Us Christians are not, and can never be, responsible for decisions that people make, but we are responsible for our own action. We are called to embody the good news, and to operate out of the new framework (even if no one else does). We are called to treat all people with the inherent dignity and respect that they deserve, as people created in the image of God. We need to recognise the systems and structures that have actively denied dignity and have sought to disempower and, in our context, we need to stand in solidarity with those who are seeking to highlight (and restore) the dignity of the oldest continual cultures on earth.

How we actually do this is up for discussion, but I think it’s important to note, once again, that this is something that needs to be embodied, rather than something that is just spoken about.

Perhaps a good place to start is with education and understanding. On this note, the U.N. ‘Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples‘ is, I think, well worth a read. It’s also necessary to meditate deeply upon what is says, rather than just reading it at a surface level. This Declaration offers a decent framework for understanding which also has wide acceptance.

Also, I think churches (and denominations) need to take seriously things like ‘Reconciliation Action Plans’. Though these “RAPs’ are certainly (currently) more targeted to the corporate world, it’s really encouraging to see Reconciliation Australia so willing to work with faith communities to develop ways forward. (Please contact me through this site if you’d like some more information about this.)

I think Christians should also be at the very forefront of efforts to recognise (and remove discrimination for) Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Peoples in the Australian Constitution. Unfortunately, it remains true that many people in our congregations either wouldn’t know about these efforts, or wouldn’t understand why this is so important. It is my belief that our churches should be a wellspring of activity in regards to this issue, and that we should be working actively to make sure that any Referendum on this issue has the support it needs to pass. Check out the ‘Recognise’ website for more information.

Finally, in terms of a good starting point, I think we also need to acknowledge that, in so many cases, we have never sought any kind of permission to operate on the land that we do. I realise that this can be quite a confrontational point for many Christians, but I think it’s a really sad reality that so many of our churches have never even acknowledged, let alone sought permission from, our First Peoples, and thus I think there is a certain sense of illegitimacy for us to continue to operate without rectifying this point. I know that many might see this as either unimportant, or even condescending to a certain point, but I think it’s vital for us to set this straight and (finally) to let light shine on this often unacknowledged sin. At the very least, the process involved here necessarily puts churches in contact with representatives of local Indigenous people groups (which is a great step forward in and of itself), but it might also even lead to the possibility of churches opening their doors for local Indigenous groups to use our church facilities. Small steps, perhaps, but I think they are very important!

In all of this, the aim is quite simply to embody the love in action that is so central to the Christian message. Where we have sinned, we need to repent and seek forgiveness. Where we have been inactive, we need to resolve that we will no longer be complacent. Most importantly, we as the Church need to embody the new possibilities that are on offer in Jesus in all that we do and say. We must always remember that the very heart of the ‘good news’ is reconciliation and, in the Australian context, this has some very specific and important meaning attached to it.

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1) Many people simply assume that the Letter to the Ephesians was written by the apostle Paul. It is not quite so simple to state this with any sense of certainty, however I am convinced that the content of this letter is in many ways very much ‘at home’ with those texts that are almost certainly ‘genuinely Pauline’. As such, I’m perfectly happy to use the name ‘Paul’ for the author of this text, whether or not it was actually penned by the apostle himself (which is pretty much impossible to prove one way or the other).