The Imperfect Church and the Kingdom of Heaven

The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel by Louis Daguerre (1824)

One of the tensions in any type of interpretation of scripture that embraces a communal perspective is the distance between the church or whatever type of community of faith the individual is a part of and the vision of community outlined in the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew’s gospel as a whole. The church in all of its forms: the local congregation and the various denominational (and even non-denominational assemblies) are communities in need of reconciliation, healing, forgiveness, reform, compassion, grace, and as institutions they often are as invested in the kingdom of the world as they are in the kingdom of heaven. This is a place where I think a greater familiarity with scripture helps me to live with this tension. The people of God have always struggled to live into their vocation: from Israel’s call to be a treasured possession, a priestly kingdom and a holy nation (Exodus 19: 5-6 )to the quick transition in the early church from a community where the believers hold everything in common, distribute to any in need and eat with glad and generous hearts (Acts 2: 44-45; 4: 32-33) into communities like Corinth, Galatia, and the seven churches mentioned in Revelation. This familiarity can lead to a pessimism about the human potential to embody these seemingly utopic visions of community, and there are times where even a person who loves the church may consider walking away after encountering the brokenness that is a part of many church and religious communities but I believe the scriptures also offer us another perspective that is a reason for hope. The God who the scriptures point to is the reason I still think speaking, dreaming and imagining the kingdom of heaven among people who are ensnared by the lures of wealth and the cares of the world still makes sense.

Learning from Israel’s Relationship with the LORD the God of Israel in Scriptures

Israel’s relationship with God that we see in the scriptures is complicated, and yet God and those called to speak for God to the people (and to God on behalf of the people) refuse to abandon the covenant people. Israel’s God desires for Israel to be an alternative to the models of acquisition and accumulation of power practiced by Egypt, Canaan, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome and the rest of the nations that they will encounter, but frequently Israel (despite the witness of the Law, prophets and wisdom literature) turned to these attractive alternatives practiced by their neighbors or (in some cases) masters. The bulk of the Hebrew Scriptures lives in this tension between “the LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression of sin,” and “yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children, and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34: 6-7) God is a God who is merciful, gracious, abundant love, steadfast faithfulness and forgiveness and God is a God who refuses to be taken for granted, to live with continued disobedience, to allow the way things are because of human greed, destruction and idolatry to continue unchecked. Moses stands between faithless community and the God who desires faithfulness. The prophets also are called to stand between a community that has forgotten or misused their identity and the God who desires them to return to their calling.

Yet, God is for the people of Israel a God of hope. God’s anger at their failure will not endure forever. God can take the desolate boneyard of their failures and knit them together and breath new breath into them and make them a new people. God can take their hearts of stone and turn them into soft, malleable hearts and even write God’s law upon their hearts so that it may order their lives. God can take the brokenness of their community in their exile and give them a vision of homecoming and return where once again God brings life out of death and hope out of humiliation. God has chosen to be a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression of sin. Even in the community’s failures God’s steadfast love and faithfulness remains.

Learning from the ‘little faith ones’ and the ekklesia in the New Testament

In Matthew’s gospel the disciples are not portrayed as paragons of unwavering faithfulness, or even people of great faith. The disciples are the ‘little faith ones’ as I render the translation of oligopistos throughout this reading. They misunderstand Jesus, fail to act in line with Jesus teaching, abandon Jesus at the critical moment of betrayal and still these ‘little faith ones’ are the ones that Jesus chooses to embody Israel and to carry on the ministry once Jesus is done. Matthew is kinder to the disciples than Mark’s unrelentingly negative portrayal of these followers drawn into the close circle around Jesus, but they are still fallible and yet they are the foundation for the community to come.

Ekklesia is the Greek word often translated church in the New Testament. Matthew is the only gospel to use this term and to talk about the ekklesia.[1] While the term means assembly, in the New Testament it is often the community of believers and so bearing a common vocation with the church. Even though the early communities of Christians would seem strange to those who have worked and lived with almost two thousand years of church growth and tradition, they like Israel before them, struggled to embody the vocation they were called to. Peter, Paul, James and John were not able to establish communities of faith able to easily embody the kingdom values of Jesus and yet, I believe that God has not abandoned or forgotten either Israel or the church in all their imperfections.

The theological tradition that shaped me as a follower of Christ focused on God’s grace in Christ instead of the human ability to faithfully embody God’s commandment. Maybe it is my own deeply ingrained Lutheran theological identity that embraces the paradox that I can be at the same time justified (to use a Pauline term) and a sinner[2], and that the church is filled with these justified sinners and sinners who continue to rely upon God’s forgiveness and mercy. Luther once said, when explaining the petition of the Lord’s prayer about the coming of God’s kingdom, “God’s kingdom comes on its own without prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come about in us.” (Luther, 1978, p. 34)

I do think there is a vision in the Sermon on the Mount of the kind of community that God calls his followers to embody. God has a dream or a vision for us, and it is a vision for life instead of destruction, of wholeness instead of brokenness. We may be ‘little faith ones’ caught between the kingdom of God’s approach and the kingdoms of this world, and yet I do think that in some way God is at work in these words bringing this kingdom of heaven into being among us. Going into Matthew’s gospel and the rest of scripture and seeking the wisdom it offers does change us and perhaps we become the salt and light that (albeit imperfectly) preserve the community and the world around it and shine a light into the darkness of the world. Yet, the kingdom of heaven’s approach is based on the steadfast love and faithfulness (or to use the New Testament’s favored term grace) of God instead of the perfect righteousness of God’s followers at any particular time and place.

[1] Matthew 16: 18 where Jesus declares to Peter “on this rock I will build my ekklesia (church) and Matthew 18:17 in the context of attempting reconciliation with a brother or sister who is unrepentant, “and if the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the  ekklesia (church); and if the offender refuses to listen even to the ekklesia (church), let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. The other two times the NRSV uses church (18:15 and 21) the term is adelphos, literally brother and commonly rendered in the NRSV inclusively as brother and sister unless context dictates the referenced individuals are male.

[2]  Martin Luther’s famous paradox referring to Christians as simul justus et peccator, popularly simultaneously saint and sinner, literally simultaneously justified and sinner.

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1 Response to The Imperfect Church and the Kingdom of Heaven

  1. Pingback: Gospel of Matthew Chapters 1-7 | Sign of the Rose

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