Assuming I survive this camping experience and one day walk out of Bastrop Federal Satellite Camp, will it be possible to be a Christian in the world, have access to more churches than I can count, but not be a committed member of one? NO WAY. Sorry about that to all those who mail it in, but it just doesn't work that way. I can be spiritual, but I can't possibly be a Christian without a church. I could attempt it, but I'd be missing the purpose of spirituality.
This post has little to do with prison other than to recognize that over the last 3 years of my taxpayer-funded involuntary sabbatical, I have greatly benefited from the writings of many inspired writers: Catholic, Mormon, Pentecostal, Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist, Jewish and Buddhist. I've particularly gained an appreciation for the Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson. Chris E. W. Green, attempts to animate Jenson's daunting theology of love in his book The End Is Music. In that book Green, unpacking Jenson's writings, provides a coherent depiction of what the church should be. All of the thoughts expressed here are influenced by my camp readings, particularly Jenson and Green, some taken verbatim from The End is Music. I wanted to share this because I think it's important. If this prison sentence is a spiritual marathon, consider this a report about some things I've learned about an important topic as I near mile 17. So...here goes.
The church is not a social-service club or a political action committee for the left or the right; it's the body of Christ, broken and resurrected. There's really no escaping that. It's the anticipation of the Kingdom/Family of God, a kind of beta version (granted, it still has bugs) of the age to come, and a "movement" fulfilling a promise that is yet to be realized for ALL creation. The church is Christ's mission (bringing the world to an awareness of the hope that's been given it in his resurrection), and it's the ministry of Christ (healing, feeding) taking a particular shape in a particular place and time.
The church is also a community with a message delivered to God and from God in visible and audible words. It does so in sacraments, in preaching and in a culture that celebrates the sacraments and makes the preaching relevant and intelligible.
Sacraments are signs that accomplish what they signify. In the case of the Christian church, they signify the reality of the Kingdom/Family of God. Baptism is a sacrament that creates the church. Jesus began it when he was baptized in the Jordan River by a radical Jewish prophet we call John the Baptist. It's an event that anticipates a new life in Christ for those who are washed and made whole by Christ's love. That new life is described in scriptures as justifying and sanctifying (1 Cor. 1:30; 6:9-11). If the church is a community of priests and prophets, baptism is the first step toward anointing those priests and prophets.
Eucharist is another sacrament which points Christians to Christ's present incarnation in his people. It's the mysterious meal, the Lord's Supper, that makes a promise. If we eat the meal with the right purpose, we are brought into the fellowship of the Kingdom/Family of God. If we eat it out of mere ritualism or self seeking, we waste our time. If the world wants to find Christ, then it must look to the church; and if the church wants to find Christ, it must look to the Eucharist.
Ordination is another sacrament that directly links today's Christian community back to the apostles of the first century and with the fidelity of Christ's message entrusted to its care. While God is sovereign, ordination recognizes that all callings are important, but not the same. Some are called to be deacons, some bishops or missionaries, some priests or prophets.
Preaching makes the gospel happen for speakers and hearers. But for a sermon to be truly a Word of God, hearers must not merely think or feel differently, they must be moved in fact by the spirit toward Christ and toward the Father.
Finally, the church is culture that stands in radical contrast with all other cultures. What does that mean? Is it just the manifestation of preaching, the sacraments, or trying not to be naughty, or is that culture more one of revolution? Jesus is the only revolutionary in history who can guarantee a revolution that does not ultimately implode. In that sense, the culture of the church should be exactly that--revolutionary, because it should never forget that Christ alone can overturn all evil for the good of all.