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franciscan - September 2002

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2002

Servant, Sacrament, Pilgrim People: Models for the Church in the World

by Brian Russell

Lord, give us today the Church for tomorrow.í

May we pray to be given today the Church for tomorrow?  What would we receive and would we like it?  Who might it include or exclude?  How, in Godís Spirit, might this Church urge us to engage in the life of the world as part of responding to Godís mission already to be found there?

Today is becoming very different from yesterday.  Some say that it is the move from an era of modern life to the new and un-charted territory of a post-modern society.  All is coming into the melting pot, and the Church with it.  The past may give us some bearings, but these need to be re-conceived if we are to be in readiness for what God, through Christ, brings.

Over the last five years, I have been working with lay people in the diocese of Birmingham on a course called Being the Church in Post-Modern Society.  We have considered the roots of our Church as One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.  Many participants have been Ďapostolicí people in their local Churches, people who are Ďfoundationalí in terms of identity, continuity and hope.  Both the Lima text and the Porvoo Declaration Ė key ecumenical texts on the Church Ė point us to lay people as part of what makes up the apostolic continuity and spur towards mission.  So, what models of the Church seemed to have been engaging for these participants? In broad terms, I offer three models for your reflection.  They donít cover all points Ė but they are triggers for you to consider your own response.

A Church that serves Godís Kingdom in the World

This model, not new, still has mileage in new circumstances.  As Godís people, we can be built up to share in Godís mission in the world through all that we offer and are in our daily discipleship (wherever that happens) Monday to Saturday.  Life links with Mission (as it takes place within Godís active presence or mission in the world) and Mission is nurtured though Worship.

We can think of moving in a continuing circle.  We come to worship from an engagement in the world, but do not leave it behind.  It is part of us, informing and being given new meaning in our worship, ideally, through preaching, prayer and reflection.  Through worship, we are at best nurtured in Godís mystery and presence, supported and built up, offered up, lifted up and then sent out again with renewed perspective and energy into this wider realm of Godís active presence.  This gives real substance to our offertory, to holding out our broken and faulted efforts at being and doing, so that God can take, lift up, bless and hand back our lives with renewed support that releases new action and presence.

The focus is on the Church as playing a part in Kingdom building, as a space through which movement happens, not as a static container that is held back from the world.  This is not abstract.  Many churchgoers sustain demanding involvements in paid work and volunteer work in society and community.  Too rarely do they feel really upheld and informed for this by their Church life and worship.

Church as a Sacrament in Godís World

Sacrament is not a post-modern word!  Symbols can be obscure and remote once the reference system that provides their range of meanings is lost.  But today is a visual age: pictures can speak and open up ranges of meaning, meanings that can unfold and can be informed (in time) through conversation and even teaching.  Sacraments can be open, to participation and to be given different responses by people at different points.

God continues the incarnation, found in Christ, through the present moments of history.  Godís active presence is giving hope, purpose, direction, challenge, forgiveness and wholeness.

There are two channels for Godís gifts.  The first is through the world as Godís creation, a creation to which God is deeply connected and committed and therefore which is also the field of Godís saving.  The second channel is through the Church as a sacrament, meaning a vehicle or means, a channel that mediates Godís being and action.  This mediation catches up the people of the Christian Faith and urges and equips them to go out to engage in Godís world.  Sensitized and strengthened, the people are to be Ďwalking sacramentsí in fulfilling their baptism.  It is in daily encounters and meetings that we, with others, find and participate in Christís presence.

These moments of encounter are signs: we can think of electric currents being activated so that sparks fly.  The Christ in us meets the Christ in the world and something emerges from this.  I call them Ďfizzy momentsí: events or meetings that arise and energize and point beyond themselves.  Christís presence, which is everywhere, is focussed and made apparent, so that responses can be made in unanticipated ways at particular times and particular places.

Bonhoeffer pictures Godís people as being Ďformedí or built up to be Deputies: representatives who are there for Christ at the centre of the world; people who convey word and sacrament by what they are and what they do; people who share in the prophetic task of Ďdoing the truthí in the world.

Church as Godís Pilgrim People in Mystical Community

The appeal here is the sense of anticipation for oneself, and the scope for journey, for coming to new points and growth along the way.  It runs counter to todayís world in terms of seeking to draw community together from the fragmented lives of individuals.

God is source of being, Guide along the way (fellow traveller alongside us) and God holds before us a Goal for the Journey.  God can interact with us at each point along the way, and this relating to us can draw us and creation towards the Kingdom of God.

The journey is Mystical, ideally, when it is focussed on God.  The journey is about being drawn into a corporate life as Godís people, as those in communion with God, together the Body of Christ.

The journey is not straightforward, either for individuals or for gatherings and communities who form along the way.  There are ups and downs, twists and turns, dips and peaks, losing our way and being found again in Godís Spirit.

Godís people are to be an Open Community, reaching out for contact Ė sharing both hopes and hurts Ė to draw others into the journeying through solidarity and shared support.  We are included in order to include others; we who drink Christís Cup are to bring life to others.

Lord, create in us an open and contrite space so that we may receive today the gift of your church for tomorrow. f


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