Burning, Not Yet Consumed

The Church - 1

‘Burning, Not Yet Consumed’
Paradoxes of the Church
(1 Corinthians 12:12-18)

Rob Yule, minister of St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, is Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Aoteoroa New Zealand for 2000-2002. This message shows Rob’s insight into what a remarkable organisation the Christian church is. The church is the world’s most ancient institution, yet still displays surprising vigour today. At once stable and dynamic, the church provides a basis for local community, yet continually spawns specialist mission and social agencies to serve humankind. Rob gave this message at a Leprosy Mission commissioning service at St Albans on 20 February 1996, and revised it for this series on the nature of the Church.

The burning bush is the emblem of the Church of Scotland and of many Presbyterian churches descended from it. It comes from the biblical story of the shrub in the Sinai Desert which arrested Moses’ attention when he saw that it was burning, but did not burn up (Exodus 3:2). The burning bush symbolises the paradoxical nature of the Christian church. The church of Jesus Christ is an ancient community two thousand years old, but it displays an amazing capacity for self-renewal. It is an institution whose demise is continually predicted, yet its survival, growth and vitality down the centuries and today continues to confound its critics and surprise its members.

1. The Church is Old and New

Lord Macaulay, the nineteenth century British historian, commented eloquently on my first paradox. The Church is simultaneously old and new, more ancient than any other human institution, yet displaying a remarkable capacity to renew itself, and still showing a youthful vitality, mission and growth today:

‘The history of [the] Church joins together the two great ages of human civilization. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable. The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains.

‘The Papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigour. The Catholic Church is still sending forth to the farthest ends of the world missionaries as zealous as those who landed in Kent with Augustine, and still confronting hostile kings with the same spirit with which she confronted Attila. . . . Nor do we see any sign that the term of her long dominion is approaching. She saw the commencement of all the governments. . . that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to se the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot in Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped at the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul’s.’

(Essay on Leopold von Ranke’s History of the Popes, quoted by Hans Kung, The Church [London, Search Press, 1968], pp. 24-25)

What is the reason for this surprising paradox? I believe the secret of the Church’s antiquity and continued vitality is the faithfulness of God, and the presence of the Holy Spirit renewing its life and energising its mission in every generation. One of the best expressions of this paradox is the second form of the Shorter Litany, a beautiful prayer in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:

‘O God of unchangeable power and eternal light, look upon thy whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; and by the tranquil operation of thy perpetual providence carry out the work of man’s salvation, and let the whole world feel and see that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are returning to perfection through him from whom they took they origin, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’

The church is the human community called into being and led by Jesus Christ its risen Lord, who says, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ (Revelation 21:5)

2. The Church is Local and Missional

Another paradox of the church is its existence in two forms: as a geographical or local church community, and as a para-church or mission agency. Sociologists describe these two forms respectively a modality and a sodality. A modality is the static or geographical form of the church, the church as a local or regional community. A modality is the mobile or missional form of the church, the church as a specialist social or mission agency.

The modality is represented in the Bible by the church in Jerusalem and the church in Antioch, the church in Ephesus and the church in Rome; and in history by the parish church and the community church, St Albans Cathedral, Herefordshire, and St Albans Church, Hokowhitu. The sodality is represented by Philip the evangelist and Paul and Barnabas; by the medieval friars, the Catholic orders, Protestant missions, and Christian aid agencies.

These two forms of the church have not always recognised each other. A lot of suspicion exists between them. But in fact they need each other and complement each other, and they need big-hearted leaders who will network between them and get the best from their co-operation. We need the church in its local gathering or assembly, the ecclesia or ‘congregation’; the static form of the church; the church in its ‘inreach’ or nurture, worshipping God and caring for its members. But we also need the mobile arm of the church; the church in its outreach or mission, evangelising unbelievers and serving humankind.

3. The Church is an Organisation and an Organism

My third paradox consists in the two ways we can look at the Church: as a human institution, and a divine organism.

As an institution we can consider the church as a human reality: an organisation that needs leadership, management skills, resources of people, buildings and finance, and involves teamwork, co-operation, friendship and sacrifice to work together and accomplish its goals. Biblical pictures of this are the appointment of the first deacons in Acts 6, or the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15: the church using principles of delegation and consultation to overcome internal disputes or external challenges.

As an organism, the church is a divine mystery: a living organism, the Body of Christ, comprising different organs which work together to compliment each other, all indwelt by the animating or life-giving reality of the Holy Spirit, the presence of the risen Christ. This is the church pictured in Paul’s metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12 of the one body comprising many members. It is the church pictured in organic terms in Jesus’ parables in Mark 4: of the seed growing ‘automatically’, of its own accord, through its own inner life, without any effort from the farmer; or of the mustard seed growing from tiny and insignificant beginnings to a glorious conclusion.

The Christian church, small and obscure when it began with Jesus and twelve nondescript followers in the first century, overcame the power of the Roman Empire in three centuries, and today numbers one third of the world’s population: just under 2 billion Christians in mid 2000, 33.0% of the total world population of slightly more than 6 billion, according to statisticians David B. Barrett and Todd M. Johnson (‘Annual Statistical Table on Global Mission: 2000,’ International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 2000, p. 25).

From small beginnings in an obscure frontier of the Roman Empire, the Christian enterprise has become a world-class movement, spreading, as its founder foresaw, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). As the great open-air evangelist and revivalist George Whitfield put it three and a half centuries ago, in a sermon preached on 6 April, 1742, the year Abel Tasman sighted my country of New Zealand, the first European to do so: ‘The beginnings are amazing; how unspeakably glorious will the end be!’ (quoted by Iain Murray, The Puritan Hope, [Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1971], p.106).

Rob Yule
20 February 1996
Revised 28 August 2000

© 2000, St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand