Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The two-directional church

A similar point to that articulated by Peter Leithart in the last post is made by Oliver O'Donovan:

We tore ourselves away from them and, putting to sea, made a straight run (Acts 21:1)

Oliver O'Donovan

A nice dramatic translation there, from The Revised English Bible, capturing the intensity of Paul's farewell to the elders of the church at Ephesus: "We tore ourselves away." And there is more "tearing away" to come. St. Paul's company puts in at Tyre; the disciples there urge him to give up his journey; but a week later they have to escort him to the beach, kneel down and pray with him, and bid goodbye. In Ptolemais there is just a single day spent with the brotherhood. In Caesarea "all the local people", we are told, "beg and implore" the apostle to stay put. Once again he will not be persuaded, but hits the road, escorted on his way again by local Christians. As we follow Paul on these last steps of his journey round the Eastern Mediterranean, we find at each place the same striking tension: the local community wants to keep him with them, he presses on determinedly to Jerusalem.

What is it that draws Paul forward towards the conflict that faces him? What is it that makes the churches want to hold him back? [...]

[...] From the beginning the church is universal and local, catholic and particular, spread throughout the world and gathered, one and many.

And as we read on in the Acts of the Apostles we find this is reflected in a twofold service that supports the church. There is the service of the word, on the one hand; and there is the service of "tables", on the other. A useful word, "tables". In the ancient world you served food on them and you used them to count money on. All material and pastoral administration is summed up in the service of tables. Out of this twofold service tradition developed the ministries we now know of bishops, priests and deacons. The essential point, however, is that the service God gives the church is always two-directional: turned inward, and turned outward. There is the intensive care of the gathering community; there is the extensive outreach of missionary communication; the inward horizon of charity, which links us in neighbourhood and mutual service, and the outward horizon of proclamation, which reaches to the ends of the earth.

This two-directional call of the church, is something I have only recently come to really understand. It is powerfully challenging.

Interestingly I have only just read Leithart express a related truth in his brilliant essay on the Kingdom of God:

I have argued in previous writings on the kingdom of God that the "universal" and "particular" aspects of the kingdom are "perspectivally related". That is, each requires and assumes the other. The universal leads to the particular because Christ rules over all things for the Church (Eph. 1:22). The particular leads to the universal because the Church over which Christ rules exists for the sake of the world.

No wonder David Field can, in a review of A Royal Priesthood, suggest that 'Peter J. Leithart, has written a small, eminently readable and accessible book [Against Christianity] which captures the key themes of O'Donovan and presents them pithily and amusingly.'

...Against Christianity has just been promoted to the top of my to-buy list.


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