The last couple of posts were (as labelled) perspectives… now having worked it all out I am ready to write the definitive answers to the future of the universe. Alternatively, when I re-read this one later I will call it ‘that was really only a perspective, nothing more’. Good to have alternatives!
What I am seeking to address is somehow in response to these kind of questions:
- Why was Paul doing what he was doing?
- Did he have a plan as to what he would seek to work toward once he had an ekklesia in city-state after city-state? (Or, alternatively, are we to have an idea what we should be working toward?)
- How does the apostolic work (as per Paul and all those who follow in each generation) relate to the Great Commission?
- How does the Great Commission relate to the Creation mandate?
- Is the hope for Creation beyond the parousia or could it be this side?
- And the parousia itself? Have we got that one sussed?
Even before I write I realise this is going to be one of those perspectives and certainly not the final word, however, I recognise when situations come up that challenge previous thoughts it normally indicates some fresh directions are coming into view. So let’s launch in.
Humanity, earth and temple
The primary goal is not to prepare people for heaven but to live on earth, both in the here and now and the age to come. Genesis and the creation accounts I think indicate this. The seven day preparation mirrors the 7 days preparation for the opening of Solomon’s Temple (2 Chron. 7:9). Creation – heaven and earth – is a temple with the heavens as the throne and the earth as the footstool, with humanity as the image (we could almost say idol) placed inside the temple, in line with Ancient Near Eastern culture. Eden itself then is a mirror of creation, it being something of a temple itself.
Matthew 24 and the Great Commission is about temple building, it being a repeat of Cyrus’ commission to build a temple in Jerusalem for God (2 Chron. 36:23 and Matt. 28:18-20). Nothing, though, related to Jerusalem in it, but to the ‘ends of the earth’, and no physical building work involved. The earthly Jerusalem had a temple, or to put it more accurately, it was a temple-city, with around 20% of the land space being occupied by the temple and its buildings. When coming to Jerusalem one could only say, ‘I saw the temple’. It was no Canterbury with a cathedral, it was the Temple with some add-ons! Contrast this to John in Revelation: ‘I saw no temple’ in the new Jerusalem. The contrast is complete. A city with no temple is a statement far beyond ‘a new Washington with no capitol building’.
The whole earth as a temple (creation) and the New Jerusalem (the size of the then known earth, and the shape of the holy of holies) as temple, with the Great Commission being that of temple building. This is the overarching framework I suggest that has to shape us. There is indeed a parousia but before then, what?
Ekklesia as movement
Jumping back a step we have Paul planting (right verb?) an ekklesia in city after city. He did not plant a sunagoge but an ekklesia. That word tying back to the calling of Israel, to listen to the voice of God and consciously act out any instruction, and (important in the hitorico-cultural context of the all-under-one-rule of the oikoumene known to Roman Empire) tying into the assembly of those who were qualified to have a say in the current and future culture, shape and activity of the city. (We can use the rather rigid translation of ‘called out ones’ (ek kaleo) provided we understand that it is to those called out for the purpose of something bigger than themselves.) Hence, as I suggest in my books, the people called in such a way are predominantly a movement with the ‘one another’ of community within that movement. If we lose sight of ‘movement’ (a new world movement not a new church movement!) we will end up with a wrong importance placed on ‘church’, with an importance in itself, not an importance based in its mission. It is the earth that is the Lord’s and all its fullness – ironically we are ’emptying’ the earth at this time.
I suggest that the ekklesia was not called to be separate but to be within the context as it was to take responsibility for the context. Leadership within was to watch over (episkopoi – translated as bishops but literally ‘over seers’) what came in / out and influenced that community (hence we read of ‘elders’, comparable to those who sat in the city gates). They were there to give the ekklesia the best possibility of developing to fulfill her destiny. Care within (community), teaching, etc. all fit that scenario and were all to lead to the growth of the body to do the works of service; the goal and context for those works were as per in the beginning the work within creation. We are created in Jesus for ‘good works’, surely to be understood as works that mimic the Creator who worked and at the end of each day proclaimed ‘it was good’. God observed that he had done a good day’s work; work forever therefore was to be defined as that which enabled creation to move from any level of chaos toward shape and fullness.
Work is not defined as ‘what job do you do?’ but ‘what contribution are you making to the future?’ Money, as in pay packet, does not define value to that kind of work, but what time (part of who we are, each person being given time in packets of minutes, hours, days etc) have you given that sows into where God wants the world to go? Perhaps we can call the difference as being between chronological and redemptive-eschatological time: redemptive as it addresses the mess that is here and eschatological as it is shaped by the vision of what is to come.
Ekklesia in Jesus
This is how Paul distinguished who he was writing to from the already-existing ekklesia in the same geography. The contexts were big (taking Corinth as an example, around 250,000) and the ekklesia that he left behind that would have no need of him in the future, if their faith was to increase, was probably around 50 people, as they could be hosted within one house, the house of Gaius (we know this from how he references this in the letter to the Romans).
Size apparently was not important, nor was social status. Faith and purpose seems to be paramount. Or to put it bluntly, growing the church, pulling more people out of the burning building, planting new churches… none of that was of first importance. OUCH! But if it is not about getting people ready for heaven but for living here now and living here then that maybe ties together. And if it is helping contribute to the shape, culture and essence of where people live, thus responding to the groan of creation. That groan that is waiting for the ‘daughters and sons to come to their glory’ (Romans 8), and glory I consider is the reversal of sin, it is the coming to the stature as humanity. The incarnation, the incarnation that shows that God is not SO different to humanity. Totally different to fallen humanity, but not so different to true humanity. Hence God could become human; humanity can be created ‘after the likeness of God’; we can be transformed into the image of Christ.
The next stage?
Here an ekklesia, there an ekklesia, everywhere an ekklesia, and then? Probably shake it all about. Not waiting for it to grow (numerically) but looking for it to grow up into (toward?) the fulness of Christ, the fullness of him who fills all things in every way, who descended to the lowest depths and ascended to the highest heights… for the ekklesia. He ascended and descended throughout the whole of creation, the temple.
Growth, taking responsibility. Understanding that all authority in heaven and on earth is implicitly given to the people who are seeking to disciple the nations. A shaping of the heavens, a restriction on the powers that are operating with the authority originally given to humanity; an authority on earth over the context (‘what kind of human is this that even the winds and waves obey?’). Cyrus had claimed, so did Rome all authority in earth. In so doing they had to make sure they did not anger the gods; Jesus with all the eternal favour of God stood before the protypical ekklesia to release again the stalled temple building project; to show that there was no glory in Rome but that glory would rest on people, who would work until there was ‘no temple’ to be found within any city.
I think Paul was working toward Spain, that western end of the empire and then! Well we have to answer that one… answer the what now that stage 1 is complete.
Then with no focus on numbers but the atmosphere changes, people get turned on with the breath-taking, deeply practical vision of a transformed world. The battle is big, consumerism has consumed and the supply is diminishing, but a vision of a future, not one shaped by fear, but by faith. New ideas emerge of how to reverse the CO2 issue, the loss of species (maybe a measure of a new evolutionary process?) as we ‘see’ a new creation. People coming on board (my obsession with the Asiarchs of Acts 19) who don’t know Jesus at a personal level but contribute to the future, and if we are to be judged by ‘how we build’ and the building project is temple building, maybe some of them will more than share in the age to come; and along the way as darkness is pushed back, as the battle in the gates is won, some of those Asiarchs and a whole bunch of others will find that God is not a theory but is found in a response to the face of Jesus, who literally puts a face to the name.
Does ekklesia disappear?
I think the better focus is to ask what is to appear, for that is important. A bit like Jesus – it is better that I go away, for then… It is the then that has to grab us. No point in trying to get something to disappear nor to worry about that; better to focus on what we need to see appear – signs of the new creation.
In the meantime what is vital is that the story is kept alive. Israel lived around 3 festivals (synagogue, developed in exile, around a weekly setting). Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. The big story embedded in their psyche and re-emphasised yearly. Passover, for they had to remember they were once in slavery. Liberation, freedom from… and we need to fill in the blanks, but surely liberated from the consumerist activity to that of the ‘life giving Spirit’ activity. Pentecost, celebrated then as the giving of the law, the giving of the community shaping instructions, that related them to God, to each other and to the land; for us the giving of the Spirit. We are not alone. We do not strive alone. We are weak, but… And Tabernacles, living in the wilderness in our tents but God dwelling there as a sign that tells us we have not arrived, yet we are not static, God has tabernacled among us, and one day there will be a dwelling of God with us, not a dwelling in a temple, but a dwelling in a creation-temple.
Until then, the story is kept alive. Until then there will be an ekklesia in Jesus, but this ekklesia people will be everywhere, a people of hope who inspire. All around them will be those who have come close to the kingdom, and those who fall into the kingdom, who wander all around the kingdom, who do the work of the kingdom, on whom God smiles. Yes maybe some ‘tares’ also but a whole lot of wheat, and I am sure some of the ‘wheat’ never used ekklesiastical language nor rituals.
Liberation… come on earth… don’t stop groaning… maybe we will hear you.