The Church as Foretaste and Sacrament in a Ravaged World

"There are hints of a possibility of reducing poverty and making daily sustenance universal. But what is not becoming universal is the North American, European, or Japanese standard of living. They consume such a large part of the world's resources, raw materials, and energy that it will never be sufficient for the world population. Regarding spirit and values, this civilization is fundamentally oriented--and offers a spirit that clearly leads--to dehumanization. It is a civilization of the individual, of success, of the selfish good life. And the spirit is suffocated even more when the West that produces it understands itself not only as an achievement of talent and noble effort--which are very real in part, accompanied by a secular, gigantic historical depredation--but as the fruit of a kind of predestination similar to the age-old religious self-understanding of chosen peoples" _Jon Sobrino

In light of the above quote from Jon Sobrino's book, No Salvation Beyond the Poor (page 10), I want to examine two "Ecclesiological models" or we could call them identities of the church.

First, the church is to be the foretaste of the coming kingdom of God--the sneak preview, the anticipatory body, the "now" of the "now but not yet", the Eschatological community, or call it what you want. The church is to live in anticipation of the day--displaying what it would look like--when all things will be made new, when every tear is wiped away, when there will be no more suffering and no more oppression, which means it would be at least problematic for the church to find itself in the drivers seat of oppression and wearing the hat of the oppressor. If there is any identity of the church with which I have been greatly troubled, it is this one, for it's failure is so blatant. In light of Sobrino's quote, we must ask if the church has succeeded in this task. Has it? Well, it has in some places and in some specific instances, but surely not as a whole. You may more easily speak of the church in South America or Rural China as a foretaste, but surely it's much more difficult to speak this way of the church in the United States. As James' Epistle warned, our wealth has "has rotted... Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter" (James 5:1-6) We have miserably failed at displaying God's kingdom. We have abandoned the poor and oppressed in order to embrace comfort and a standard of living which they will never experience. We are putting on display not a kingdom of welcome to them, the poor, but a kingdom of wealth only welcome to the wealthy.

I have been ranting, let me hold back a bit... What might it really look like to display a foretaste of the kingdom of God? We would have to embrace a standard of living which involves sharing. As long as people's basic needs are not being met there is suffering. Therefore, to be a foretaste of the day when there will be no more suffering, we have to ask ourselves, how would everyone have to live in order for the basic needs of everyone to be met? then we must live that way. Would everyone have their basic needs met if everyone lived like we do in the United States? Not if it involves individualism and selfishness as Sobrino seems to think it does. We are not to live in anticipation of the day when everyone drives a new car, or lives in a big house, or consumes more than they need. We are to anticipate the day when love is on the throne of our priorities and love of neighbor is more important than self preservation and personal comfort. This means orienting ourselves and our resources toward those whose needs we have the power to meet. This is not an endeavor the success of which we measure by effectiveness. Our success is measured by our hearts and by the sacrifice we make in order to be the Eschatological community God believes we can be. Our concern is that we are a prophetic voice to the world and that we are an alternative community in our small corner of that world.

Second, the church is a sacrament, the effecting conduit of God's grace into the world. By our hand, the world is to experience the grace of God through Eucharistic living. We are to be consumed by the world as Jesus is, an offering of love and sacrifice. In practical terms, it means we are to offer hope where there is none, peace where there is violence, and bread where there is hunger. We are to be a beacon of God's love in a world which has been ravaged by sin. Thus when we become those who consume the needs of others we tell a huge lie to the world about God's grace. We become the hand of God taking from the poor rather than offering himself to them. As a sacrament we are gathered under the banner of God's work in the world, thus our work is God's work. But when we work for selfish gains we once again lie to the world.

The church in the United States tells too many lies to the world. It calls itself the body of Christ but has lost the cross altogether, we are so far from those in need, our beacon is so dim.

But there is hope! For this work and this world belong to God after all. In the end God does not fail even if it looks as though he has. There will indeed come a new heaven and a new earth. The old order of things will pass away and history will be sent in another direction, the direction of peace and of love. God will not ignore the cries of his people. Restoration is on its way, may we be caught in its wake and not crushed under its waves.