The Church is different from that which is not the Church. While this has not been true in all times and places, it seems to be an important aspect of the Church's identity that it serve in some way as a contrast society. The first Christians professed that Jesus is Lord and this meant that Caesar was not. The ancient manual of Christian ethics and church discipline, the Didache (from the late 1st and and early 2nd centuries) taught that "there are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways." Christianity was not - and is not - a matter of being dedicated to some grand ideas or particular theories about the way the world really works, but rather "the Way." Belonging to Jesus looks like some concrete commitments that mean something in the real world of human bodies and the way our lives are organized.
This has been the understanding that has driven the monastic impulse for the greatest part of the Church's history. When the Church at large in a particular culture gets so comfortable with its relationship to the state or the values of its host culture that it begins to lose the distinctive contours of its own story, some Christians will set out and ask themselves - and God - the question, "What does it mean to concretely belong to Jesus and live according to his story at this time and place in history?"
The stories we tell and seek to embody in our common life are Jesus stories - stories of a man who was God, who healed, exorcised, forgave, and prophesied. A church that does not do these same things begins to lose its coherence as a community that has continuity with the Jesus story. Telling and practicing this story will present lives that are lived in contrast to the stories and bodily practices of the Empire.
The Empire says that it's politics are all important, and that appropriate participation in them will save you. So does the Church. They aren't both right.
The Empire - and I'm not talking about the U.S. Government, but rather the entire Western consumerist construction - tells a story about abundant life that includes a spouse, 2.5 kids and a white picket fence that surrounds a house that looks like a Pottery Barn catalog. I live in the promised land of the Empire - the suburbs.
Why is it that people who are coming out of there and going back - the educated people, the ones with good jobs - just as lonely and unhappy as everybody else?
I'm out of time this morning - tomorrow I'll write on how and why this story is failing the people around me, and what we're doing about it.
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