The Church is within the world, and yet it can only properly fulfil its function when its ultimate commitment is beyond the comprehension of the world. If the Church does not rest on a point outside the world, then it has no leverage with the world. All its tugging and straining would become just a minor disturbance within the life of the world. The Church has to bear witness to the weakness and folly of a crucified Messiah. That’s where we find our essential ‘raison d’être’ – and it means that we overturn the accepted wisdom of the world. We are to challenge what the world is saying. We are charged with the offering of God’s alternative. But this doesn’t mean that we are to find our safety in separation. Indeed, that kind of otherworldliness is forbidden. We are not to inhabit a ghetto, but to go forth on a mission. And the request is that God will make sure that we are up to the task.
It’s interesting to reflect on what it really means to be the church in the world. We claim the priority of unity, but we’re actually far better at entrenched positions, at divisions and barriers than we are at unity. We stress the value of diversity. Actually, that’s quite right. Diversity is a hugely important part of the kaleidoscope that is the church. In terms of Paul’s famous image of the Church as the body, it is not just a counter to boredom that we should not all be legs, or eyes, or noses, or whatever. It is absolutely essential. But it is very easy to erode the boundary between a broad and embracing diversity and a narrow and excluding difference.
So what are we to be like? One commentator, Stephen Verney, puts it like this: “Like the Father and the Son, they will let go everything and receive everything back from each other. This letting go and receiving back will be the rhythm of their lives; it will be an openness to each other which allows the ambiguity of each one to come into the light, and be accepted, and made whole, and become part of the community.”
The point is that God models how we should be. If I were to ask you to describe God, what are the words that you would choose? I imagine that it would be words like love and grace and holy and forgiving and reconciling. At the beginning of Genesis we read - 1:26 – Then God said, ‘And now we will make human beings; they will be like us and resemble us.’ Let’s not pretend that it isn’t challenging to be like God. It is. Jesus spells out the challenge in Matthew 5. Verse 48 – you must be perfect – just as your Father in heaven is perfect.
We know that will only ever be an aspirational statement. Yet aspirational statements are worth having, so long as they are expressing that to which we truly aspire. I still have in my study a birthday card received from my younger siblings on my 21st. It shows Charlie Brown of the Peanuts cartoons contemplating life and making the comment: ‘There’s no heavier burden than a great potential.’ With God’s help, may we each realise our potential.