by Tom Greggs.
I find myself this month at the very end of the first part of a fifteen year project; it has in fact taken me seven years to get this far. More accurately, I’ve been working actively on this part of the project for seven years, but thinking, preaching and writing about related issues for much longer. Seven years ago, I decided to embark on a three volume Ecclesiology (a theological account of the church). I am just putting the final editorial touches on the first of these three volumes which should be finally published in about a year’s time. Somewhat to my surprise (shock perhaps!), the volume is very long—280,000 words just for volume one!
But after all that repetitive strain injury from typing, I find that there is one thing above all else that time and time again I want still to say and it is this: the grace of God’s work of salvation involves not only putting humanity right with Godself but also (and equally through the grace of God) God’s work of salvation seeks to put us right with one another.
The origins of sin arise from the human breaking a relationship with God through disobedience: in the fall story, Adam and Eve disobey the one command God gives to them in the context of God’s superabundant grace in creation; they eat the forbidden fruit. But the immediate consequence and effect of this act, even before the description of the rupture in the relationship with God that follows, is a pronounced awareness of individualism as a primary identity. This individualism is accompanied by a sense of the strangeness of the other, a relationship of fear towards the other and actions of blame of the other in comparison to the self: sin causes the heart to turn in on itself, and this turning in on itself alters not only the relationship with God but also other humans.
Sin is the prioritisation of the self, one might say, over the divine and created others. Having eaten the fruit, the man and woman understand themselves to be naked in front of each other, and cover themselves, aware and ashamed of their alterity and difference (Gen. 3:7). Furthermore, having hidden himself from God because of his nakedness when God walks in the garden, Adam immediately seeks to divert blame away from himself and toward Eve, and indeed through this to God: the fault (according to him) cannot be his, and self-preservation of his individual self over and against the other (even the most intimate other) transcends unity and co-humanity and relationship to God who gives all things. The woman then also redirects blame away from herself toward the serpent (Gen. 3:13). Sin alters the relationship that exists not only between the human and God, but also between human beings themselves. Because the human no longer seeks to be orientated on God and to share in the good gifts of God’s grace, the human shifts the focus of her orientation onto herself.
To overcome this situation of sin and its effects requires divine salvific grace. So often, we think God sets us right with Godself, and we are the ones in creation who work on the human level to sort things in our own human strength. But that is a form of ecclesial Pelagianism. Humans in our lapsed condition always tend, not towards the overflowing love of God towards all that which is not God, but towards the self-preservation of the individual in the heart turned in on itself. It is an act of the grace of God, indeed a participating in that grace for the human to be able to be orientated towards another—both God and other human beings.
Even in the church’s simul iustus et peccator (and often frustrating!) state, we need to remember that through God’s grace, we are given community in the church and given the other in creation. And we should seek to form community not based on utility or on attraction, but on the very givenness of the other person as a fellow member of the body of Christ. We should seek to form community because in that we share and move in the movements of God’s grace, being orientated towards the other in creation. In community, our hearts are turned outwards to the other who is also beloved of God, and we learn what the movements of grace that God has shown us are. And for this to take place, for us to become the church as an anticipation of the Kingdom, we must pray ever and again for the grace of God to set right our relations with one another.
Let us give thanks for God’s grace in giving us communion and ask and rely ever more on God to help us to move within the movements of God’s own grace in the life of the community of the church. Even after 280,000 words, this is still a wonderful thing to meditate upon: the other through grace becomes for me a locus of God’s salvation as God puts right my relationship with them alongside my relationship with God through the Holy Spirit’s work of incorporating me actively into Christ’s body.