JESUS IS GOD’S LOVE.
HE GIVES US NEW HEARTS –
TO LAY ASIDE OUR OLD WAYS,
TO BELIEVE AND FOLLOW HIM,
TO LIVE WITH HIM EVERY DAY.
‘Likewise, although the Christian church is, properly speaking, nothing else than the assembly of all believers and saints, yet because in this life many false Christians, hypocrites, and even public sinners remain among the righteous, the sacraments – even though administered by unrighteous priests – are efficacious all the same’ (Augsburg Confession Article 8).
When speaking to the recent online General Pastors Conference, I described the church as the ‘beachhead’ of heaven on earth. If we pay close attention, we will hear the distant surf crashing on its beaches and see the glow of the rising sun on the far horizon heralding the new era of justice, peace and love. ‘Beachhead’ is a military term meaning ‘the area of lodgement which is the first objective of a military force landing on an enemy shore’ (Macquarie Dictionary).
I usually avoid military terms when talking about the church. This may partly be due to the influence of my father, a military man who would never wear his uniform to church. I remember how astonished friends from our congregation were to see him on the parade ground, looking so different to the man they knew.
Since the early fourth century, the institutional church has too frequently been associated with conquest, empire and colonialism. The Roman emperor Constantine was the first of many rulers to implicate Christianity in his political schemes. In medieval times Christian Crusaders claimed to march in the cause of God. In the Great War of 1914–18, each warring country claimed that God was with them.
Historically, the institutional church itself has sought political and military power, sometimes even fielding its own armies.
The Bible also uses military language occasionally, such as St Paul’s description of a Roman soldier in Ephesians 6. Some passages describe God as a victorious ruler marching into a conquered city, an image which, on Palm Sunday, Jesus turned on its head.
Because of my aversion to military terms, I struggle with some popular Christian songs such as ‘Onward Christian soldiers’. ‘Lift high the cross’, a perennial favourite at church gatherings, also uses the language of conquest, as do many songs, traditional and contemporary. Such language can too easily turn into triumphal thoughts about worldly power and conquest.
The church is not here to rule the world but to bring it salvation through our humble Saviour Jesus. Its mission is to share the safety and surety of God’s love. Jesus has conquered sin and evil, even though, for the time being, they still wreak havoc, destroying lives and God’s good creation. In the church, which in the proper sense is the assembly of saints, Jesus brings us to a safe place of forgiveness, restoration, acceptance, love, compassion and peace. That’s the sense in which I believe it is a beachhead of heaven on earth.
At the same time, we know that the external church is not – and never will be – a perfect society. It is made up of genuine believers and hypocrites. Jesus himself said that he did not come to call the righteous, but sinners (Matthew 9:12). Even true believers are sinners as well as saints. God has brought us sinner-saints into the holy Christian church, not only so that we can be safe, but also so that we can be his beachhead in the battle against every force that is opposed to God.
The image of a beachhead can be helpful. Through the church, God is reclaiming territory that had been under the control of the enemy. In the church, through word and sacrament, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus rescues his people from sin, death, and evil. Here God prepares us to receive Jesus when he returns in glory to judge the living and the dead. That’s awesome. Praise be to God!
Rev John Henderson
Bishop Lutheran Church of Australia