The Church: All of Creation, Seen from the End – Bradley Jersak on John Behr

A few years ago, I asked myself how I’d like to continue my studies, both in terms of professional development and also deepening my spiritual journey on the Jesus Way. I’m grateful to say that path now includes adopting Fr. John Behr of Aberdeen University as a valued teacher and friend. Although we share the Orthodox tradition, he’s also fond of saying, “I like to be provocative.” Indeed he can be. Case in point: in a group email with my fellow Open Table panelists (a circle of friends that is currently co-teaching our way through the Book of Revelation), he responded to a question I had about the Church.

My observation was that the Church is comprised not only of those people who chosen to follow Christ but is comprised of the union of “the Spirit and the Bride” (Revelation 22), who say, “Come,” in invitation both to the thirsty in need of the fountain of life (Christ) and to Christ himself. Father John responded as even often does, “Yes, but even more…” (which I love). He said,

    “Like Paul [Young], I can no longer see the Church as a select group of people called out from unbelievers. Rather, the Church is the whole of creation seen eschatalogically; from which we already see islands in the present, called out from ‘the world’ (in the negative sense).

I share that for readers to ponder. But I will offer my understanding (with no claim to mastery of the author’s intent) with a bit of commentary on the key phrases.

 “I can no longer see the Church as a select group of people called out from unbelievers.”

Behr begins with what he can no longer see. Many of us tend to see the world of people divided into two groups: believers and unbelievers. And we imagine that the believers comprise the Church and are set apart from the rest of the population in kind of an in-out and us-them division. It tends to get worse from there, where we categorize and distinguish the saved and the unsaved, or the elect and the damned, or the children of God and the spiritual zombies. It’s easy enough to do: just check on who is baptized and who is not, or who joins a local congregation and attends services and who does not, or yet again, who identifies as Christian and who does not. In all of these cases, we have two groups of people. And yes, if we’re proof-texting Scripture, you can find verses to undergird that worldview. But Behr doesn’t see it that way. Not any longer. Instead, he says,

“Rather, the Church is the whole of creation seen eschatalogically;…”

Meaning? Following early church teachers such as Origen of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa, who direct us back to the New Testament apostles Paul and John, Behr is “reading from the End.” That is, he begins by reading those eschatological texts that describe the End, or the telos, or the “end of the ages.” How do texts like 1 Corinthians 15 or Philippians 2 or Revelation 22 foresee the End? The New Testament foresees that at the ‘end of time,’ every eye shall see Christ, every knee will bow to Christ, every tongue will confess Christ, and God will be all in all. And so the ‘summing up of all things in Christ’ (Ephesians 1) and ‘reconciliation of all things, visible and invisible’ in Christ (Colossians 1) and the ‘restoration of all things’ in Christ (Acts 3) extends not only to a select group of people among the greater mass of humanity but encompass all of creation, without remainder. This is the ‘endgame’ of creation… the ekklesia (gathering, church) of all that is in Christ, handed over to his Father, who is God, all and in all.

So Behr’s first principle here is to see the Church ‘from the end,’ or eschatologically. If that’s the Church is the telos of all Creation at the telos (end) and in the telos (Christ), what about now?

“from which we already see islands in the present,…”

While the Church seen eschatologically includes all of Creation, today were are still on the Way there, still in process, still growing, still unfurling. My understanding is that the islands to which Fr. John may refer to those faith communities that are even now participating in the ‘the kingdom of God,’ which is to say ‘God’s presence in communion’ or the ‘eternal life’ of knowing Christ now, and more specifically, ‘following the Lamb’ in cruciform (self-giving) love. Or as the Apostle Paul said, we are those “upon whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). In the Incarnation, the True Light has come into this world (John 1:9) to colonize the world with light (a metaphor for divine love). The true light is already shining and, to our surprise perhaps, the darkness is already fading away (1 John 2:8). Apparently, the Church now is wherever we see the true light, the love of God, illumining the world. I don’t personally assume this is exclusive to local Christian churches, nor would I presume that all such churches even welcome the light. Not for me to judge. But I do recognize islands of light shining all around that prefigured the transfigured universe at the End.

“…called out from ‘the world’ (in the negative sense).”

Now, these islands of light actually are distinct and they are ‘called out,‘ but distinct from what? Called out from what? Fr. John no longer sees it as one group of people called out from the world of people but instead, islands of people called out from ‘the world’ (in the negative sense). What is ‘the world’ in the negative sense? This requires a careful reading of Scripture since we read about ‘the cosmos’ (world) in two senses.

The positive sense of ‘world’ is the whole world of people (and creation) that God creates and loves and to whom the Father sends the only begotten Son. Christ came into that world, not to condemn it but to save it by arresting its descent into non-being (perishing). This is the ‘world’ of John 3:16-17.

But the negative sense of ‘world’ to which Fr. John refers is that ‘world system’ that hates the light and that we’re told not to love (1 John 2:15-17). That world is not the good world (creation) that God made, nor is it the beloved world (people) for whom Christ died. Rather, the negative ‘world’ is defined by John is about stuff like the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and pride of life. That world, he says, is passing away. “But those who do the will of God abide forever.”

So the islands of light that eventually expand to include all of creation, are not those who have segregated themselves from their fellow human neighbors. Even Jesus didn’t avoid sinners (hedonists OR religious). Rather, the call is to reorient our desire toward the light of Christ and to turn from the darkness of those systems opposed to God’s beauty, truth, and justice – hostile to love. As we hear and heed that call, we’re becoming the Church, which is also to say, seeing everyone we meet eschatologically (from the End) as brothers and sisters and as fellow sojourners on that same ascent, at whatever pace, being transformed into the Bride of Christ.

P.S. I received a priceless follow-up response from Fr. John after he reviewed this article:

The more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to use a different image than ‘islands’ (that was from Revelation): Isn’t it really like the signs of new life in Spring: the old dead world, cold and hard, is warmed up by Christ, and even now, as we pass from winter to spring, we can see new life bursting all around us, patches of snowdrops and crocuses etc.
Yes, we can certainly say that the (Orthodox Christian) communities are where we find that life, but it is bursting up throughout the world. It is certainly necessary to coordinate and ‘regulate’ these communities, to prevent them going astray and to facilitate further growth; and yes that needs order (and so offices etc)
But, any attempt to say that the Church can be defined by institution, organization, offices etc, rather than by the new life, is simply wrong.

 

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Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More