The Church of the Living God

by Wallace M. Alston, Jr.

The Rev. Wallace M. Alston, Jr., is the Director, Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, NJ, USA.

The following article appeared in the Bangalore Theological Forum, Volume 34, Number 1, June 2002, page, 35-42. Bangalore Theological Forum is published by The United Theological College, Bangalore, India. Used by permission. It was delivered at the Valedictory Service of the United Theological College, Bangalore, on March 24th, 2002. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The church of the living God needs men and women who will expect great things from God and attempt great things in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

I count it an honor and a privilege to have been invited to be with you this evening, to have been accorded an opportunity to strengthen the relationship between the United Theological College in Bangalore and the theological communities of Princeton, and to participate in this Valedictory Service. I extend to you for whom this service marks both an end and a beginning my sincere congratulations on your accomplishments to date and my heartfelt prayers as you enter upon new ventures of ministry to Christ and his church. Having served as a pastor of Christian congregations for over 30 years prior to becoming the Director of the Center of Theological Inquiry, I feel qualified to assure you, if this be your call, that the ministry of a Christian congregation is the most challenging and the most rewarding, the most demanding and the most fulfilling, vocation in all the world. The opportunities afford the pastor of a church to stand in the matrix where meaning and materiality intersect, to identify the nuances and to illumine the consequences of grace in the midst of life, will be both numerous and profound. My hope and prayer for you might well borrow the words with which W. H. Auden concluded his Christmas Oratorio: For the Time Being.

He is the Way.

Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;

You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.

Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;

You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.

Love Him in the World of the Flesh;

And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

Now, "The Church of the Living God."

Anyone who reads the letters of the Apostle Paul cannot help being struck by the fact that Paul had a high doctrine of the church. Paul could become terribly discouraged about the church at times, but he could not deny the conviction that the church is part of the Gospel, that its origin is rooted and grounded in the will and purposes of God, and that in the end, though the gates of hell prevail against it, the church will not be denied its destiny.

Needless to say, many people today do not share Paul’s high doctrine of the church. Many who once loved the church and championed its cause in the public square have become discouraged if not disillusioned with it. At least, it is so in Europe and the United States . . . you must tell me how is it here. In fact, some people have become so skilled at criticizing the church for its failures, its inconsistencies, its divisions, and its uncertain prospects that they neither see nor say anything good about it at all. To be "spiritual" is in these days, especially among the young, whereas to belong to the church is somewhere between "slightly embarrassing" and "out of the question altogether."

What a contrast that is. this depleted sense of the church, to the high doctrine of the church represented by the Apostle Paul! Paul believed in the church . . . or we might better say, Paul believed the church. That is, he believed, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, that the church exists, that it is held in and sustained by God’s almighty hand, and that it has a future in which he, by grace, had been included.

What’s more, Paul believed the church at a time when there was much less to show for it than there is today. Small in number, the church had no money to speak of, no buildings, no prestige in the community. It was often and in many places the object of ridicule and scorn, if not of persecution. Yet in one letter after another, Paul spoke of the church in the language of devotion, using words one might use to speak of mother or father, wife or husband, lover or dearest friend. Paul loved the church; he spoke of it in terms of endearment. And we might well ask why. What was it about the church that elicited from Paul such love? What is there about it that elicits our love on this Valedictory evening? I want to spend the next few minutes thinking about these two questions, and to guide our thoughts in doing so I want to focus on those great words written by Paul, or someone under his influence. . . I Timothy 3:15 . . . "the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth."

Those thirteen words . . . "the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth". . . identify two aspects of the church, both of which are important for any understanding of it, and each of which merits our attention on an occasion such as this. On the one hand, they speak of the church as stable and solid, something on which you can lean, something capable of bearing the weight of a life . . . a pillar upon which a foundation can be built, a bulwark of protection and defense for those seeking refuge from harm. On the other hand, the text suggests just the opposite without ever contradicting itself, when it identifies the church as dynamic, flexible, always in process, on the move in company with a God who neither slumbers nor sleeps. "The church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth."

Now let’s look more closely at these two aspects of the church, and let’s do so for the sake of convenience in reverse order.

1. First, the church as "the pillar and bulwark of the truth." What does that mean?

That the church has the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, in its doctrines and creeds; that there is no truth to be found anywhere else; that we must believe without question what the church believes about God, Jesus, the resurrection, eternal life? That was not how Jesus treated either truth or people.

Martin Luther once told of a peasant who was asked by a stranger what he believed. "I believe what the church believes," the peasant replied, in response to which Luther said that the man could not possibly be saved! No one can believe for another person, just as no one can die for another person. Each of us must work out our own salvation with fear and trembling; each of us must give account for the hope that is in us, and no one can do it for us.

And yet there is a sense in which being Christian does mean "believing what the church believes." We do not have to begin "de novo" in every new generation, as if we were the first to come to grips with the claims and consequences of Christian faith and life. We are the beneficiaries of a long history of Christian believing and living. We have the faith of the church through the ages to guide, correct, and strengthen us against the distortions that our natures so willingly design. We not only have the testimony of the church beneath us as a pillar on which to build the foundation of our lives; we also have it as a bulwark to which to retreat when we grow weary and doubtful, faint of heart and slack of soul.

In fact, you and I have far more cause than Paul to rejoice in the church as "the pillar and bulwark of the truth." For we have beneath and behind us now, not 40 or 50 years but 2,000 years of Christian experience and conviction on which to reply and by which to test our own. "We are not the first to cope with this," wrote a missionary in Egypt of the problems he faced. Those "who really had a hard time were the people in the first centuries when there was no church history. We have only to look up the early Fathers to see that our troubles have been survived before. Blessed be God for history."

It will be increasingly incumbent upon the church in this increasingly pluralistic, multi-cultural, globalized world to recall and reclaim its confessional history if it is to be the "pillar and bulwark of the truth" in the future that it was in the past. What that confessional history is defies any brief summary, but it is possible to call to mind some of the great and familiar texts that have borne it from one generation to the next for some two thousand years. Texts, such as:

Genesis 1:1. . . "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."

John I:1f . . . "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth."

Psalm 23. . . "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. . . even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me."

Micah 6:8 . . . "He has shown you, O mortal one, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"

John 3:16 . . . "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life."

I Corinthians 15 . . . "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve."

Romans 5:1. . . "Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."

Mark 2.5 . . . "My little child, your sins are forgiven."

John 14 . . . "Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you . . . . that where I am, there you may be also."

Philippians 4:7. . . "And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus."

Once, while thumbing through my grandmother’s Bible, I found those words underlined in pencil. . . "And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus". . . and a note written in the margin in her own hand, some eight years after her husband, my grandfather, died. The note reads: "This peace passing all understanding came to me the next morning after David died and I felt I could stand it. It never left me. This is June 12, 1944."

These texts are arbitrarily chosen, I grant you. You might well identify others. They are, however, a fair summary of the truth upon which the existence of the church rests, the word the church has to speak that will not be spoken if the church does not speak it, the word that contemporary people, despite all of the attractions and distractions thrown up by contemporary culture, still long to hear. It is "the pillar and bulwark of the truth," which has enabled men and women to live with grace, serenity, and a fair measure of "grit" amid the manifold vicissitudes of life, and to face faith’s last and severest test, death.

Justin Martyr, the 2nd century apologist, declared that Jesus Christ "is the Reason of which every race of man partakes. Those who lived in accordance with Reason are Christians, even though they were called godless." In this sense, Christian faith can in principle encompass all truth, since ultimately all truth is from God. Christian faith is open to . . . indeed, welcomes . . . interdisciplinary and inter-faith dialogue, not only because it believes it has something to share, but because it knows it has much to learn from the various intellectual disciplines and other religions, as well as from the developments of a technological and electronic society. Modern knowledge can enrich and deepen Christian understanding if and when the church is clear about its own identity and normative convictions. Christians since Nicaea have claimed that Jesus is the "final" revelation of God, not because God has ceased to reveal himself, and not because truth is not to be found elsewhere, but in the sense that any other revelation or truth-claim is most clearly seen and understood in the light of Jesus Christ. This is part of what it means to be Christian: to understand modern scientific, social, and cultural achievements, including the insights and conviction of other religions, in the light of Jesus Christ.

This discerning faith, this continuing process of faithful discernment, carried on in an atmosphere of profound respect and gratitude for the other, is our heritage, bequeathed to us in the providence of God by the church. And we are its trustees, with a fiduciary responsibility to the future, to see that it is passed on with our love to generations yet to come.

But that is only half the story, half the text.

2. The other half refers to the church as "the church of the living God."

And that is the part of the text that causes us no little discomfort. That is the part that we cannot entirely nail down or contain in our institutional structures, strategies, and processes.

The church of the living God . . . who said "let it be" and everything that it was; who created people of every race, region, and religion . . . not Christians only . . . in his own image: who wills the life, health, and well-being of all human beings . . . the living God, who led an oppressed people out of the land of bondage with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night; who, through the law and the prophets promised and demanded justice for all who are poor, powerless, excluded, and oppressed . . . the living God, who emptied the tomb on Easter morning, raised Jesus from the dead, and thereby began a revolution of hope and expectation that not even death can extinguish . . . the living God, who endowed the church with so powerful a Spirit that it literally out-thought and outlived the ancient world; who has from time to time so shaken the foundations of the church that it has been radically reformed and renewed . . . . the living God, who is active and at work in our own time no less than in previous times, making old things new, bringing into being that which does not exist, as the One with whom you and I, as well as all peoples and princes of peoples, daily have to do. The living God!

So, "why do people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute?" asks the American novelist, Annie Dillard.

"On the whole, I do not find Christians outside the catacombs sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return" (Teaching Stones to Talk, pp. 40-41).

The sin of the church, according to Annie Dillard, is the absence of expectancy in its life and witness, the failure to take adequate account of what the living God is contemporaneously doing in the world to bring his reign to visibility in, with, and under the affairs of the earth; the practical denial of the trustworthiness of the Father, the efficacy of the Son, and the agency of the Holy Spirit in personal and public life.

Simply put, the faith which Jesus confers is faith that the living God cares for people in the order of nature and in the processes of history. His words declare in language that even a child can understand that the structures of nature and the processes of history are open to the grace of God. And not only that God cares for people, but that God does things with and for people . . . and not only for people one-by-one, but for whole groups, tribes, systems, nations, and cultures. Simply put, what this means is that there are no dead-end streets in personal or public life in which sin and evil have the last word, no enclosures from which there is no exit. Grace lives and is active in the midst of life, not merely as a fact of the past to which we look back, but as the determinative factor to which we can look forward. That is to say, a high doctrine of the church, to say nothing of the Christian hope for the world, is shot-through with eschatology!

Is this not what we see as we watch that strange figure riding into Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover. Jesus had wept over Jerusalem, but Jerusalem had rejected him. He loved those people, but in the end they crucified him. They all forsook him and fled. He could have turned his back on them; He could have taken his disciples into the wilderness, after the fashion of the Essenes, and created a monastic retreat of study, prayer, and waiting for the last day to dawn. Or he could have become the charismatic leader of the Zealots, taken up the sword, and won for himself the title of master of the city.

What he did was neither of these things. What he did was to choose for his moment of truth the festival of Passover, the moment of maximum national feelings, when thoughts of a mighty deliverance for Israel were uppermost in people’s minds. What he did was to choose for his entry, not a warhorse or a chariot but a mount that would call to mind ancient prophesy of a king who would come in lowliness to claim his kingdom. What he did was to challenge the powers and principalities that had regularly usurp God’s rightful rule over personal and public life. Then he ascended the throne that was rightfully his. The throne was a cross, but it was, and still is, his throne. And on that cross "the ruler of this world" was dealt the mortal blow and the powers and principalities were disarmed once and for all.

Surely Palm Sunday is to be the controlling image for our thinking about the mission of the church and the task of ministry today. Leslie Newbigin, often spoke of the central role of the Christian congregation in mission and the urgent need to equip ministers whose primary task will be the enabling of grass-roots participation in mission. "The only hermeneutic of the gospel," he said, "is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it."

As one committed to the unity of the church and to every possible ecumenical expression of that unity. I would not want to limit the hermeneutical occasion to the -congregation only. It is the church, in every configuration of its gathering and scattering, that is called to the hermeneutical. But Newbigin was on target, it seems to me, when he identified the task of ministry as that of leading the church as a whole in mission to the world as a whole, to claim its public life as well as the personal lives of all its people for God’s rule. He was right to stress the pastoral importance of equipping the church by means of preaching, liturgical leadership, teaching, pastoral care, and church administration, to understand and to fulfill this mission through the faithfulness of its members in their daily work. And it that is to be seriously undertaken it will mean training and equipping the church to be a corporate follower of Jesus in its confrontation of the principalities and powers which he disarmed on his cross. And it will mean sustaining the church in bearing the cost of this confrontation.

There is a story of a medieval Pope, standing with a Cardinal inside the Vatican, watching wagons of treasure pass by on their way to the papal treasury. The Cardinal, thinking of the story in Acts where Peter and John heal the lame beggar, says: "The time is past, Holy Father, when the church could say, ‘Silver and gold have I none."’ To which the old Pope sadly replies, "Past also is the time when the church could say to a lame beggar, ‘In the name of Jesus, rise up and walk."’

Was he right? Is that true about the church, about your church? Are the best days of the church all in the past? Our answer will largely depend on who we believe God is and what we are prepared to expect, whether we believe that God is the living God, or whether we are like those "Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls," of whom the poet E E Cummings said, "they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead."

The church of the living God needs men and women who know who it is with whom they have to do when they say, "I believe." The church of the living God needs men and women who will expect great things from God and attempt great things in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

My prayer for you is that you are, and will continue to be, "the church of the living God," in this difficult time and strategic place, and that in so being you will fashion a compelling, courageous, consistent witness to the truth that still sets people free.

God bless and keep you, now and forever Amen