Agenda for a Relational People of God

Peter Price

‘When others look at us in a friendly way, we feel alive and vital. When others recognise us just the way we are, we feel fulfilled. And when we feel accepted and affirmed, we are happy, for we human beings need acceptance just as the birds need air and the fish water. Acceptance is the atmosphere of humanity. Where acceptance is lacking, the air becomes thin, our breathing falters, and we languish.’

These words from Jürgen Moltmann[1] define to some extent what ‘Relational Church’ is about. I read and quoted these words at the beginning of a series of conferences that ran over some three years in the 1980’s. Our Area Bishop wanted to encourage churches to take a look at their lives as churches and ask, ‘What does it mean to live together as the people of God?’ As the representatives of parishes came together in groups one thing became abundantly clear as people shared their stories and their lives: living together as the people of God doesn’t work for people who need to build a system.

In its endeavour to be relevant and speak to our times the temptation for the church is to systematise, formulate and structure. Too easily this leads to dogma, discrimination and division. At the core of all the razz ma jazz, competitiveness and confusion we call the church, there lies a simple relational truth enunciated by Jesus: ‘I shall no longer call you servants because the servant does not know what the master is doing. I call you friends because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me. I chose you.’[2] It is because of we are ‘friends of God’ and of one another and we have been ‘chosen’ by Jesus Christ that we exist as ‘church’ at all.

Key then to ‘relational church’ is the acceptance of one another. ‘Accept one another, then, as Christ accepted you, for the glory of God.[3] When we experience friendship, acceptance of ourselves ‘just the way we are ‘and being known and affirmed, ‘we are happy.’ Such acceptance provides the basis for living together, sharing our lives with one another and preparing ourselves to be those for whom the only value of their lives is ‘for others[4].

Through the years I have un-apologetically leaned on Moltmann’s reflection on ‘Community with Others’ – particularly when he offers guidance on just how we move in church life to being a community of acceptance he says: ‘Congregation is a new kind of living together as human beings that affirms:

  • that no one is alone with his or her problems.
  • that no one has to conceal his or her disabilities,
  • that there are not some who have the say and others who have nothing to say.
  • that neither the old nor the little ones are isolated,
  • that bears the other even when it is unpleasant and there is no agreement, and
  • that, finally the one can also at times leave the other in peace when the other needs it.[5]

Mission Audits’ rarely, if ever, began with the ‘Who are we?’ ‘Where have we come from?’ ‘How shall we live if this is who we say we are’ kind of questions. Yet Moltmann’s invitation to ‘relational church’ calls for precisely such reflection. We can only live our lives ‘for others’ when we have discerned how to live holistically with others.

A great challenge facing contemporary Christianity in the West lies in the paradigm shift required to move from the individual to the communal. Individualism puts me first.  The communal asks ‘what is the value of my life, if not for others?’ Individualism is not the same as ‘personal.’  A personal faith emerges from the sense of being chosen. But that ‘chosen-ness’ is in order that we, like Jesus, should live our lives for others.’ Living in such a way calls for ‘relationship’, listening to a God who bids, ‘Look for me where I am.’

In my lifetime there has been a marked shift in emphasis in Christian thinking. This has been summed up most succinctly by Sam Wells, Vicar of St. Martin in the Fields: ‘It’s About Abundant Life, Not Hell Avoidance.’ Such a statement is neat maybe too neat. ‘Abundant life’ in much Western Christianity includes not only having the cake but the right to the icing and cherry on the top: the right to possess homes, possessions, lifestyle and Jesus as we like him on the top.

Abundant life that neglects Jesus’s concern for human suffering and the ease with which discrimination, violence and cruelty manifest themselves in the human condition is naïve. It fails to address how these conditions are daily realities for much of the world. Constructing a doctrine of salvation around sin tends to neglect Jesus’s praxis of seeking the wellbeing (salus) of human beings and communities. Jesus envisioned human liberation (abundant living) as ‘anchored in the experience of the divine as a compassionate God in solidarity with suffering humanity.[6] Only when our vision of ‘relational church’ embraces and pursues ‘abundant life’ for all humanity will hell be avoided. For far too many of God’s children it is our ‘abundant life’ that is making their lives hell.

Christian spirituality has at its heart is the prayer which begins, Our Father in heaven, may your Name be hallowed, may your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Familiarity of religious language whilst not necessarily breeding contempt nevertheless passes over us without much understanding.

Jesus spoke much less about sin than he did about ‘the kingdom (or reign) of God. Many attempts have been made to interpret precisely what Jesus meant. Here are some examples: St. Cyprian (d. 258 A.D) spoke of it as ‘a natural model of equality.’ This has echoes of the Magnificat – the mighty being brought down from their seat and the humble and poor lifted up’. Martin Luther King spoke of kin-dom – all humanity belonging to single kin. The Mennonites talk of beloved community. Pope Paul VI who carried through the recommendations of Vatican 2 described the kingdom as absolute good. Contemporary theologians variously interpretated it: Howard Snyder – Counter System: Walter Wink as Domination free order. John D. Caputo as ‘a poem to what the world would look like if God ruled and not the principalities and powers.’

These insights help our understanding of Jesus’s focus the kingdom of God. It was for its establishment ‘on earth as in heaven; that Jesus encouraged his followers to pray and work. Most people associate Jesus with ‘church’ and exclusively Christianity. This has led to much misunderstanding of both the inclusivity and the universality of Jesus’s vocation; that all (who embrace the kingdom) may be one.[7]

In Aramaic the word Jesus used for kingdom was malkuta. It symbolises a wisdom that nurtures courage to act against the odds, one that heals, empowers, and regenerates. All his actions: prayer in the open air, plucking corn, feeding the hungry, filling fishing boats with fish, ending discrimination, healing the sick. In each and all of these actions lie hidden questions: ‘What did you see? What did you hear? How will you respond?’ Jesus described those who grasped this as having eyes to see, ears to hear.’ Those who did not, or refused so to do, he described as being deaf and blind to the truth of God’s saving justice. When Jesus spoke plainly and prescriptively it was almost always to the religious and political elite. These were those who awarded themselves status and pious separation from the rest of humanity. As in every age there are warnings here against systematisation and advocacy for ‘relationship.’

Aramaic was the language of an agrarian, nomadic people. Those who developed the language knew a closeness to creation, the dark silence of nights brightened with celestial lights and governed by the patterns of seasons. Such folk intuited a God given-ness and presence within the cosmos bringing wisdom that empowered people. It is a wisdom that recognises in creation a resistance towards all that threatens ‘abundant life.’

Today we might look at the aftermath of the Chernobyl Nuclear disaster which appeared to wipe out all living things, yet today the trees are growing, animal life is returning. This is the in-built spirit of renewal and creativity which Jesus calls the kingdom of God.

‘To seek the kingdom of God and God’s saving justice I believe can be translated as: ‘to strive against the odds for the wellbeing of the Earth doing what is right, what is just and best for all its peoples.’ At a personal and communal level few could have put the challenge better than the monk Thomas Merton: the kingdom comes when ‘God begins to live in me not only as my creator, but as my other and true self.’Only as we seek a new way of relationally living together accepting one another as we are, acknowledging that our lives only have value if their content is for others can we respond to the God who invites us to ‘Look for me where I am.’

Relational church’ is about taking what is and submitting it to the spirit of God’s transforming grace. It is about creating the Acceptance (that) is the atmosphere of humanity. Recently I found some helpful tools [8] for encouraging relationship building. Used in conjunction with reflection on Moltmann’s Congregation is a new kind of living together manifesto, what follows might encourage and liberate such in the local church.

The four tools are Resilience, Relinquishment, Restoration and Reconciliation. As we work towards what has not yet been revealed about ourselves, our relationships, our new kind of living together here are some questions for reflection, discussion and action.

Resilience: How do we keep what we really want to keep; what do we most value? What works well and is worth continuing?

Relinquishment: What do we need to let go of so as not to make matters worse? What is unhelpful or destructive? What do we want to stop?

Restoration: What could we bring back to help us with the coming difficulties and tragedies? What would we like to see more of? What skills or knowledge are we missing?

Reconciliation: With what and with whom shall we make peace as we face our common mortality?

As with all restorative work we need to take time. This agenda is not like that of a PCC It is there to question, explore and consider the implications. A guide to whether it is an agenda that liberates or threatens to bind lies in St. Paul’s words in Galatians 5:1 For freedom Christ has set us free. Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.

[1] Jürgen Moltmann The Open Church Invitation to a messianic lifestyle SCM Press. 1978 p.27.

[2] John 15.15-16 Revised New Jerusalem Bible

[3] Romans 15.7. RNJB

[4] Dag Hammarskjöld ‘The only value of a life is its content – for others.’

[5] op cit p.33

[6] Felix Wilfred Concilium SCM Press 2016/1 Journeys of Liberation: Joys and Hopes for the Future pp.13-23

[7] John 17.21. Amplified text mine.

[8] 4R Deep Adaptation, The Anglican Peacemaker May 2022