I wrote this piece for LWR’s blog on the church in the world:
The church is more than a building. It is the body of Christ called to serve the world. We gather once a week (give or take) to help us be the church together because our lives in this world matter. Discussion about the church’s role in the world has often been relegated to spiritual work, reminding us that we are to be “in the world, but not of the world,” echoing Jesus’ words in John 17, “they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” So we focus on worship instead of service, forgetting that in Hebrew, they are the same word (‘abodah).
I wonder if we hear or interpret Jesus wrongly when turn his prayer into an excuse; “we are to be in the world but not of the world” is used as a holiness code that was never quite intended. Of course we do not belong to the world, we belong to God, who made the world. I cannot help but confess that being in the world but not of the world denies the biblical story of creation and cuts short what it means to belong to God.
In the creation story of Genesis 2-3, the one that paints an image of dirt under the divine fingernails (HT Terence Fretheim), we read — through poetry or truth or a bit of both — that man was formed from the earth and woman from man. And in the story of the originating sin we learn, “dust we are and to dust we will return” (Genesis 3:19). We are both in the world and of the world. It is in the fabric of our creation. It is written in our divine-formed DNA.
Of course it is poetry; we are made up of millions of molecules and centuries of cells that have evolved into the current species known as human.
Of course it is more than poetry; this story bears truth that we rely on the very earth we stand on as if it was our own body. Our very lives depend not only on our environment but also on our communities, other dust-formed bodies and souls, for sustenance, growth and companionship. The church as a community of faith points us back out into the world to stand in the midst of suffering and brokenness, joy and awe to be a part of God’s work to restore and renew all that is in and of the world.
We do not belong to the world, we belong to God. The purpose of the church, the body of Christ, is to love the world that God so loved and enter into it so fully that when we return to the dust we return to ourselves, knowing that the very God who formed us from the dust will call us from the dust.