Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Among other images, Lesslie Newbigin states that the Church is a sign of the kingdom of God. This is a powerful image, but I feel we miss something of its power because of the way we use the word “sign” in modern times.
Today, we primarily think of signs in one of two ways. Either…
1. A sign is an object that points to a destination. For example, a certain sign on the highway may instruct me to keep right if I want to drive to Minneapolis.
2. A sign is an object that names something present. For example, I know I’ve arrived at the theater when I see the sign above its entrance.
To be sure, both of those meanings are true when we refer to the Church as a sign of the kingdom of God. There is a not-yet side of the kingdom of God. It is something that is present in some way, but it is also something to which we point, that we will reach some time in the future. But, second, the Church is also to be a presence that names something already present—that is, the kingdom of God—for Jesus announced the in-breaking of the kingdom of God in the here and now. It is “at hand,” he said. It is imminent and available to us.
That said, if we only had those two options from which to choose in amplifying the meaning of what Newbigin states about the Church, we would prefer the latter for the Church is indeed to be a family that points to something that is present. The kingdom of God is on our doorstep. We can access its dramatic power with but an act of faith that steps into it.
In either case, you will notice that the sign is to be distinguished from the object to which it refers. The sign is one thing. The kingdom is another.
Classically speaking, however, signs and referents were more closely intertwined. A sign in the ancient world participated in the substance of that to which it pointed. For example, we know that fire is present by the signs of light, heat or smoke. Though neither one of these on their own are fire in itself, each of them participates in the quality of fire-ness.
The word sign as we’ve used it in our first two examples do not provide this aspect, however. The sign pointing me to a city does not participate in the intrinsic city-ness of that place nor does the sign above the theater participate in the dramatic action that takes place inside.
The Church should be more like a sign in the classic sense of the word. We should be signs pointing to the reign of God even as arms that embrace another signify the tangible, immediate presence of love. We should be known as those who laugh, not in ridicule, but for sheer joy for is there any greater sign of joy than a still body resurrected by the tremors of laughter? We should be those eyes, once dead and empty, now brightened as signs pointing to hope that is both seated in the future but imbued power in the present. We are to signify that hope that is beyond time, but that makes itself known in time. We are those who waken in the morning and rise to work, marking the hours with meaningful labor and rest, so as to manifest the timelessness of eternity.
Let us live today as signs that participate in the reality of that to which we point: the very kingdom of God.