Dwarfing the Church!
In The Last Battle C. S. Lewis portrays a group of dwarves in Aslan’s country (heaven). Now these dwarves don’t love Aslan or support Narnia. They’re only for themselves and committed solely to preventing themselves from being taken in by and manipulated by any other party, be it Aslan (the Christ figure) or Tash (the pagan deity of the Calormenes, Narnia’s arch-enemy).
Surprisingly, it is just these dwarves who find themselves in Aslan’s country.
Well, almost. They are in Aslan’s country surrounded by glorious beauty and splendor, extravagant provision, people who care for and about them, and, of course, Aslan himself. Yet, focused and turned in on themselves, the dwarves only see themselves scrunched into the corner of a smelly, nasty stable. Closed to the beauty and glory around them, they sit dirty and blinded in the dark, experiencing Aslan’s feast as dirty stable grub, able only to hear Aslan’s call to them as a frightening roar, and their community a self-protective, other-suspicious group of malcontents.
Let’s take this image out of Lewis’ context of final things and consider it as an image of the church today. I suggest the dwarves are like many of our churches today.
St. Paul tells us that we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places, that is, his place of victory (Eph.2:6) just as the dwarves are in Aslan’s country with all its glories. We live in and from the new age his resurrection has inaugurated. This is our new reality, the only reality in fact. To live as if this new age has not dawned is to remain mired in the very unreality from which Christ saved us!
Yet, though our eyes have been opened to “see” - perceive, participate in - this new reality (Ephesians 1:18), too often the church remains blind to it. Instead we continue live, plan, and worship as if Jesus has not been raised and “all things made new” (2 Corinthians 5:17) or that “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18) has been given to him. Even though the world as we once knew it remains, it is passing away and the future belongs to Christ. Even amid the debris of the old age, Christ’s church is to be even now “light and salt” (Matthew 5:14ff.) announcing and embodying the new age, the new reality of Christ. To continue to live among the debris as if it is our reality, as did the dwarves, is to condemn the church to unreality.
Baptism inducts us into the reality of Christ’s new creation. In baptism we receive a new Father, new siblings, new identity, new inheritance, new resources, a new vocation, and a new way of seeing the world. This sevenfold newness constitutes our new reality.
In baptism we are cleansed. In the early church a candidate for baptism would approach the baptismal pool, strip off their old clothes, go under the water, arise, and on exiting the pool receive a new white robe symbolizing the new world they had entered. Let’s call this baptism, the beginning that never ends, for it marks us forever as those who serve and journey with Christ through this life and into the next.
To don our old clothes again after receiving baptism, that is not living out of the truth of our baptism, is akin to dwarves sitting in their dirty clothes in the little corner of Aslan’s country to which they had condemned themselves. Such can be of no use to Christ’s purposes of extending Christ’s reign across more and more of the globe.
Christ not only bathes us in preparation for serving him and his kingdom purposes, he lavishes us with a feast to nourish and sustain us at every moment of his service to him. We call this the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, and Holy Communion. The dwarves too receive a lavish feast from Aslan. They cannot experience it is anything other than stale leftovers and stable rubbish.
In the church we too do despite to Christ’s meal but in a different way. We treat it as too holy or special to do too often (or do not want to deal with the practicalities of preparing the meal each week) and thus rob ourselves of Christ’s gift to us through the observance of this meal.
He gives himself to us in the bread and wine to be handled, shared, and ingested by his people. “The Eucharist,” writes Peter Leithart, “is not merely a ‘sign’ to be examined, dissected, and analyzed but a rite whose enactment disciplines the church in the virtues of Christian living and forms the church and thereby molds the world into something more like the kingdom it signifies.” This is, as he puts it, “how the Eucharist makes the church.” Harold Daniels summarizes the impact of sharing the Eucharist regularly with a striking image: “It transforms us into icons of Jesus’ compassion in the world seeking to heal it of its brokenness. This is the mark of living in the reign of God into which we are called, and which is yet to be in its fullness.”
How does it do this? Here’s a small sampling of ways.
-In a world of alienated and lonely people, we learn the grace of undeserved welcome and friendship at the table of the Eucharist.
-In a world wounded and terrorized by violence, we learn to make peace at the table of the Eucharist.
-In a world discouraged and haunted by futility, we learn hope at the table of the Eucharist.
-In a world reckless and wasteful of creation’s resources, we learn stewardship at the table of the Eucharist.
To eat this meal once a month or once a quarter (or less) signals it really means nothing much to us (no matter how “special” we think it is) and/or an abysmal understanding of what it is. We quickly miss our physical nourishment and suffer its effects. But most of us don’t even seem to miss the spiritual nourishment Jesus gave us to sustain ourselves as faithful followers. Nor do we realize how emaciated and desiccated we have grown as a result.
Perhaps the most alarming (or what should be the most alarming) part of this image is the dwarves’ response to Aslan’s voice. They hear only a fearful roar when he speaks. Far too many of us, even in the church, hear something similar from God (or at least who we take God to be) and it frightens us too! The prevalence of a terrible mistake about the Bible’s God, confusing him, like the dwarves, with a deity I call Goddddd make many unable to hear God, the true God, at all. Goddddd – God distant, domineering, demanding, disapproving, and damning – is this false deity and few of us want anything to do with him.
This is the deep tragedy of the dwarf-like character of so many churches today. We do make known the God we believe in, be it the Goddddd or the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. When those around us perceive and experience the church as an insulated, self-absorbed, grumpy, non-caring, judgmental folk who can’t get along with themselves much less outsiders, well, there you have Goddddd and a dwarf-like church!
To know God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent is the gift of eternal life (Jn.17:3). The only way to steer clear of Goddddd is to take seriously that Jesus Christ is the face of the true, living, and loving God. Any putative deity that does not look like him is a false one. We only know God through Jesus. In fact, that’s the most distinctive thing the church has to say to the world. We don’t proclaim the godlikeness of Jesus (as if we already knew who and what God is) but rather the Jesus-likeness of God! And Goddddd can’t stand in the presence of the Jesus-like God of the Bible!
All this is tied together and interrelated. A living relationship to God through Jesus (in the power of the Spirit), a rich and frequent sacramental life in the church, living in and out of the new reality birthed by Jesus’ resurrection and continuing life as risen Lord, all this will render us a people who bear faithful witness to its Lord, winsome testimony to the world, and active work for the peace and justice of God’s shalom. Otherwise, watch for the dwarves (metaphorically, of course)!