The ministry of the Church as the Body of Christ in the world is the same as the ministry of Christ. The ministry of Christ is the ministry of a servant in the world and for the world--a servant of the world in the name of God.Like Christ the Christian is called to be "a servant in the world" and "a servant of the world in the name of God."
What does that look like? Stringfellow continues with one of those passages of his that routinely takes your breath away:
Perhaps it is helpful to notice a few things about the ministry of Christ. One is that the ministry of Christ is a ministry of great extravagance--of a reckless, scandalous expenditure of His life for the sake of the world's life. Christ gives away His life. The world finds new life in His life and His gift of His life to the world. His is not a very prudential life, not a very conservative life, not a very cautious life, not--by ordinary standards--a very successful life.Preach it, brother Stringfellow.
He shunned no one, not even adulterers, not even tax collectors, not even neurotics and psychotics, not even those tempted to suicide, not even alcoholics, not even poor people, not even beggars, not even lepers, not even those who ridiculed Him, not even those who betrayed Him, not even His own enemies. He shunned no one.
The words that tell of the ministry of Christ are words of sorrow, poverty, rejection, radical unpopularity. They are words of agony.
It seems ridiculous to apply such words to the ministry of churches nowadays. Yet where these words cannot be truthfully applied to the ministry of churches today they must then be spoken against the churches to show how far the churches are from being the Body of Christ engaged in the ministry of Christ in the world.
This willingness to endure "radical unpopularity" should characterize the life of the Christian. A few lines later Stringfellow says this:
...the Christian is suspicious of respectability and moderation and success and popularity. And this is so because the genius of the Christian life, both for a person and for the company of Christians, is the freedom constantly to be engaged in giving up its own life in order to give the world new life.Later in the chapter he says this:
Prudence, the anxiety to conserve and preserve their own lives, rather than the freedom to expend their lives in the manner of the ministry of Christ, is the temper that prevails in the churches...The freedom of the church is to give up and expend its own life in order to give life to the world.
That'll preach as well.
Unpacking, Stringfellow goes on to make some interesting observations about how all this looks in practice. Specifically, we shouldn't assume that this "giving life away" is an act of charity, of creating programs to feed and clothe the poor. To be sure, that's a part of what will happen. But these good works to aid the poor are secondary to the primary mission of the church. For if these social works do become primary for the church a couple of not-so-good things will happen. First, the poor are treated as objects, as an abstraction. "The poor" are reduced to the soup line that needs to get fed. The focus of the church becomes the program--the doing of the good deed--and not on the poor, the forming of relationships with fellow human beings. And this relates to a second problem. If good works become primary the church loses its warrant for even being a church. For the central mission of the church is the proclamation of the Gospel, telling the good news that life is at work in the midst of death. The mission of the church is to live among the poor in order to name the activity of God in the midst of their lives. Naming life where only death can be seen. This relates to what Stringfellow said in Chapter 3 (our Part 3), that the primary activity of the Christian in the world is the discernment of the Word of God at work in our lives. As Stringfellow continues in Chapter 4:
The Church must trust the Gospel enough to come among the poor with nothing to offer the poor except the Gospel, except the power to discern and the courage to expose the Gospel as it is already mediated in the life of the poor.And with that task is accomplished, once we are in relationship with the poor armed only with the ability to name God in the midst of their lives and ours, we will be equipped to use material resources in life-giving and life-affirming ways. As Stringfellow says:
When the Church has the freedom to go out into the world with merely the Gospel to offer the world, then it will know how to use whatever else it has--money and talent and buildings and tapestries and power in politics--as sacraments of its gift of its own life to the world, as tokens of the ministry of Christ.So what does this sacramental life look like? For Stringfellow one proxy is simply friendship. In this chapter he describes his relationship (Stringfellow was living in a Harlem tenement at the time) with a boy addicted to narcotics. Stringfellow discusses how various clergy and social workers had come to view this boy with suspicion, as a lost cause, as a waste of their time and effort. And Stringfellow agrees that the boy probably is a lost cause from those pragmatic and programmatic perspectives. And insofar as Stringfellow can help the boy he helps. But his central concern is simply being a sacrament of life in the world of this boy. To be a life-giving oasis. To bring resurrection where only death is at work. To being a friend.
He often visits me when he is free, and we have talked a lot together. I am not aware that I have ever told him that he has a bad and costly and very debilitating habit. He knows that better than I do. And while he and I have talked about how his habit might be controlled or even cured, our relationship is not contingent upon his breaking his addiction. Acceptance of another person is acceptance of the other as he is, without entailing any demands that he change in any empirical way. This boy is an addict, and while I would rejoice if he were freed from this affliction, that would not change or increase my acceptance of him as a person. And though I am not an addict, that makes me no better nor worse than he. I am not his judge. I am just his friend.And that, according to Stringfellow, is the central and primary witness of the Christian in the world.
The sacrament of friendship.