Connectional Table

Blessings as the marks of the Church

Joyce Holland receives a COVID-19 vaccination from Tia Moore, nurse practitioner, at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn. Photo by Mike DuBose UM News.
Joyce Holland receives a COVID-19 vaccination from Tia Moore, nurse practitioner, at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn. Photo by Mike DuBose UM News.

Few would characterize this past year as one of blessing. We came into 2020 off of a disastrous 2019 Special Session of the General Conference, which damaged our witness and caused untold suffering within our body. Barely into 2020, we were devastated by a global pandemic, which has killed millions, many in our own families, congregations and communities. And 2020 awakened us to the ravages of racism, painfully epitomized by the slow and public murder of George Floyd.

This was hardly a year of blessing. Yet we have chosen to use these Matthean blessings — these Beatitudes (Mt. 5:1-14) — as the framework for this report. That is because they describe our identity as a church, not our circumstances. As one commentator put it, the Beatitudes “…declare the notae ecclesiae, the ‘marks of the church.’” 1 They are the marks of a community of believers formed through the redemptive acts of Christ. They are the marks of a church, challenged by its own brokenness and the brokenness of the world, yet called to bring about salvation and hope.

This church is itself poor in spirit, even as it ministers to the poor in spirit. Surely 2020 has shown us our own spiritual poverty. In the face of COVID-19, we have had nothing to offer, from within ourselves alone, for the succor of the world. Neither have we had any self-generated source of power to solve the problems of our own church. That is because we are spiritually impoverished without God. When we understand and embrace this profound truth, Christ extends a blessing to us and empowers us to bless others.  

To be Christ’s blessings, we also must see ourselves as the meek. Indeed, God calls the church to renounce the raw exercise of power in favor of the gentle meekness and humility of Christ. Only then, can we minister with and on behalf of the meek, sharing in sacrifice and mutual learning. And when we accept that we also mourn, even as we comfort those who mourn, we can be with people in the midst of devastating loss without resorting to self-serving and shallow explanations for suffering. 

As a church, we are called to a vision of prophetic hope in which “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low…and the rough places a plain.” 2 Such a church hungers and thirsts for righteousness, laments the hurts of the world, and extends the blessing of mercy to the weak. Such a church craves the purity of heart that allows us to see God in the face of the other.

When God imagined the church, God did not imagine a replication of the Pax Romana—peace achieved at the end of a sword. Instead, God imagined persecuted peacemakers who would put their lives on the line to bring about love, reconciliation and justice. This church is called to be the salt of the earth--salt that preserves relationships, purifies motives, binds community and seasons spiritual life. This church is called to be the light of the world—light that first illumines, then guides people to God.

Maybe the story of this past year is that we did not live up to this high calling. But these blessings or “notae ecclesiae” are not marks of achievement. They are marks of identity. They show the world what they will see when a Christ-formed community embraces the blessings of Christ, even in the midst of its own struggles. Blessed is that church!

The Reverend Kennetha J. Bigham-Tsai
Chief Connectional Ministries Officer
Connectional Table

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1 M. Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, V. 8, Abingdon Press, Nashville: 1994, P. 177.
2 Isaiah 40:4 (NRSV).