The Spirit of the Lord, §10.6.1: Eschatological Identity

10.6.1. The Eschatological Identity of the Ekklesia

The ecclesial community embodies the eschatological community as a divinely granted identity in accordance with the covenant of grace. The covenant of grace establishes the ekklesia as the proleptic realization of the eschatological reign of God in anticipation of the consummation of Christ’s work. The church is neither the final reality—it is not the new heavens and new earth—nor is it merely a stopgap on the way to something else. The ecclesial community is the eschaton made present; it is the eschatological community in a particular concrete mode of existence. But for that very reason it is not yet what it will be when God is “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). The church is thus a divinely ordained mode of eschatological existence that lives in correspondence to Jesus Christ as a missional witness to the reign of God.

In order to understand the eschatological being of the church, we must first understand the three temporal modalities of the eschaton. The eschaton is not simply future, but rather past, present, and future. Because “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8), the eschaton also exists in the three temporal modes of past, present, and future: the past and ongoing event of Christ, the present event of the church as Christ’s apostolic witnesses, and the future event of God’s eternal kingdom in which the Lamb who was slain will reign with righteousness and peace. All three of these temporal modes of the eschaton cohere in Jesus Christ as the one in whom “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). He is the “heir of all things” who “sustains all things by his powerful word” (Heb. 1:2-3). He is “the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything” (Col. 1:18). He is “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5). Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8). Jesus Christ, the eternal and incarnate Lord, thus stands at the beginning and end of all God’s ways and works. As the firstborn from the dead, he bursts open the gates of death so that we might be raised with him. As the heir of all things and the ruler of the world, he establishes his reign of peace pro omnibus. He is the coming God who graciously assumes finite human history in order that our lives might be found in him. Consequently, we have died, and “our life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory” (Col. 3:3-4). As a result of its christological grounding, therefore, the eschaton is totus-totus-totus, not partim-partim-partim, in each of its three temporal modes. Because Jesus Christ is wholly past, wholly present, and wholly future, the eschaton is also wholly past, wholly present, and wholly future.

Jesus Christ himself is the eschaton. Eschatology is christology and christology is eschatology: this is the starting-point for any theological reflection on the eschatological identity of the ekklesia. As Karl Barth correctly declared in Der Römerbrief, “Christianity which is not wholly and without remainder eschatology has nothing whatsoever to do with Christ.” The euangelion of Jesus Christ is the gospel of a new world and a new humanity. In Jesus the Messiah of God, the Lord who judges and arbitrates between nations (cf. Mic. 4:3) becomes the Lord who condescends to live, suffer, and die in the place of those judged. The event of the Judge judged in our place is an event which reconciles the world to God and constitutes the cosmos as the theater of God’s redemptive glory. The christological event of salvation is thus an eschatological event of new creation. As a result, in his eternal existence as the ascended Lord, Jesus Christ is the actualization of the cosmic eschatological reality in which God embraces and assumes world history into eternity. In Jesus Christ, the triune God refuses to abandon creation to the forces operative on the surface of history and instead submits in obedience to these forces in order to redeem finite existence from the abyss. Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection constitute not only the creative ground of human history, but also the basis for history’s sublation into the self-bestowing repleteness of eternal life. The Christ-event is therefore the primal realization of the eschaton. Contrary to most conceptions of eschatology, the eschaton is ontologically established in the past reality of Jesus Christ, whose eternal ongoing significance (“yesterday and today and forever”) means that the eschaton is only then also a reality in the present and the future. The eschaton is grounded in the past for the sake of the present and in anticipation of the final and unsurpassable future in which we will no longer “see in a mirror, dimly,” but rather “we will see face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).

The ecclesial community is the present-tense mode of the eschaton in its correspondence to Jesus Christ. To adapt a statement by Barth, the ekklesia is the subjectivization of the objective res of the eschaton. As the eschaton made present, the ekklesia witnesses to the coming eschatological kingdom in light of the past event of Christ whose salutary significance is eternalized through his resurrection and ascension. The church thus stands in the middle between christological constitution and eschatological consummation. Within this tension, the church proclaims the gospel of God’s being-in-coming in Jesus Christ and concretely though imperfectly embodies the final eschatological community through the fructifying power of the Holy Spirit (cf. Gal. 5:22-25). We can speak of the church as the present-tense mode of the eschaton only because the church is the body of Christ. The church is the eschaton made present only because Christ is identifiable with the eschaton. With certain qualifications, we can thus affirm that the church is the present-tense mode of Christ. Of course, we must carefully distinguish between the ecclesial community and the person of Christ. Both exist in a relation of mutual participation and asymmetry: the church lives outside of itself (extra nos) in Christ and finds its very being in the being of the mediator; likewise, Christ lives in the church through the subjectivizing power of the Spirit and gives himself to the church for the life of the world. The church is not identifiable with Christ but rather exists in correspondence to Christ as the present-tense mode of the eschaton that was constituted in Christ’s own life, death, and resurrection in the place of humanity and on behalf of the world.

The ecclesial community corresponds to Christ as his earthly-historical body. The church is the gift of Christ’s own presence to the world. Jesus Christ establishes this particular community through the concretizing power of the Spirit as the historical embodiment of his own eschatological identity. The ekklesia is thus de facto the present-tense manifestation of the coming regnum Dei, which is to be identified with the parousia of our Lord. The church manifests the coming kingdom only because it is the corpus Christi called by Christ to live in humble obedience to God’s eternal reign. This identity, however, is never one which the church possesses; the church instead depends upon God for the continual actualization of the community’s correspondence to Christ. In other words, the being of the church, like the knowledge of God, is an event of divine grace. Just as each human person is a being-in-becoming who is always being conformed to Jesus Christ (conformitas Christi), so too the ekklesia is a community-in-becoming which is always being conformed to the eschatological kingdom (conformitas regni). The church simply is the moment-by-moment actualization of the eternal reign of Christ. The ekklesia thus corresponds to the being-in-becoming of God, whose dynamic triune life radiates outward toward the other, embracing the depths of human estrangement from God and actualizing the dynamic being of the church according to the gracious covenant between God and humanity.

As the present-tense concretization of Christ, the ecclesial community is the missional embodiment of the eschatological missio Dei. Christ’s missional identity as Deus nobiscum and Deus pro nobis means that his earthly-historical existence in the concrete form of the church is itself missional in character. The church is the missional corpus Christi in its present-tense corporate embodiment of the eschaton. Jesus Christ establishes the apostolic identity of the church in light of the fact that he is the Son who was sent at the behest of the Father into the “far country” on a mission of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19) through the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit (Mk. 1:9-11). Out of this triune mission of God, Christ calls the church into existence as sanctified witnesses to the divine self-determination to be God with us and for us—a determination actualized in his life, death, and resurrection. The ekklesia is a community that proclaims Christ’s missional history to be the actualization of the eschatological reality of reconciliation. In its life of proclamation and witness, the ecclesial community takes on the mission of John the Baptist who always pointed away from himself and toward the Son of God incarnate. The mission of the ekklesia is thus again like the mission of God: a movement always away from oneself and toward others. God moves away from Godself and toward the world in order to be with us and for us in Jesus Christ. The ekklesia in turn moves away from itself and toward the world in order to be with others and for others in correspondence to Jesus Christ.

The church is a missional community whose apostolic identity is grounded historically in the sending of the apostles as witnesses to the resurrection of Christ and grounded eternally in the sending of the Logos as the self-revelation of God’s eternal decision for the covenant of grace, in which the triune God becomes our God and we become the people of God. Both the historical and eternal dimensions of the ecclesial community’s eschatological identity are grounded in the person of Jesus Christ, whose incarnate history is both our history and the history of the triune God. The eschatological history of Jesus Christ in his life, death, and resurrection is ontologically constitutive for the being of both humanity and God; in him, both the triune God and the whole human race live, suffer, and die. For God this is an act of condescension and reconciliation on behalf of the world; for humanity this is a reconciling being-acted-upon that calls us to embody such condescension in our own individual lives. The point is that the christological missio Dei determines Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be a triune God of mission (Deus missionis) and determines the ecclesial community as Christ’s earthly-historical existence to be a community of mission (communio missionis). Jesus Christ is the eschatological actualization of both the divine mission of reconciliation for the sake of the world and the ecclesial mission of proclamation and witness within the world. The eschatological event of Christ’s human history is the actualization of these two missions, but in a different sense for each: the being of God is missional from all eternity in anticipation of this christological event, while the being of the ekklesia is missional in light of this event. The missional history of Christ is thus the eschatological missio Dei, and out of this triune mission, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit establish, call, accompany, and consummate the missional identity of the ekklesia.

Finally, the eschatological being of the ekklesia is a called existence. Just as the worlds were called into existence by the life-giving Word, so too the ekklesia is called into existence by the creative and reconciling Word of Jesus Christ. Unlike the demands placed upon us by fellow humans, Christ’s call to the church to be the corpus Christi is a liberating call that delivers humanity from its bondage to futile self-realization in order that we may live extrospective lives of love toward our neighbor. The God-given identity of the ecclesial community is not imposed as law, but rather granted as grace. The church is given a clear imperative—“take and eat; this is my body” (Matt. 26:26); “go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19)—but always within the context of a gracious indicative: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8); “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). The call of God is thus like the judgment of God: a word which frees and empowers for a radically new existence. The ekklesia is therefore the sanctified space set apart by the covenant of grace for the concrete embodiment of God’s liberating word. While we must confess that “there is no reality ungraced by Christ” (Frei), the ekklesia is the unique location where such grace becomes by the power of the Spirit a concrete existential reality for the sake of others.