After Disruption

If you happen to visit Berlin it would be well worth looking out for the Chapel of Reconciliation on Bernaeur Strasse, in the Mitte district. The building, and the history that lies behind it, bear testimony to hopeful things that can emerge from terrible disruption.

The original chapel was constructed in the late 19th century, and stood to sustain much of the damage and desecration that the first half of the next century visited on the world. Bombs from the Second World War pitted themselves against its structural integrity, but it was the physical division of the city of Berlin in 1961 that affected it most deeply. Surrounded, east and west, by the Berlin Wall it became inaccessible to worshippers, with the only occupants eventually being guards who took shelter beneath its roof.

A metaphor in pressed clay

In 1985 the original building was destroyed, replaced fourteen years later by a new Chapel of Reconciliation, made from pressed clay. The fall of the Berlin Wall at the beginning of the 1990s was marked in the edifice that rose from the rubble in 1999. Themes of recovery and of reconciliation shaped the architectural goals and expression of the building, allowing it to stand as a powerful visual metaphor for healing, return, restoration, and reconciliation after terrible disruption.

That metaphor is helpful to us in considering how the Church globally assimilates disruption into its story, into the fabric of its new life after hard times. Deprivation and ruination, in our most poignant experiences of them, can feel like permanence; displacement can be mistaken for disbandment; setbacksin one aspect of the work of the Church locally can be read as symptoms of decline in God’s kingdom globally.

The common experience of disruption

Every generation of the Church, and every local expression of it, must wrestle with the reality of disruption. From the parochial trials of splits and schism, to the global impact of pandemic and warfare, the Church is often interrupted in her worship of Christ and her reaching of the nations. Reading the New Testament carefully should prepare us for this.

Take, for example, the local church(es) in the city of Rome in the first century. The Apostle Paul writes his most readily referenced letter to them, spelling out in detail the gospel he preached, the historical and ethnic ramifications of God’s purposes, and the ethical outcome of the gospel in the shared life of Christians. Lying behind much of Paul’s letter is a history of disruption that could have hobbled the whole gospel project in the capital of the Roman Empire.

The most likely biography of the Roman church is that it was planted by new converts who heard the gospel in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. Carrying the good news back to their community, the demographic of the earliest churches in the city were most likely Jewish, predominantly if not exclusively. As the gospel was shared, people from among the Gentiles also came to faith. The dynamics of core and periphery were probably divided along those historical lines.

Then the unthinkable happened. The Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from the city on account of ‘Chrestus’ (Christ?). This was a seismic event for the church in Rome. The mixture of Jew and Gentile was now reduced to a church with a single ethnic background once again. When the Jews were allowed back into the city, the balance of the local church must have felt somewhat off. Paul writes into this context with passion, with theological precision, and with a view of God’s purpose for Jew and Gentile which is mind-blowingly nuanced and convincing.

Reconciliation is the key issue among these people. Understanding and owning their backgrounds, their respective places in the economy of God’s redemption, and expressing difference through love are the main co-ordinates Paul plots for them. The very disruption that threatened to fragment and disband their work and cohesion could be used as a powerful way for the diversity of the church to be filtered through the lens of gospel unity. That is a testimony which non-Christians can neither understand nor gainsay.

Regrouping and regathering

It takes little imagination to land on instances of disruption in our present context. We might immediately think of a pandemic which, in its earliest stages, scattered the church – and has since divided the church in its ongoing impact. The gathered cohesion, the easily assumed rhythms of worshipping together have been disrupted and disturbed, and the certainties of who we are for each other has become dreadfully snagged on the populist polemics of the wider world.

We might also think of brothers and sisters in places like Ukraine, for whom warfare is presently and systematically dismantling their previous experience of community and fellowship. Early dispatches in Christian media rightly celebrate the cohesion and vision of the church in Ukraine – their prayerfulness, their pastoral boldness, their evangelistic integrity. That must only be part of the story, however. Disruption will not only strengthen the work, but could also stand to threaten it. There can be little doubt that displacement, existential threat, and economic deprivation can seal fellowship, but it can also sunder it. The church in Ukraine might be standing strong, but they also stand to lose much in their present trouble. Its future shape and expression should burden our prayers greatly at the present moment.

What is the answer to all of this? The Chapel of Reconciliation on Bernaeur Strasse in Berlin may hint at it. A former work razed to the ground, physically or symbolically, can leave the local church with ruin and rubble, but it can also provide a site for new reconciliation, for integrating the difficult and challenging experiences of hardship and loss into the fabric of what we build for the future. This might mean memorialising the losses and laments of pain and parting, but it will also mean contextualising them in the burgeoning Kingdom of God whose progress in the world and in the souls of men and women is forever sure, imminent, and fresh.

In our own context in the cosseted West, a pandemic has been a spark to the dry tinder of our casual approach to gathered worship, and our assumed unity in things other than the gospel. Rather than being a moment of superficial schism, we could ask God to use these experiences to bring about a new and fundamental vision of how we can build where we were once divided, dislocated, and locked out of the ways and worship we once enjoyed.

This means that regathering is not a sifting through the shrapnel of hard experience to reconstruct what we once had, but fashioning new materials which speak our past in plaintive and appreciative tones. That reconstructive work can prepare the church for the new adventure of being a people regrouped, reorganised, and reorientated towards what God would do in our present, building on our broken past, and holding fast to our certain future.

We should also pray for those whose disruption is more severe and existential in nature. We should pray that God would use this wounding to bring healing, that the steady losses endured by brothers and sisters in such straits might be the very absences and spaces in which God would do new things which the status quo would never have played host to.

Conclusion

Disruption is the experience of the majority of Christians in the world, and the majority of the Church’s history. From the earliest chapters of Acts the church was scattered, removed from the old certainties and dependencies so that new and wonderful things might be accomplished by the God whose sovereign hand lay behind each setback. Pray for new green shoots in the scorched earth of pestilence and warfare, and pray for a heart that can weep like Jeremiah in the ruins, pray like Nehemiah in the work of restoration, and live like Paul counselled the Roman Christians to – in a new era after the storm and the fire where good and exciting things can happen.

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