Stanley Hauerwas says that the church doesn’t have a social ethic; rather, the church is a social ethic. John Howard Yoder describes the ethical task of the church in the world simply as the church needing to be the church. What these statements mean became clearer to me today. I was studying in the university library, listening to the sound of a mint swirling around in my mouth and construction work on the adjacent building, when somewhere outside the walls music started seeping through. I didn’t know where it was coming from, and its sound was faint at best, but I was curious. I left the library to pick up some lunch in a nearby shop, and on my way there I heard the music again, this time louder and with its source finally apparent – the cathedral. I wanted to go closer to see what my ears were hearing, but I decided to stay on track, pick up my traditional ham and cheese sandwich, and return to the library.
Yet as I listened to the music fading into the background, it struck me: this is what the church – and only the church – has to offer the world. A carol service is not just a tip of the hat in the direction of the real meaning of Christmas. It is a social ethic, a way of being in the world that only the church knows, because the church knows Jesus. This, as Walter Brueggemann has said, is a profoundly artistic way of being. The organ and the choir were resonating out into the world from the cathedral, infusing the ordinary with a moment of sacredness, a glimpse of something bigger. They were witnesses to a different world, interrupting the prosaic nature of life with a poetry and rhythm that is beautiful – and because beautiful, attractive. Incarnation names this interruption at one particular moment in history. Church names this interruption at every moment in history since, with the church being, in Barth-speak, the crater remaining after the explosion of the gospel.
Of course there must be more to the being of the church than music. The conservative would like to remain worshipping in the church, but the liberal knows that true religion consists of caring for the widow and the orphan. The prophet knows this too, for our worship services without the commitment to justice are empty sounds before God. No matter how artistic our worship services are, if we have not love, we are nothing.
Yet the music, the carols, and the stories they tell have a power outside of ourselves. A worship service is a dangerous place to be. It is even dangerous to experience it from a distance, as I did from the library. Someone might see and hear and think “Surely God is in this place.”
Social ethics and worship, it turns out, are not two things but one. The church that sings “Oh Come let us adore Him” is thus extending an invitation and committing itself to its distinctive mission – the invitation is to come and see and experience the beauty of the form of Christ; the mission is for the church to be transformed into that same form: a transformation that begins in worship and which, ultimately, ends in worship.