There is an important question to be asked when it comes to considering a properly Christian response to the common good, and it is this: 'What, in the world, are we here for?'
I want to propose that the Church (both universal and local) is here, in this world, to build a vision for the common good, and I want to offer the image of the new Jerusalem as a model for Christian engagement in the common good of wider society.
The new Jerusalem is a metaphor for the Church Militant. It's a compelling picture of what it might mean to be the Church in the here-and-now, in this time and this place. By this understanding, the new Jerusalem is a picture of the people of God on the earth, a symbolic image designed to address the question of what, on earth, the Church is here for.
For example, consider the utility supplies in the new Jerusalem, specifically the supply of light and water. The text states that the city has no need for either the natural lights of the sun and the moon, or for the artificial light that comes from lamps (Revelation 21:22-26). Rather, the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb of God. In fact, it has so much light, that it shines brightly enough for all the nations to walk by its light.
Similarly, the new Jerusalem seems to have a never-ending supply of fresh water, enough not only for its own citizens, but to quench the thirst of anyone who wishes to come and take the water of life as a gift (Revelation 22:17).
This consideration of light- and water-supplies introduces the concept of the economics of the common good.
In any city, and in any society, there are certain things that it will make more sense to enact collectively. The lighting of the streets is a classic example, although the principle can be extrapolated across many areas of need and provision.
The significant thing about street lights is that no one street light exclusively benefits any one individual. The system only works when all the lights are working for the benefit of all the inhabitants. It would make no sense to try and levy a charge on citizens only for the light they actually used, or to arrange to illuminate only the part of the pavement that someone was currently walking along. Similarly, one person's use of the light does not materially detract from any other person's use. This, in a nutshell, is the economics of the common good.
The same is true of water supplies, sewage systems, public transport and health care provision, to name but a few further examples.
Those who retain a hope for communitarian economics might well wonder where, in the 21st century, voices offering a coherent vision for the common good will emerge. Well, the image of the new Jerusalem as the city with enough light to shine across all the nations, and with enough water to supply the thirst of any who need it, invites a deeply politicised reflection on the church's understanding of itself, and its role in the world for the common good.
The question, of course, is what offering light and water might look like in our complex, technological, 24-hour Western society. What does it mean for the contemporary Church to build a vision for the common good? Where is the need in today's context? What would it mean for the people of God in our time to shine light into the darkest corners of society, exposing the oppressive systems and practices that enslave people's souls and bodies?
What would it mean for the people of God in our context to offer refreshing water to those who are being poisoned by the polluted atmosphere of hatred and cynicism and despair?
I want to suggest that the people of God are here, in the world, precisely for this: to throw open the doors of their communities, to shine brightly for the benefit of those beyond themselves, and to build a vision for the common good. The people of God are called to seek the welfare of the context to which they have been sent. This is not about building a new building, or even a new community. It's about building a new world. The people of God are here to learn, together, to see the world differently, to see the world as God sees it, and then to speak and live into being an alternative way of being human before God.
It is this new world that is light and water to those whose lives are in darkness and whose souls are parched. But in a world of growing fear, with the whiff of fascism in the air, with growing suspicion of the other and fear of the foreigner, with poverty and homelessness literally on the doorsteps of our churches, with mental health services in crisis at the very point where they are most needed, with social care and security facing cuts of catastrophic levels – maybe this is what, in the world, the Church is here for.
It is here to be the New Jerusalem, to build a vision for the common good, where the absolute love of God for each and every person lies at the heart of all that it does. The people of God are where dreams become real and visions get built. We are the outpost on the earth of the new world that that God is imagining into existence. We are the people who live into being in our midst the reality for which we pray: That the kingdom will come, on earth as it is in heaven.
Simon Woodman's chapter 'Building a Vision for the Common Good' is published in 'Reclaiming the Common Good: How Christians can help rebuild our broken world', ed. Virginia Moffatt (DLT, 2017). It will be launched at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church on September 20.
The Revd Dr Simon Woodman is the co-minister of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church in the West End of London, Free Church Chaplain at King's College London, and has previously been a market stall holder on Camden Market, a Baptist minister in Bristol, a tutor at South Wales Baptist College and a lecturer at Cardiff University.