The Heart Of It All (Part 8): The Community of Saints & Our Life Together
Christian claim #8: “I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church, and the communion of saints.”
When the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer decided to write a book describing the community of God’s people known as “the church,” he chose to title it Life Together. What a beautiful choice! Many people tend to think of the church as the place where someone is christened, married or buried; or, as a cabbie once said to my father, its where we get hatched, matched, and dispatched! But God’s image of the church is so much more: it is the sharing of life together.
In a deeply theological sense? Of course. The church gathers to take communion (or “eucharist”, meaning “thanksgiving”), in which we all share in the one body and blood of Christ. We are reminded that we have eternal life running through our spiritual veins, and that, just as all pianos tuned to the same fork are necessarily tuned to one another, we also as one body in Christ are brothers and sisters to one another. That is, we all share Divine life.
But this is also true in a profoundly practical sense. We share life together. We welcome each other’s joys, and shoulder one another’s pain; we laugh and cry, rejoice and weep; give up our self-conceit and also bear each other’s burdens. We live as family, finding light in the darkness, strength for the journey, and refreshment in the dry patches of life.
Maybe that hasn’t been your experience. Maybe you can’t imagine church this way. If not, allow me to help you re-imagine it. And Philip Yancey can help.
Several years ago, Yancey wrote a short book entitled Church: Why Bother? It quickly became one of my favorite little works to share with others. Yancey divides the work into three sections: “Looking upward”, “Looking inward”, and “Looking outward.” I would like to develop these three aspects of the blessing that is the Church.
Can anything be more mundane, less exciting, or more boring than church? Perhaps your first experience–or even your latest experience–was nothing more than snoozing during a dry sermon (with lackluster performance) and trying not to roll your eyes during the karaoke-inspired singing. You know the kind of church service I’m talking about? The kind where there was only one bass … and she wasn’t that good.
Trust me. We’ve all been there. Perhaps you are there. But there is more there than meets the eye.
C. S. Lewis once reflected on his own growth when it came to appreciating the divine mystery that is the church:
I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems, set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on, I saw the great merit of it…I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.
Before discussing what we most desperately need, it would help us to be reminded first of what God wants and deserves. I would like to help you reimagine church as God’s idea: the gathered people as who we were created to be, and what we were created for! The next time you think too low of church…look upward.
The next time you think too low of church…look upward.
It is important to remember that God has always had a people: the promises made to Adam were extended and amplified through Israel; and the promises of God culminated in the Messiah and the people of the Messiah: the church of the Living God. The New Testament calls the church the “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16; Phil 3:3), a royal priesthood and a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9), people called to keep covenant with God (Acts 2:38-41, 47). It is tempting to think of salvation in purely individualistic terms (“Christ died with my name on his lips”), but the Bible emphasizes the fact that God rescued a people (2 Thess 2:13-14; Eph 1:4-5, 11-13), or that God rescued Christ from the dead so that, through him, he might have a people (Gal 3:16; Rom 8:29).
Listen to Psalm 100:3-4 (NIV): “Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, and bless his name.” Knowing that God has rescued us gives us the courage and incentive to worship and praise him–Him only!–and to make sure our love is not given to another (2 Kings 17:34-39 MSG). And what kind of worship and praise does God want? In what does he delight? Only this: that he can enjoy all of my love, all of my life; that I give him not just the work of my hands, but a humble and grateful heart (Psalm 51:16-17). What does God want? Only that which he deserves — everything! He calls for our whole selves in whole surrender to a holy God; and that his name be glorified in all that we do, and all that we are–as everything in heaven and on earth fulfills His every wish.
The next time you sense a worship time with the gathered people to be a boring chore, consider this: when we gather, we join–in joyful assembly–all who belong to Christ, both past and present (Heb 12:22-28). We feast on the body and blood of the Lord, not only in honor of the Lord, but with the Lord (Luke 22:18; 24:13-35; Matt 18:20). Our prayers and songs rise to the throne room of God himself and are echoed by songs of praise delivered by every creature–on heaven, on earth, irrespective of time–that gives voice to praise (Rev 4, 5, & 8). The next time you think too low of church…look upward.
It has always been true that “God sets the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:6 NIV). When God placed humanity within his “very good” world, there was only one thing he declared to be “not good”: that any one person should be alone (Gen 2:18). Paul Tournier said it right: “There are two things we cannot do alone. One is to be married and the other is to be a Christian.”
I heard this story many years ago. A man had not darkened the door of his local church for quite some time, so the pastor came to his house in hopes of offering some encouraging word. When the man answered the door, he offered the pastor a cold look, which made it difficult to know what phrase or sentence could possibly warm this man’s heart. Instead of speaking, the minister simply sat next to the man by the large fireplace. Without saying a word, the preacher grabbed the poker and gently moved a bright red coal away from the fire. They watched as it sat there–all alone–slowly changing in color as it cooled.
Simply put…we need each other. St. John of the Cross once remarked that “the virtuous soul that is alone…is like the burning coal that is alone. It will grow colder rather than hotter.”
God’s vision of the church is that of a body, with many members (1 Cor 12; Rom 12). Members of the body are inter-related and inter-dependent. Every body part serves to make the whole body whole; if one part suffers, the whole body suffers. In short…we need each other!
The Bible is replete with descriptions of ways the church provides help, healing, and encouragement for those within the fold. Consider just a few “one another” passages that show the virtues we experience as part of the family of God:
- A place of LOVE (John 13:34-35)
- A place of DEVOTION (Rom 12:10)
- A place of HONOR (Rom 12:10)
- A life lived in HARMONY (Rom 12:16)
- A place WITHOUT JUDGMENT (Rom 14:13)
- A place of ACCEPTANCE (Rom 15:7)
- A place of INSTRUCTION (Rom 15:14; Col 3:16)
- A place of GREETING (Rom 16:16)
- A place of AGREEMENT (1 Cor 1:10)
- A place of ENCOURAGEMENT (2 Cor 13:11)
- A place of SERVICE (Gal 5:13)
- A place where others BEAR OUR BURDENS (Eph 4:2)
- A place of KINDNESS and COMPASSION (Eph 4:32)
- a place of MUTUAL SUBMISSION (Eph 5:21)
- a place of FORGIVENESS (Col 3:13)
- a people CALLED TO LOVE AND MISSION (Heb 10:25)
And this is not simply a chance to receive, but also to give! Our Lord himself taught us that he did not come to be served, but to serve. That is our pattern in life. Kevin Vanhoozer wisely reminds us that the church is a gathering of participants: “The church has become the theater of the gospel, and in this theater, there are no passive spectators, only engaged participants, acting out what is in Christ.” “There are no passive spectators, only engaged participants, acting out what is in Christ.”–Vanhoozer
“There are no passive spectators, only engaged participants, acting out what is in Christ.”–Vanhoozer
Since we need each other, the church, like any healthy family, meets together for mutual edification and fellowship. The word “church” actually means “assembly” (1 Cor 11:18). Scripture urges us “let us draw near to God” and “let us consider how we may spur one another on to love and good deeds” by “not giving up meeting together” (Heb 10:22-25). Everett Ferguson makes this point nicely: “The church may survive where there is a poor program of religious education, little evangelism, virtually no benevolence; but it will not survive where it does not meet” (The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology, pp. 235).
Christians are not the only ones who understand this. The New York Times ran an article in 2012 about a former Methodist minister who was looking for a fulfilling life after giving up her faith in God. “I didn’t know what life would be like without church,” she said. “I was depressed. I was out there in limbo all at once. There is no community. There is no social network. The majority of friendships are gone. There is no place I can go every week where I know people and they know me.”
Finding other atheists sharing her longing, Teresa McBain took a new job at Harvard as a resource person for those without faith. According to the article, she was given “the task of building congregations of nonbelievers.” She was “given the mandate to travel the country helping atomized groups of atheists, agnostics, humanists and freethinkers replicate the communal structure and support that organized religion provides to its faithful.” “Were she not helping to develop communities of nonbelievers,” continues the article, “she would be called, in Christian parlance, a church-planter.”
The Harvard humanist chaplain, for whom she worked, explained his vision: “The purpose of these communities is to help us connect to one another more deeply, to spur us to act in the interest of the common good, and to change the way we think about values and purpose in [the] world.” They wished to gather into groups to fight against alienation, to seek justice, and to affirm care for the whole creation. Not a bad description of what God always intended. But, for Christ, this communal life together is not the antidote to the poison of religion; it is the catalyst for true religion: a fully-practiced relationship with God and with His people. Perhaps that is one reason why, after some troubles of her own, Teresa McBain found her way back not only to communal structures reminiscent of church, but to the God who calls us together in the first place.
There is a responsibility that comes with belonging. There is a not only a glance upward, and inspection inward, but also a constant search outward. Archbishop William Temple once said “The church is the only cooperative society in the world that exists for the benefit of its non-members.” We are a people of mission, and are called into the world to serve as a beacon of light for those all around us. We exist for the glory of God, to the benefit of each other, toward the betterment of the world.
We exist for the glory of God, to the benefit of each other, toward the betterment of the world.
The people of Israel, at various times in the Hebrew Bible, forgot this important aspect of calling. Even when God chose Abraham, he clearly had a larger, wider mission in mind. He chosen Abraham and his descendants–yes that is true; but in the call narrative he specifically said that “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:3 ESV). Israel was called to be something more than a cistern, housing God’s blessing for themselves alone. God called a people to be an aqueduct–a central place through which God could and would provide his blessings to the whole world. Paul sees this point clearly when he changes the language from God giving Abraham “the land” to God promising Abraham “the world.” In a similar way, the church is not called to be a small outcast group held up in an outpost, clinging to the walls in hopes that Christ may soon return; we are called to be salt and light, a city set on a hill which cannot be hid.
Karl Barth once said that the Church exists “to set up in the world a new sign which is radically dissimilar to [the world’s] own manner and which contradicts it in a way which is full of promise.” And what sign is that? It is the sign that Christ is alive and well.
One of Paul’s favorite descriptions of the church is “the body of Christ.” For Paul, Jesus is still in the neighborhood. Who Jesus is, the church is called to emulate; where Jesus went, the church is called to follow. What Jesus did–the church does. We are called to be the hands of feet of Jesus to the world.
John Stackhouse puts it this way: Will you be, for our world, what Jesus was for His world?
Luis Palau’s comedy is poignant: “The church is like manure. Pile it together and it stinks up the neighborhood; spread it out and it enriches the world.”
Why, then, the church? Because, we exist for the glory of God, to the benefit of each other, toward the betterment of the world.
That is the identity and mission of the one holy, universal, apostolic church. Not simply a place where we go to be married and buried; but the locus of our “life together” — as we share in the communion of saints.
photo credit: Última Sena, Juan de Juanes (1562).