The Passion of the Church

If you aren’t into languages, don’t worry–only the first paragraph is a little technical.  (Bear with me in a little technicality; do bear with me)

The word “church” does not occur frequently in the four accounts of the Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).  In the New Testament, “church” normally translates the Greek word ekklesia, which is “a secular term for an assembly of people and is derived from the verb to call” (Avis, 1).  Ekklesia is also the word used to frequently translate the Hebrew qahal in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible).  I don’t want to get any more technical than that, so I’ll follow Avis’ conclusion:

In both Hebrew and Greek, then, the Church is the assembly of those who are called–called together (to worship God) or called out (of the world, to serve him).  It is worth noting in passing, however, that the English word ‘church’ (cf. Scottish ‘kirk’) comes from a different source: the Greek kuriake, ‘belonging to the Lord (kurios).

As I began, however, ekklesia only  occurs three times in Matthew (out of all the Gospel accounts): Matthew 16:18; 18:17.  When most of us try to put church and Scripture together, the first place we’ll look will be Paul.  It’ll be 1 Corinthians 12, or Ephesians 4, or Paul’s various greetings to the churches in other parts of the Roman Empire  We might think of the Revelation to John, with the seven letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor.

Granted, in some circles, perhaps Roman Catholic circles especially, Matthew 16:18 has had quite the history of interpretation.

But with these few references to the church made by Jesus himself, why does Ramsey begin by stating

The underlying conviction…is that the meaning of the Christian Church becomes most clear when it is studied in terms of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (xxiii.).

And,

It is the contention of this book that in this dying and rising again the very meaning of the Church is found… (xxiii.)

The first time I’d read this, I was baffled.  I didn’t see the connection, let alone understand it.  BUT: if we understand the mission of the Church in the world, if we understand the part which Christians play in the drama of redemption, then we might ultimately see why Ramsey puts it this way.

I wouldn’t be writing all this if the church were a neatly ordered, unified, simple organism or institution.  Questions surround it, as questions surrounded Jesus.  He became a puzzle for others to figure out.  Those inside and outside the church would agree that Jesus seemed to make himself a puzzle for others to figure out.  Even his disciples asked him to speak plainly (though they still didn’t get it).  Finally Jesus “abandoned His useful and intelligible works in Galilee in order to bring God’s Kingdom by dying on the Cross” (Ramsey, 4).

What we’re still left with, then, are questions which surround him.  And questions now surround the church that he established: why follow a man who gave himself up to death?  Why call ourselves by the same title?  Why be Christ-ians, “little Christs”?

Yet precisely there is the power of God found, if only the Christians know whence they come and whither they go.  They are sent to be the place where the Passion of Jesus Christ is known and where witness is borne to the Resurrection from the dead.

The faith that Christians live by is founded–created, even–in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  His Passion in Jerusalem and on the Cross is what won salvation.  “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).

In many ways, the church looks like a messed up place: it’s scandalous, it’s formed of sinners whose sinfulness is exposed by the light of the one Christians worship, and there are so many questions which have no clear-cut or easy answer.  But if the Church is the Body of Christ crucified and risen from the dead, how can its life be different than that of Christ himself?

The church is full of those who claim to be baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ.  “Philanthropies point to the conditions of men’s lives, the Church points to the deeper problem of man himself” (Ramsey, 5).

Jesus taught his disciples that they would not understand his death or resurrection except by sharing in it

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Mark 8:43)

Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized? (Mark 10:38)

Always bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our body. (2 Corinthians 4:10)

The words of Jesus are spoken to the disciples, the twelve who were to be the refounded Israel of God.  This was only possible by being founded in death and resurrection.  The words of Paul went out to those who were persecuted, ridiculed and confused as to the faith they held fast to.

While it is true that the Church is founded upon the Word-made-flesh, it is true only because the Word was identified with men right down to the point of death, and enabled men to find unity through a veritable death to self (Ramsey, 6).

We could discuss indefinitely the meaning of ‘death to self,’ but perhaps another time.  The point for now is that in this death to self we are united in a unique way which nothing else can imitate.  As we continue to die to self, we enter into the death of Christ and are united to each other in this act.  The Church is the Body of Christ, made of the bodies of those who have themselves died to sin and evil, and are raised to new life through grace.

If you’re reading this, and if you’ve not experienced the Church this way, you aren’t alone.  I haven’t always encountered the Church in this way.  If we are truly engaged in a death to self, I think the Church as a whole would be in a much better shape.  I recognize immediately that the Episcopal Church is no flagship for reform or death to self.  I won’t go into it here, though I’ll eventually have to.  I will say that if any church wants to flourish, its foundation must be in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ made real and true within its own walls.

This is how Ramsey could make the subtitle of his book, “Recapturing a Biblical Understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ.”  This is how he finds the meaning of what the church is in the Passion of our Lord.

What does this have to do with Sunday morning worship?  I urge you, brothers and sisters, to stay tuned and read on.

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“The Relevance of the Church of the Apostles…”

…the relevance of the Church of the Apostles consisted not in the provision of outward peace for the nations, nor in the direct removal of social distress, nor yet in any outward beauty of the Church itself, but in pointing to the death of Jesus the Messiah, and to the deeper issues of sin and judgment–sin in which the Christians had shared, judgment under which they stood together with the rest of mankind.  In all this the Church was scandalous and unintelligible to men, but by all this and by nothing else it was relevant to their deepest needs (Ramsay, 4).

So Ramsey begins his book.  What do you think of this statement?

What kind of needs do we have?

What needs does “church” meet?

What needs do you think going to church on Sunday should meet?

I’ve been traveling over the past two days and will arrive in Albany, NY in time for dinner with my mother and brother tomorrow (Sunday).  I’ve had amazing, encouraging, and inspiring conversations with friends I’ve seen along the way, and they’ve gotten me even more excited about this project.

Think about these questions, and if you can spare some time, leave a comment.  Tomorrow night, after I’ve unpacked, I’m going to dive deeper into this first chapter of Ramsey’s The Gospel and the Catholic Church.  Stay tuned.

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An Ecclesiastical Thesis

The Orthodox understanding of the Church as a living organism, the Evangelical focus on the authority of Scripture, the Roman Catholic treasuring of the sacramental life, and the Anglican stress on freedom within order, and local autonomy with episcopal oversight, are all articulated as essential for the unity of the Church.

So ends The Rev. Dr. Arnold Klukas’ introduction to Archbishop Michael Ramsey’s The Gospel and the Catholic Church.  At Nashotah House, we read this book for Parish Ministry 1 (Spring, 2010), and I find myself drawn to it again, seeking a method of articulating an holistic ecclesiology.

To understand why I go to church on a Sunday morning – why I go to church, and not sleep in or kayak or something else – I must understand what church is.  What is the nature of church?  What is the purpose of Sunday morning worship?  These questions surround the slightly more philosophical question, “What is the nature of the church?”

In spite of its many flaws, it [the church] remains Christ’s Body; and as a Body, the church’s outward order (its physical shape) expresses its inward purpose and meaning… (Klukas, xvii.)

I’ll return to this quote (and the rest of it) in a later post.  For now, it’s safe to say that the question I’m asking (or the way I’m answering it) will ultimately bring us into a circle: to understand why we go to church, we must understand the nature of the church, and the nature of the church is articulated in its coming together in community and worship.

So where do we actually begin?

He [Ramsey] says, “A fresh line of approach seems needed.  Those who cherish the Catholic [universal] Church and its historic order need to expound its meaning not in legalistic and institutionalist language, but in evangelical language as the expression of the Gospel of God” (Klukas, xvii.)

Ramsey’s conviction, and I think rightfully so, is that “the meaning of the Christian Church becomes most clear when it is studied in terms of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (Ramsey, xxiii.).  When I first read this statement, I didn’t understand it at all.  When I had finished his first and second chapter, I was only confused further.  Why go in this direction?  What is the connection?  (Can you tell that my first year was off to a good start?)

But what it boils down to, I think, is this:

The Church is the means by which Jesus continues to encounter humankind by providing the living organism by which his presence can be experienced (Klukas, xviii.).

That living organism, Paul says, is Christ’s Body.  Jesus’s Body combined a human nature and a divine nature, thereby overcoming humanity’s alienation from God.  The church, as the continuing life of his body, is to function as his continued presence in the world.  As His living Body, the Church continues to link the human with the Divine, the physical with the spiritual, and the temporal with the eternal.  The church, in putting it this way, was founded in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It is in the New Testament that identifies what the church is: its nature and purpose.  By reading and paying attention to what Scripture tells us about Jesus Christ and His Body, the Church, we can begin to develop an ecclesiology which is consistent with the biblical witness (and if you know me, this is always the best place to start).

I’ll start with that this week.  The next post or two will be content-based, specifically on why we find the meaning of the church in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  If this post has seemed a little jumbled or incomplete, I invite you to keep with it and read on.  I hope to post again soon.

For now:  What informs your thoughts on the church?  What place does Scripture hold in defining the church for you?  What do you think the New Testament says about the church?  I’d love your input, and it might give me more direction in subsequent posts.

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What’s so important about church?

What is it good for?  Absolutely Everything.

It isn’t like we haven’t all had those Sunday mornings.  We stayed up late watching a movie, or the half-price appetizers at Applebee’s kept us awake long after we got home.  The thought of a busy week ahead might convince us that sleeping in today will benefit us tomorrow.  That one preacher that puts us to sleep might be in charge today.  Excuses and rationalizations abound, especially within the first ten minutes after waking up.  But if a Christian is serious about his or her faith and formation (or if the guilt of not going wins out), then by the end of the processional hymn or opening song, he or she has made it to services.

Why we go to church on a Sunday morning, or why we gather together as communities on the first day of the week, can be answered in a number of different ways.  The way we answer it, or the emphasis our answer betrays, depends in a great deal on our ecclesiology.

Ecclesiology: reasoned and informed reflection on the nature of the Christian Church (Avis, 2).

Why do you go to church on a Sunday morning?  How do you answer this question?

  • I go to church because…
  • I go to church because…
  • I go to church on a Sunday because…

We should be able to answer in each manner, but one is certainly easier for me than others.  I go to church on a Sunday because Sunday is the feast of our Lord’s resurrection.  Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, and so Sundays are a perpetual celebration of that feast.  Sundays also mark the beginning of a new week.  After Jesus’ resurrection, John explicitly mentions that it occurred on the first day of the week.  I would love to go into an eighth-day-of-creation tangent, but generally, those are reasons I go to church on a Sunday.

I go to church because no one can be a Christian on their own.

I go to church… this one can be a little more complex. I’ll start by saying again that no one can be a Christian on their own. As an Anglican, I believe the church to be at a one, basic level, “the blessed company of all faithful people” (BCP, 1928/Rite I Post-Eurcharistic Prayer; I’m sure that non-Anglicans might also believe this, but I say ‘As an Anglican’ because this is how we state it explicitly).  I want to explore this aspect of going to church.  What is church supposed to be about?  What is church supposed to do?  What is church supposed to be?  The importance of these questions are neatly summed up in Paul Avis’ own words:

A basic ecclesiology is in fact an essential item for every thinking lay Christian to carry in their backpack, for we cannot be Christians at all without the Church, ‘the blessed company of all faithful people’.  Therefore we need to be able to say what the Church of Christ is and how that particular branch of it to which we belong is related to the whole.

He steps it up in addressing the ministers of the church:

Even more obviously, no ordained Christian minister can function without an ecclesiology.  As clergy or ministers we receive our authority for ministry from Christ through the Church.  Therefore we need to know what are the theological credentials – the defining ecclesiological characteristics – of the Church that has bestowed on us the authority to minister word, sacrament and pastoral care in the name of Christ (Avis, 7).

It’s Saturday night when I’m writing this.  I’ll pose the same question I asked above:  Why do you go to church on Sunday mornings?  What’s gonna convince you to not sleep in on Sunday morning?  If you don’t, what are your reasons for not going?  If you are not a Christian, I’d like to hear your thoughts on what a bunch of people gathering together on a Sunday morning looks like to you.

This aspect, why do I go to church on Sunday mornings, will be the topic of the next few posts.  Looking forward to it, and I hope you’ll join in the discussion.

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The Name

There is a conversation–some might even say a debate–concerning the nature of the church.  What is it?  How does it function?  How might we define it?  These questions, of course, each have multiple answers.  It’s not going to be an “all of the above” sort of answer, because there are certain things that the church is not.  I don’t think it useful, right now, to define the church by what it’s not.

The conversation takes us between “Church as an institution” and “Church as an organism.”  I remember that we had this discussion in Church History 1 or Historical Theology 1, or (more likely) in both.

The bottom line, of course, is that the church is both.  It is an institution and it is an organism.  Here I welcome any thoughts, but in my own opinion we find elements of each.

We have an organism: something that is living, growing, at times even declining.  It goes through changes and develops to meet the needs of each new generation.  It is made of living human beings which make up the Body of Christ, no part of which is complete without the others.

We have an institution: something that contains a hierarchy of leadership, statutes and stipulations, canons and codes of discipline.  It changes based on the decisions of committees and governing boards.  In many ways the church acts as a business, with revenue and marketing and a need to sustain itself.

There are elements of both an institution and an organism within what we call church.  Some of us may prefer one construct over the other.  I see it as both.  Because of the tradition I am a part of, I more readily label the church as an institution.  But if it truly is an instution, it is an uncommon one.  The church here on earth is meant to be reflection of the heavenly banquet and mansions and communion and kingdom which we will one day share with all the saints when heaven and earth are one.

I cannot think of a better way to describe this uncommon institution than in the words of Peter Chrysologus.  Commenting on Luke 12:32 (“Fear not, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”), Chrysologus wrote:

The flock is little in the eyes of the world, but great in the eyes of God.  It is little–because he calls glorious those whom he has trained to the innocence of sheep and to Christian meekness.  The flock is little, not as the remnant of a big one, but as one which has grown from small beginnings.  This little flock denotes the infancy of his newborn church, and immediately he promises that through the blessings of heaven this church will soon have the dignity of his kingdom.

This is an uncommon institution.

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Expanding the Scope (The Springboard)

I’ve decided to add a third part to the introduction, which will help me spring into content rather than planning my time away.

A simple sentence in a short glossary does not suffice.  I struggle to define the church myself.  It’s not something we’re necessarily called to do, anyway.  Christians are called to be a part of the church.  If we try to genuinely define it or analyze the church, I would think that the best account of what the church is would come from within.  The issue, of course, is that we all have different backgrounds and histories within what we call church.

This is a blog about that: what we call church.  I’m beginning to expand the scope of my inquiry.  Church is the simplest way, I think, that we refer to both what we do on Sunday mornings and the network of Christian communities which make up what Paul calls the Body of Christ.  I could use two different terms to distinguish what I’m talking about.  “Church” could refer to what people do on Sunday mornings, while “Body of Christ” could refer to the worldwide community of faith.  But I think there’s a richness lost if we distinguish the two concepts this way.

What we do on a Sunday morning – let’s call it worship, for now – is meant to be a reflection of what the wider community of faith is engaged in.  When we participate in worship or liturgy on a Sunday morning, we are engaging in church.  We are uniting with other believers in lifting up our voices to God in prayer and praise, both of which are done in many different ways in different denominations.  There’s more to be said about this, and it will be dealt with starting this week.

In articulating my understanding of the church (both worship and the Body of Christ), I will engage in the voices of two prominent Anglican thinkers: Michael Ramsey, 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, and his The Gospel and the Catholic Church, and Paul Avis’ The Anglican Understanding of the Church.  Through reading these and engaging with them, I hope to be able to articulate a general idea of my own understanding of the church, and to use that as my starting point when trying to understand other denominations.  This serves two purposes: (1) I have a point of comparison, and (2) when I am confronted with something different, either starkly or subtly, I can evaluate and thereby change or strengthen my own convictions.

I’m not afraid of different, and I welcome anything that will challenge me.  I can’t promise that I’ll always respond well, but over time and through perseverence it can only help lead us all to a better and deeper understanding of who we are and how we live.

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The Plan (Introduction, Part 2)

I think it only appropriate to outline what the plan is over this next academic year.  In short, I will be visiting parishes of different denominations each Sunday morning.  For the first semester (September-December), I will visit parishes of mainstream, Protestant denominations (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist).  For the second semester (February-May) I will visit parishes which would label themselves as independent or non-denominational churches.

The Motive: to observe and to understand what people label as “church,” through attention, reflection and evaluation.

  • Attention – basically, this entails attending services.  I believe that the God who created all things has given us license for the various ways we might worship him.  Although I am aware of what is inappropriate in worship, I enter parishes determined to worship God in the way the given congregation (and denomination, I will assume) is accustomed to.  In other words, I’m not going to walk in and merely observe – I’m going to participate in corporate worship.
  • Reflection – this is what my blog posts will be about.  I will describe my encounter at the parishes I visit.  I will, as objectively as possible, outline the service, the message of the sermon or testimonies, the prayers, the tools, the trajectory…anything that comes to mind, and most especially those things which stand out.  I don’t want the posts to go on forever, so I will summarize as best I can.  I will offer my opinions, but only in order to invite conversation.
  • Evaluation – This is where I’d like your help.  No man is an island, as I (and John Donne) have mentioned before.  Evaluate is the word I use, but I do not use it to mean “bash,” “barade,” “diminish,” or “argue.”  I am aware that some parishes may say or do things which I disagree with.  I will not hide or neglect those things, but neither will I use them to write off an entire denomination.  I want to know what people label as “church,” and, if possible, why they do so.  I would like it if you who read would feel comfortable to share your comments and thoughts with me and others through this blog.

I cannot enter a worship service blindly, however.  I’ll do some light research on the parishes I will visit, which basically means I’ll visit their websites.  If by chance or providence I know someone at a parish, I’ll ask him or her about the parish.  If possible, I want to go on a “normal” Sunday – not a parish annual meeting Sunday, or a stewardship Sunday – if information like that is available on a website, I’ll be sure to take note.

I also do not want to be blinded by my own biases, and so for the next few weeks, before school starts, I’ll be working through my own understanding of what “church” is.  Having been raised in one tradition, I have certain expectations of what I will see and do on a Sunday morning.  But I do not think that what I do on a Sunday morning is the only thing to do on a Sunday morning.  At times, going to parishes of different denominations does feel like going to a restaurant and only getting the appetizer.  At times, going to Episcopal or Anglican parishes feels like going to a restaurant where my meat was seriously undercooked.

All that said, I will spend the month of August outlining my understanding of “church,” and why I am perfectly comfortable calling what I do on Sunday mornings “church.”  From now on, I’ll probably stop putting “church” in quotations.  At some point there will be a tab above the header that says “Glossary,” where terms I use such as “church” and “parish,” or “Episcopal” and “Anglican,” will be defined as I am using them (this is a place, I hope, that you will assist and help me to clarify we’re talking about).

So for now, thank you for reading my introduction(s).  If you’re following, or just reading, and you know of someone who would appreciate this project or could contribute in any way, I invite you to invite him or her (or them!) to the conversation.

Pax.

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