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.).
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.