Shopping for a Church? Give me that Real Old Time Religion
sayings of the early fathers is from Cyprian of Carthage who wrote, "He cannot have God for his father who has not the church for his mother". We do not shop for a Church because it is the Lord Himself who came for us and calls us to Himself. "You did not choose me but I chose you."(John 15:16)
The early Christians and the Church
The early Christians believed that to belong to Jesus was to belong to His Church with no separation. Of that there is no doubt. They believed that just as we were all born from our mother's womb - so we are invited by God, in and through Jesus Christ, to be "born again" into the Church, the new humanity which is being re-created in Him. Catholics, Orthodox and other what I will call "classical" Christians still believe this. They believe that the process of redemption begins when we pass through the Sacramental Waters of the font of Holy Baptism. It continues as we cooperate with the Grace given to us in our life within the Church. It will only be fully completed when the Lord Returns and we are raised in Resurrected Bodies and live in a new heaven and a new earth!
This understanding of the Church as a real participation in Christ and entry into the very Trinitarian Communion runs throughout the writings of the early Church Fathers. Let me share just two snippets as an example. First some words from Origen: "Christ has flooded the universe with divine and sanctifying waves. For the thirsty he sends a spring of living water from the wound which the spear opened in His side. From the wound in Christ's side has come forth the Church, and He has made her His bride" Then, a few words from Bishop Ireneaeus of Lyons, a disciple of Polycarp who was himself a disciple of the Apostle John: "We need to take refuge with the Church, to drink milk at her breast, to be fed with the scriptures of the Lord. For the Church has been planted in the world as a paradise" The early Christians did not see the Church as something onerous or optional, they saw it as normative for every Christian and life giving.
"Church shopping" is symptomatic of a deep longing to belong to God. We should appreciate that longing and respect it. However, it suffers from an inadequate ecclesiology, which is a theology of the Church. One of the problems we face in discussing this topic is that some of our Christian friends have rejected any discussion of theology at all. It has become a suspect word in certain Christian circles. Theology is, according to a common definition, "faith seeking understanding." In an age that has elevated shallow thinking to an acceptable state of being; I believe that we need all the intelligent reflection on what it truly means to be a Christian that we can find!
The Church is not about "function", or "benefit derived"- at least in the contemporary sense of meaning what we "get" or what we do - or is it even primarily a matter of our own personal experience. Rather it is about a continuing, lived, dynamic, relational encounter with the Lord and all those who are now joined to Him in His Mystical Body. The Church comes from above. It is a participation in the Divine Nature, instituted by the Lord and not designed or redesigned by us. The Apostle Peter wrote of this truth in his second letter to the dispersed early Christians: "His divine power has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and devotion, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and power. Through these, he has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature." (2 Peter 1:4)
The Church is a "mystery" (the Greek word "mysterion"). It cannot be fully grasped or explained by words. St. Paul writes regularly of this mystery. His writings concerning the Church in his letters to the Corinthians, the Romans, the Ephesians and the Philippians all demonstrate the integral place of the Church in his understanding of the Christian faith. His encounter with the Risen Lord on the way to Damascus reveals the ground of his ecclesiology. (Acts 9: 1-22): We read, "Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to Him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?" And he said, "Who are you, Lord?" And He said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting."
The voice Paul (then Saul) heard from heaven asked him why he persecuted "Me". Saul had never met Jesus in the flesh. He had however persecuted the Church. Jesus is identified with the Church and her members. He is really, truly present in His Body on the earth. In the words of St. Augustine, the "whole Christ" cannot be separated, " the body as a unity cannot be separated from the head." The Church is an encounter with that whole Christ, the Risen Lord and an entrance through Him into the Trinitarian communion. That encounter and the relationship it supports is spoken of throughout the Christian Tradition as being 'nuptial', this is wedding language; the Christian vocation is to be espoused to Jesus Christ as a bride to a bridegroom for all eternity.
Let me share some of the language used for describing the Church found in the early Christian writings. The Church is a gift - and a seed of the Kingdom to come. The Church is the vine into which we are grafted. The Church is the Risen Jesus, Sacramentally present in the world. The Church is the new family begun at the Cross. The Church is where we can learn to love as we enter into the very communion of the Love of the Godhead revealed in the total gift of the Son of God on the second tree of the Cross. Birthed from the wounded side of the Savior, who is the "New Adam", on the altar of the Cross, the Church is His Body continuing His redemptive mission on the earth.
See how different all of this is from the idea of finding a place where we can have lattes and listen to good music? All of these images of the Church which I just used are found in the Sacred Scriptures and expounded upon within our common Christian tradition. We do not make the Church in our image, the Church re-makes us into Christ's Image through the grace which is mediated through the Sacraments, revealed in His Word and experienced in our ecclesial life together. This is heart of the ecclesiology so evident in the earliest Christian literature; a view of the Church which is dramatically different than the notion revealed in that interview and in that book.
One of my favorite contemporary theologians is an Orthodox layman named Olivier Clement. He writes of the absolute splendor of the Church in a manner which reveals that the same experience of the Church which characterized the early Christian fathers is being experienced today:
"In the Risen Christ, in his glorified body, in the very opening of His wounds, it is no longer death that reigns but the Spirit, the Breath of Life. And the cross of victory and of light, which is the pattern of our baptism, can henceforth transform the most desperate situation into a death-and-resurrection, a 'Passover', a crossing-point on the way to eternity. And that is what the Church, this profoundly holy institution is: it is the baptismal womb, the Eucharistic chalice, the breach made for eternity by the Resurrection in the hellish lid of the fallen world.
"The Church is the Mystery of the Risen Lord, the place, and the only one, where separation is completely overcome; where paschal joy, the 'feast of feasts', the triumph over death and hell are offered to our freedom, enabling it to become creative and work towards the final manifestation of that triumph, the final transfiguration of history and the universe. .In its deepest understanding the Church is nothing other than the world in the course of transfiguration"
Shopping for a Church? Give me that old time religion!
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Pope Benedict XVI's Prayer Intentions for January 2013
General Intention: The Faith of Christians. That in this Year of Faith Christians may deepen their knowledge of the mystery of Christ and witness joyfully to the gift of faith in him.
Missionary Intention: Middle Eastern Christians. That the Christian communities of the Middle East, often discriminated against, may receive from the Holy Spirit the strength of fidelity and perseverance.
Keywords: Church shopping, seeker movement, emerging church, Catholic Church, evangelical, mega-church, Deacon Keith Fournier, Rome, Roman Catholic
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