The Church: Institution or Body of Christ?

There was great personal danger in being too closely identified with the crucified.  Because as the cross stands as the sign of man’s inhumanity to his fellow human beings, it is that place where an unattractive truth about humans is revealed—and that truth? That we find a certain sadistic enjoyment out of the suffering of others, so long as we are not too closely involved.  Public executions in the American West, in merry olde England and in Nazareth all share that in common. They were generally regarded by the populace as a holiday occasion, a moment of entertainment. A venture into the cruel and unattractive side of what it is to be human. In fact, in one of my old fiddle books there is a tune, titled “Fortune my foe,” that was commonly played at English public executions.

Now in spite of the great personal danger to themselves, at the cross of Jesus there stood two and only two people who were close to our Lord. Standing at the foot thereof were John, the beloved, the disciple described in scripture as the disciple whom Jesus loved; the other was his mother, Mary. All the others had abandoned him.  And for good cause, as I am sure we would all agree, self-preservation is indeed a good cause. Is it any surprise that the disciples locked the doors and were gathered in fear—on that first Sunday, the week after the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus?

From the cross our Lord addressed both John and Mary. “Woman behold thy son. Son behold thy mother.” Those words are typically interpreted as our Lord, a dying and concerned son, making provision for his mother. But there are ways in which that statement is also seen as establishing the kind of new community that Jesus intended to establish in what we call His Church—a family in which the ties is not of kith or kindred, but in which the blood tie is, if you will the shared blood—the shared lineage of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This manner of thinking about the meaning of family as knit together in the grace of Jesus Christ is reflected in the first reading today, but it is more fully articulated in such passages as Galatians 3.26:

“In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

That point of the church as the new family of God is also highlighted in the second reading in which Saint John reminds us how we have fellowship with one another for the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin and knits us into a community and fellowship of grace.

So, while we do not experience the Church as an experiment in communal living as the first Christians did, (and I might add that such was the case only very briefly) but we are still knit together nonetheless as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. And, in fact, the fellowship of those who believe is referred to in scripture as the Body of Christ, which always serves to remind me of the saying of Saint Cyprian, who taught, “You cannot claim to have God as Father, who have not the church for your mother.”

More recently and in our own time, the theologian Edward Schillebeeckx drove home the importance of the role of the church in this dramatic way: he simply and profoundly reminded us that the church is the sacrament of the encounter with the Risen Lord Jesus Christ.

Faithfully,

Canon Greg+

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About canongreg

I have been Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Wellsboro, PA since 1994.
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