I BELIEVE IN THE CHURCH Alter Cross


"What kind of a church would this church be
If everybody acted just like me?"
(Author unknown, cited by George Bernard, composer of "The Old Rugged Cross")


THE CHURCH
I believe in the church because we are the church. The church is a people not a place, a flock not a fold, a believing assembly not a building on the corner. Grand Cathedrals and modest chapels are not the church, they are at best, the meeting places of the church.

There are no perfect churches because there are no perfect people. It amazes me that people are shocked to discover there are sinners in the church. Oddly, they would not be surprised to find sick people in the hospital and ignorant people going to school.

There ought to be more sinners going to church not fewer. The church is people who hunger and thirst after righteousness (Matthew 5:6). They know their need and seek to fulfill it together.

I believe in the church because the church is intrinsic to the gospel. It is not an appendix, not an added option. When I shopped for a new car to replace our worn-out 17 year old Chevette, I discovered that the advertised price doesn't include air-conditioning or a radio. Those were "extra options." If salvation were an automobile, the church would be a transmission you have to have, not a radio you can do without.

Augustine, the greatest theologian in the first thousand years of church history, said there is no salvation outside the church. That sounds severe, but it makes sense when you consider that to be saved you become a child of God and you can't become a child of God without joining his family.

I believe in the church because independent Christians are both miserable and dangerous — miserable because of their loneliness and detachment, dangerous because it is only by associating with others that we achieve and preserve a sense of balance. "Not good if detached" is the warning printed on certain coupons. That also applies to Christians. Detached from the community of believers, they exaggerate whatever meets their individual interests so that their faith becomes an expression of personal bias.

I believe in the church because I need the church. Anyone who thinks Christian faith and life is so simple and easy that it can be a do-it-yourself at home job is either incredibly naive or insufferably conceited. Who of us is ready to forgive seventy times seven or to forsake all we have for the sake of Jesus Christ? Frankly, I need all the help I can get. Don't you? The church is God's gift to help people like you and me.

Edgar Guest wrote: "To say I don't need the church is mere bravado. I needed it when my baby was born. I needed it when my father died. I needed it when we were married, and I shall need it again, sooner or later, and need it badly. I am in good health now and could, I suppose, get along very nicely for a time without a clergyman, or a choir, or even a prayer. But what sort of man is he who scorns and neglects and despises his best friend until his hour of tribulation?"


THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
Some recent versions of the Apostles' Creed say, "the holy Christian church." That is a concession to those who don't know the meaning of the original term: "Catholic." They think the "Holy Catholic Church" means "The Roman Catholic Church." It doesn't. The catholic church means the "whole church," the "universal church." The Roman Catholic Church is not the whole church. The Baptist Church is not the whole church. The Methodist Church is not the whole church. The whole church, i.e. the "catholic" church, is composed of all those who have been born again into God's family, regardless of their denominational label.

It becomes confusing when adjectives become nouns. There is an Orthodox Church (noun), but we all ought to be orthodox (adjective). There is a Christian Church (noun), but we all ought to be Christian (adjective). There is Catholic Church (noun), but we all ought to be catholic (adjective).

The catholic church (small "c") is the only church, the bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:21-33). Christ is not a polygamist. He has but one wife.

Some believers are afraid of church unity. We shouldn't be. Jesus prayed, "that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (John 17:21). His prayer should be our prayer too.

"We are not divided, all one body we
One in hope and doctrine, one in charity."
                (Sabine Baring-Gould, Onward Christian Soldiers)

The local church is not a second-rate form of the universal church, but its incarnation. It is the means by which the universal church participates in nature and history.

"Is this Grand Central Station?" joked the New Yorker at a small mid-western whistle-stop.
"No," said the station manager, "but it is on the same line."

Whatever local church you attend is not the Universal Church, but it is on the same line.

THE HOLY CATHOLIC CHURCH
A holy church is an honest church. Instead of hiding her hypocrisy, she confesses it. How many people do you suppose have been lost to Christ and his church because of our dishonesty? I don't mean stealing something that doesn't belong to us, but saying things we don't really believe and pretending to be something we aren't. The church is often compared to Noah's ark: if it weren't for the storm outside, one could hardly stand the smell inside.

A holy church is a "communion of saints." Sainthood is not a graduate degree in Christianity but the entrance requirement. A saint is not a supercharged, deluxe model Christian but the basic every day generic brand. Many Christians seem to think that sainthood is going to heaven first class. They feel that's okay for those who want to pay the price, but they are content to go tourist class crowded in with a bunch of other sinners. Since we all eventually get there, no sweat! What they don't understand is that sainthood gets the ticket (see Matthew 5:20). Salvation was bought by the precious blood of Christ, but it is offered only to saints.

Don't despair, however, of obtaining a ticket to heaven. To be a saint you don't have to be sinless, you just have to be forgiven. The same people Paul called "saints" (1 Corinthians 1:2) he also roundly rebuked for their sinful behavior (1 Corinthians 5:1). Saints are forgiven sinners who are called to higher levels of holy living.

We are a "communion" of saints. The word for communion is koinonia. It refers to what we have in common. Specifically, what all saints have in common is sin, salvation and service.

Paul said, "We are members of one another" (Ephesians 4:25). He is not talking "time share membership." The church is not a resort you visit on special occasions. It is where you belong. To say "my church," means something different than to say "my car." "My car" means I own it and can do with it whatever I want. It belongs to me. "My church" doesn't mean it belongs to me. It means I belong to it.

Some may say, "Of course, I belong to the church. I am an active member of the church universal, the body of Christ, but I don't belong to any specific local church." Belonging to the church in general is like loving the world in general, but nobody in particular. It is like praying for everybody collectively, but nobody specifically. It reminds me of Charlie Brown who said, "I want to be a doctor when I grow up." Lucy said, "You can't be a doctor, Charlie Brown. To be a doctor you have to love humanity." "I do love humanity," Charlie protested. "It's people I can't stand."

Such love is phony and unreal because it is detached from anything concrete. The proof of mathematical competence is found in balancing one's checkbook, not in discussing Einstein's theory of relativity. And the proof of one's love is found in loyalty to one's spouse and family, not in singing a romantic love ballad. Even so, the proof of our devotion to the Body of Christ is found in our commitment to the local church in real, face-to-face relationships.


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