The Fourth Week of Lent
There is one church, one body of Christ in the world. There are many congregations, many ecclesiastical bodies, various associations of congregations, but there is a single community in Christ. We don’t act like it. We very much like to claim that some are true Christians and others are not – or, at least, that some are better Christians in one way or another. But the reality is that only those who are already gathered to the presence of God can truly say they are “real Christians.” All the rest of us are Christians on the way. All the rest of us are still learning. We are, at best, the JV team: some on the field, some on the bench, some on the sidelines hoping to be asked, and some still sitting in the stands.
There is one church, one body of Christ in the world, one community trying to understand the depths of God’s mercy and the calling to live it. But the wondrous reality of the body of Christ comprised of people from every race and language past, present and future takes on concrete form in local congregations. We are united with brothers and sisters in the church catholic (universal) but we live, worship, and learn together with specific brothers and sisters in real life, flesh and blood congregations.
Christianity is necessarily a communal enterprise. It begins with a small group of followers (not just the twelve) and envisions a redeemed human community. Isaiah speaks of all people gathered to a great banquet on Mt. Zion. Revelation speaks of a New Jerusalem, a vast city without fear. Paul describes the Christian mission as a ministry of reconciliation. And at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer is the petition, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
Christian faith and practice is something we do in community. Our central ritual act is a meal: bread and wine shared. We sing together. We pray together. We listen together. We work together in worship, witness and service. We work at forgiving one another.
“God is love,” writes the author of First John. The age to come will by defined by love. So we come together in congregations to practice loving one another. We want to get better at it, so that we won’t feel out of place on that day when all things are made new. We want to feel at home when we sit down at the feast to come.
Paul calls the church “the household of faith.” Ephesians, First Timothy, and First Peter all refer to “the household of God.” Jesus wonderfully declares: “In my Father’s house are many mansions/rooms/dwelling places” (translators struggle to capture the meaning of the noun form of the Greek verb ‘to abide’ that John uses so often), and the first believers were regarded as sisters and brothers – though the images here are of a grand estate not a modern nuclear family.
Members of a common household provide for one another, care for one another, help and encourage one another, forgive one another. They defend, comfort, exhort, and guide one another. They work together on the family estate for the benefit of all. It doesn’t come easily. It’s something we work at. And it is why forgiveness is so pivotal.
We depend upon the Spirit of God to weave this new creation. We are humbled by the words of Jesus that “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” even as we are humbled by Jesus taking a towel and bending to wash our feet.
A community gathered by the promise of God, born anew through the baptismal waters, united in bonds of mutual support and faithfulness, is both fruit of the Spirit and sign of the new creation to come. We are, however poorly, a sign and promise of a world redeemed. One remarkably kind, courageous, loving person is a saint; a kind, courageous and loving community is hope for the world.
in the waters of baptism you made us members of your body.
Renew in us this day the bonds of affection
that we may love one another as you have loved us.
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https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASt._Mary’s_Cathedral_Basilica_of_the_Assumption_(Covington%2C_Kentucky)%2C_interior%2C_nave_and_baptistery.jpg By Nheyob (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons