As with most of my religious blog posts (which is to say, just about ALL of them), if you aren’t a Christian you probably won’t have any interest in what I have to say except, perhaps, out of sheer curiosity. In this case, fairly specificaly, what I want to discuss gets close into the heart of inter-Christian discussion and dialogue. Feel free to be a spectator though.
What exactly does it mean to be the Church?
Chances are that unless you spend any considerable time thinking about these sorts of things the phrase “the Church” may sound odd to you. For many people, particularly we Americans, there simply doesn’t exist this concept of “the Church”, there are simply “churches”. There are essentially two kinds of people who think this way, people outside of the Church and people whose only real religious fealty is, “This is what I was raised with.” For the latter group this is something like, “My grandma was a Baptist, my mom was a Baptist, and I am a Baptist.”
Thus “churches” become little more than religio-cultural entities, like membership clubs, similar to one’s national heritage–one is “Lutheran”, “Baptist”, “Catholic” in the same way one is “Polish”, “Italian”, or “Iranian”.
I want you, whoever you might be, to completely eradicate this idea from your mind in this discussion, because it’s absolutely not what I’m talking about.
Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans and Catholics are, for certain, churches; we often call them “traditions” or “denominations”–that funny word coming from the Latin, “de nomine“, meaning “to name”. I prefer the term “expressions”, these are localized “expressions” of Christianity, they are “expressions” of the Church.
Which gets at something quite deeper, the idea of the Church over the idea of “churches”.
Many Christians, particularly Protestants, both Mainline and Evangelical, are quite comfortable with the idea of the “Invisible Church”. This idea essentially says that there is the “Invisible Church” and the “Visible Church”. The “visible” is, of course, what we can see, we see “churches”; and of course the “invisible” is what can’t be seen, and it seeks to grasp at something deeper, that despite what we observe, all Christians are, more or less, part of the same thing: the Church. That is to say, the one and only Church; what is typically called “The Body of Christ”.
Now following the Protestant Reformation, where we have a serious split within Western Christendom between Catholics and Protestants, there were the wars of religions where Catholics and Protestants killed themselves for roughly about a century. This whole thing obviously wasn’t working out so well, and Protestants started to come up with a theory of “denominationalism”, that each Protestant sub-group was simply just an expression of the same thing. It took a while to get some of the kinks out, but it allowed Protestants to basically stop hurling anathemas against one another; though of course it often meant continued anathemas against the Roman Catholic Church–after all she was to blame for all this (or so you’d think if you read all the anti-Catholic rhetoric which came out of the 17th-19th centuries).
The wars of religion also created something else, a large group of Europeans who simply were convinced that all this organized religion stuff was a problem in and of itself, which of course led to that wonderful thing called the Age of Enlightenment, and of course we’ve been so enlightened ever since here in the West that we’ve never gone to war again; unless you count the American and French Revolutions, the Napoleonic Wars, World War I and II, the Bolshevik Revolution and the Maoist Regime–to only name a couple.
The real brainchild of the Enlightement was what eventually was birthed in Democracy and the rise of the modern nation state, particularly the idea of secular government which could keep all us religious folks from slaughtering one another. America was born as such an utopia of religious freedom and religious plurality, with all the glory which secularism brings. This, of course, not to attack religious freedom, democracy, secularism or religious pluralism by any means–but it has all created this culture we now live in today. It’s where we presently are as a civilization.
Which is probably why all my talk about “the Church” sounds so very odd.
Here’s the real meat of what I’m getting at: Christ did not establish “churches”, and talk to your local Catholic priest and he’ll tell you the very same thing; but fear not my Protestant chums, I am not arguing on behalf of Rome, at least not completely. I am, however, arguing on behalf of something more than a mere amorphous “invisible” Christian unity.
Here’s the cold and painful truth: What really divides us as Christians is not that we disagree on this or that point of theological minutia, Christians have been debating theology since Paul and James discussed the “Gentile Problem” at the Council of Jerusalem in around 50 AD. Anyone who cares much for studying Church history and reading the things Christians have been saying and writing over the centuries knows that all those guys with long beards and funny names disagreed on a hell of alot. Yet they were all still part of the same Church, probably because they had no concept for “church” in the modern sense. For them there simply was what there was, and so it didn’t matter where you were, in what city you visited, you could go to any urban center throughout the known world and gather with your fellow believers and experience life together with them.
What made them one wasn’t their agreement on theological minutia (though certainly theology was tremendously important, something also clear from a cursory study of Church history), but their participation together in worship. It was their liturgia–their work of worship as the people of God–which unified them as the Church. And for most of us Evangelicals, what we typically call “worship” would, no doubt, be completely and utterly alien to Christians from the apostolic era onward. For them worship was not getting up on Sunday, going to your local church building and singing a few hymns. Though they certainly did sing hymns, and hymnody is a vibrant part of the Christian tradition. For them what made worship actually worship was the Eucharist (Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Table of the Lord, the Agape Feast, etc). Everything else which they did when they gathered was organized around this centralized event. The hymns, the prayers, the homily (sermon), these were all in place, placed around the reason the Faithful even gathered to begin with: To receive the bread and the wine.
There are good chances that this may seem silly to you, because this idea is probably so alien from your very conception of worship. Such is the way things have become over the last couple hundred years for many Protestants, but it’s the truth.
Christians gathered to eat. Their eating together was the most fundamental part of their worship.
The theological meaning of the Eucharist for the ancient Church was that it was the actual body and blood of Christ, and there was a mystical meaning between the ideas of Jesus’ body, the bread and the wine, and the Church as “Body of Christ”.
I think this much is clear from reading just about anyone who had anything to say about the subject from antiquity: The bread and the wine of the Eucharist simply, and really, was the body and blood of Christ. This is long before theories like “Transubstatiation” existed, the philosophical ideas of medieval theologians. There was no “theory”, it was simply “mystery” (Greek “mysterium”, received into Latin as the word “sacramentum” or sacrament). The bread eaten was Jesus body, the wine drank was Jesus’ blood. All the “how?” questions were fairly unimportant, the Eucharist simply was what it was: Jesus present in/as bread and wine. If you don’t believe me then feel free to do your own homework.
The ramifications of this, however, are very important. Because three things in Scripture (and the ancient Church as a whole) were called “body”: Jesus’ own body which was crucified and resurrected, the Eucharist, and the community of Christian believers (the Church). In a real sense then these three things are all in some way the same thing: The Body of Christ. It’s precisely in our eating that we partake in Christ’s own body and are, corporately, that same body.
Think I’m making this up?
“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” – 1 Corinthians 10:16,17
We are the Body of Christ. And it’s precisely because we all gather at the same Table that we are that very body.
What does it mean, then, if we don’t gather together at the same Table? Division in Christianity is not because of theological minutia, but because we forbid each other from gathering together.
Much more could be said of the meaning of the Table, connecting it with Jesus’ ministry of eating with people, going into their homes to share a meal, the Eucharist as gathering with Jesus, around Jesus (the Last Supper anyone?), because the Table is the central event where we are actually gathered for, in, around, with and under Christ; we could also delve into the topic of how this Eucharist supplants the Temple cultus of sacrifice. The Church as Temple, Christians as priests (which the New Testament affirms in several places), as well as the significance that only the Temple priests could partake of the Temple sacrifice thus participating in the sacrifice (look at 1 Corinthians 10:18) itself. But I won’t get deep into that.
It will, however, suffice to say that what actually constitutes Christian unity is, in fact, the Eucharist–the Table.
As long as we forbid one another from the same Table, or if we no longer understand the Table as the central element of our gathered worship, we are no longer functioning as the Church. What’s left are simply “churches”, religious social clubs without any significant meaning.
Going on Sunday to sing a few songs, say a few prayers, and hear a sermon may all be really nice, it may be all really good, but it’s like going to a wedding feast without any wedding, or building a car without an engine.
The Table is what we fundamentally do, and fundementally are called to do. Because, in the end, it’s what we fundementally are.
Church without the Table ultimately isn’t Church at all.
The Table of Christ, eating together, is what makes us one.