The second week of Advent, 2013, is fast approaching as I apply in writing things now pondered many years, and consider today’s reflection by Rev. Bede Naegele, O.C.D. in his unique devotional booklet, Minute Meditations for Each Day, which gives comfort and inspiration. It is based upon the words of St. John’s gospel 1:12: Those who did receive Him [Jesus the Christ] He empowered to become children of God. Reflection: “To be God’s child means to be in holy conversation with the heavenly Father, to walk holding His hand, and to rest in His Heart for all eternity. This is the greatest miracle that can be granted to a soul: to accept Christ and let Him reign in one’s life. Who possesses my heart?” And a prayer: My Lord and Savior, may everything I do and everything I possess be consecrated to You. Help me so that I may always behave as a child of God.
The earliest days of my ministry and theological formation found me struggling not with questions about: Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? I believe these questions to be practically insolvable and way above my metaphorical pay-grade. Instead, here are the questions that much engaged me:
Who really is Jesus the Christ? And: What truly is the place and purpose of the church relative to conveying the Message and Spirit of Christ? Is the church overall helping or retarding that Message and Spirit?
My devotion to Jesus the Christ – my pilgrim-choice to follow Him - as the human life of God, Lord and Savior, was not a difficult process, and the entirely satisfying development of that journey continues to this day. Questions regarding the place and purpose of “the church” in the world is another matter, in spite of the fact that I have spent the best of these past thirty-five years struggling mightily with these matters, including being intensely involved in a protracted, and sometimes ugly crusade for the eventual establishment, in 1993, by an Act Of The Bahamian Parliament, of the autonomous Bahamas Conference of The Methodist Church; having been elected its founding president.
Even though, by academic and professional postgraduate accreditation in 1977, I was given the designation doctor of the church, I nevertheless – practically every breathing day of my life – wrestle with the near-haunting question: What exactly is “the church” in relation to the church’s supposed Lord and Master, Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, resurrected and ever-present Christ? Has the witness of the church, by-and-large, been a bane or blessing? Is the church as we experience it and history reflects it, an institution - in its many, varied and sometimes outstanding, even spectacular dimensions - built, maintained and promoted to celebrate man’s ego, benefit and image, or does it show forth and seek to display in every conceivable way the essential glory of God - the Spirit of Christ? These pertinent questions are in my mind not entirely resolved, although I remain to this day, even from infant baptism, a member, yes even an ordained minister, of the holy, catholic, universal church. Make no mistake about it; I am a bone fide product of the Church, a veritable “blue blood” in a way of speaking; a consummate, lifelong insider. Displeased, not satisfied with much of the goings-on within, around, even underneath the precincts of the church’s life and witness, but a bitter, disgruntled outsider I am not.
In this paper I will apply the rule of apologetics (speaking in defense) to buttress, and hopefully advance, the Christian Faith, using mostly a wide range of systematic information to do so.
Much needs yet to be done to align the magnificent person, work and witness of Christ to that of the existing personality, work and witness of the church which bears His name. To this task I am resolved to devote my life. This paper and my thoughts expressed herein, is an attempt to advance things Christ and Church; Church and Christ. Hence my rationale to establish what I describe simply as a Spirit Of Christ (SOC) gathering, in an attempt to supplement or enhance the existing work and witness - or lack thereof - of “the church” generically. My motive is in no way intended to oppose, obstruct, distract or discourage any organized denominational or nonaligned church. But first, let’s take a look back and refresh some basics of the church’s biblical, theological and historic roots.
In The Beginning
In the beginning we enter the Apostolic Period of Christianity, the primitive foundations of the church, which word comes from the Greek ekklesia, meaning, “gathering” or “assembly”. This was the period of the Twelve Apostles, dating from the so-called Great Commission of the Apostles [cf. Matthew 28: 16-20 – Jesus said: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…] by the resurrected Jesus Christ in Jerusalem c.33, until the time of the New Testament book: Acts of the Apostles, even though this book’s historical accuracy is sometimes questioned.
The apostolic period or apostolic times, between the years 30 and 100, produced apostolic writings attributed directly to the immediate followers of Jesus Christ. These were the foundations upon which the entire church’s history is grounded. It is vitally important to note that during this period of earliest christianity, the influence of one man, the apostle Paul, most significantly influenced the thinking, writing and organizing of church development. However, early Christianity was dominated by a conflict between the Apostle Peter, who was law-observant [somewhat conservative] and the Apostle Paul who advocated partial or even complete freedom from the law [more liberal]. Theological differences between Peter and Paul are recorded in the New Testament and were widely discussed in the early church.
During the latter part of the 1st century and clearly into the 2nd century, Christianity established itself as a predominately Gentile or non-Jewish religion, spanning the Roman Empire. Once the canon [books] of the New Testament begun to take shape – much as we have it today - and although other important non-canonical writings persisted, these writings [letters and books] became non-consequential within a relatively short period of time.
Christianity in the 2nd century
Second century Christianity was largely the time of the commonly described Apostolic Fathers, who were the students of the apostles of Jesus. While Christianity and its church was centered in Jerusalem in the 1st century, it became decentralized in the 2nd century. These were very fast moving, changing, and dramatic times.
Although the term Christian is attested in the book of Acts from the middle of the first century, the earliest recorded use of the Greek term Christianity is by Ignatius, bishop of Antioch. At first Christians continued to worship and pray alongside Jewish believers but within twenty years of Jesus’ death, “The Lord’s Day” (Sunday) was being regarded as the primary day of meeting and worship among some Christian groupings (or “sects” as they were first regarded) in the city of Rome. Another new feature of the post-Apostolic church is the emergence of bishops as overseers of urban Christian populations, and a hierarchy clergy gradually took on the form of episkopos (overseers, bishops), presbyters (elders) and then deacons (servants). While some New Testament writers use the terms overseer and elder interchangeably, the episcopal structure becomes clearly visible in the 2nd century. This developing structure of what was now being defined as “the church”, was enforced by the teaching of apostolic succession, where a bishop becomes the spiritual successor of the previous bishop in a line believed and said to trace back to the original apostles.
One cannot ignore the fact that much of the official organizing of the ecclesiastical or church structure was done entirely by the bishops of the church. This had already become a tradition established by the Apostolic Fathers, who were themselves bishops. The organizing structure itself was largely determined by instructions of a unique and significant AD 70 – 140 document titled, The Didache (Greek, which means “teaching). This Didache or “The Teaching of The Twelve Apostles” is a brief early treatise which in part states: Appoint for yourselves therefore bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord. The first line of this treatise is, “Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles (or Nations) by the Twelve Apostles”. The Didache text has three main sections dealing with Christian ethics and rituals such as Baptism, the Eucharist (Holy Communion) and, most notably, church organization.
A major feature of the second century Christian Community was it being severely attacked and persecuted as an illegal religion. This proved to strengthen faith and it required the church to defend the truth that was handed down to it by Christ and the Apostles.
Religiously and politically the Christians were criminals in the eyes of the Romans because they transgressed the laws of the state, refusing to honor the emperor as king, lord and god. Christians would not give the king glory and worship which was due alone to God and His Christ. Thus Roman law declared it not lawful to be a Christian.
At the end of the first century and beginning of the second, many other writings about Christ were produced which caused much confusion among the faithful. There were, for example,teachings of Gnosticism, generally regarded as a false Christian heresy, which sought to transform Christianity into a spiritualistic, dualistic, intellectualized philosophy. In reaction to these and other perceived unorthodox teachings, the church began firmly to establish exactly which writings belonged to the holy scripture of the church and which did not. The stage was being set to for the Christian church to enter into its third century.
The third century Church comes into its own Beginning of the 3rd century saw the Roman emperor, Decius, enacting measures intended to restore stability and unity to an empire in crisis, including a requirement that Roman citizens affirm their loyalty through religious ceremonies pertaining to the Imperial cult. Christians were subject to arrest only for their refusal to participate in Roman civil religion, but were not prohibited from assembling for worship. Curiously, gnostic Christians appear not to have been persecuted.
As Christianity spread it acquired certain members from well-educated circles who sometimes became bishops. Two sorts of works were applied, aimed at defending Christianity, namely: theological and apologetic; the latter being a method applied at defending the faith by using reason to refute arguments against the veracity of Christianity. These authors are known as the Church Fathers. Notable early Fathers included: Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria and Origen.
We arrive now at a pivotal juncture in the life of the early Church. In the summer of 325, The First Council of Nicaea, a council of Christian bishops convened in Nicaea, Bithynia, by the then non-Christian, Roman Emperor Constantine 1. As Nicaea was a place reasonably accessible to many delegates, Constantine had invited all 1800 bishops of the Christian church (about 1000 in the east and 800 in the west), but a smaller and unknown number attended.
Constantine assisted in assembling the council by arranging that travel expenses to and from the bishops’ episcopal sees, as well as lodging at Nicaea, be covered out of public funds. He also provided and furnished a “great hall… in the palace” as a place for discussion so that the attendees “should be treated with becoming dignity”. Addressing the opening of the council Constantine “exhorted the Bishops to unanimity and concord” and called on them to follow the Holy Scriptures: “Let, then, all contentious disputation be discarded; and let us seek in the divinely-inspired word the solution of the questions at issue.”
The main accomplishments of the council were settlement of the Christological matters regarding the person and nature of Christ, the Son of God, and his relationship to God the Father.
The Council was the first occasion where the technical aspects of Christology were discussed, and dealt mainly with the issue of the deity of Christ. Questions regarding The Holy Spirit were left largely unaddressed until after theology of the relationship between the Father and the Son was settled around the year 362. The council of 325 resolved, to some degree, the debate within the early Christian communities regarding the divinity of Christ. The council affirmed and defined what it believed to be the teachings of the Apostles regarding who is Christ (Christ is the one true God in deity with the Father). Another result of the council was an agreement on when to celebrate Easter, the most important feast of the church’s calendar.
This First Council of Nicaea resulted in the first uniform Christian doctrine; the intent being to define unity of beliefs for the whole of Christendom in a doctrinal statement called the Creed of Nicaea or The Nicene Creed. The council also promulgated twenty new church laws, called canons or unchanging rules of discipline.
It should be noted that Christianity was illegal in the empire until emperors Constantine and Licinius agreed in 313 to what became known as the Edict of Milan. However, Christianity remained legal and present in public affairs. A curious and surprising fact of church history is that in 321 - four years before Nicaea – Constantine declared Sunday to be an empire-wide day of rest in honor of the sun.
On July 25, 325, closing of proceedings, the fathers of the council celebrated the Emperor’s twentieth anniversary. In his farewell address, Constantine informed the audience how averse he was to dogmatic controversy; he wanted the Church to live in harmony and peace. Constantine’s role regarding Nicaea was that of supreme civil leader and authority in the empire. As Emperor, the responsibility for maintaining civil order was his, and he sought that the Church be of one mind and at peace. Despite Constantine’s sympathetic interest in the church, he was not baptized until 11 or 12 years after the council.
The long-term effects of the Council of Nicaea are significant, profound and unmatched in the history of the church. For the first time ever, representatives of many of the bishops of the church convened to agree on a far-reaching doctrinal statement. Also, a non-Christian Emperor played a major role by calling together bishops under his authority and using the power of the state to give the council’s orders effect.
When was the first church building erected for worship?
Before Emperor Constantine recognized Christianity as a legal religion in 313, corporate ownership of property by the church was illegal. It seems that the first property owned by the Roman church were the catacombs. But these were not places of meeting, but burial sites.
The New Testament speaks of a large church in Jerusalem meeting together in a public space, the outer court of the temple in Acts 2:46 (The so-called Acts Two Church), and in smaller groups in houses. This practice must have been carried on in many cities of the Roman Empire. For the most part, the church was dependent on members or supporters (patrons) who owned larger houses, providing a place for meeting. There are indications that early Christians met in other public spaces such as warehouses or apartment buildings. There is a common saying that for its first 300 years, Christianity gossiped its way across Europe, with no one abiding place or physical structure.
That being said, it appears that the earliest building devoted to Christian use was established on the Euphrates River in eastern Roman Syria. It was a house that came into Christian possession and was remodeled in the 240s AD. This house-church represents an intermediate stage between meeting in members’ houses or other suitable places, and constructing buildings specifically for church assemblies.
What then is “the church” and its purpose?
I believe, with others, that the Christian Church can be seen in two ways: the visible (the church terrestrial) and the invisible (the church triumphant), the formal and the non-formal, the structured and the church without walls. The visible, structured Church is comprised of all who claim the name of Christian and who gather together for worship and participation in the sacraments. Members of the non-structured invisible, or less-visible Church, are a body of believers who trust in their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. In both instances the Church is the gathering of believers who come together in the name of Jesus the Christ, to participate in fellowship with one another as they worship God and hear from God’s written Word, the Bible.
Biblically, theologically and traditionally, the essential purposes of the Church are: (1) To worship God [Love the Lord God with all one’s heart, mind, soul, strength] as known principally through Jesus Christ, the human life of God; (2) Love one another [Love your neighbor as yourself]; (3) Read and study the Bible; (4) Pray; (5) Learn how to live as godly people [Aim at becoming fully devoted disciples of Christ]; (5) Help one another; (6) Be willing to share the Gospel of Christ with others; (7) Embrace the essential Sacraments, Baptism and The Holy Communion.
Why do people attend Church?
Nobody can answer with certainty the question why do people actually attend Church? Getting to the heart of a person’s true motives is virtually impossible. However, the survey of a Gallup News Service poll taken in the United States, over a three day period in March 2007, of just under 600 men and woman, provide some clues.
“More than 40% of Americans claim to attend church or synagogue regularly; about 15% say they never attend…
“There is a strong relationship between age and church attendance, with older Americans more likely to attend than younger Americans….It is reasonable to hypothesize that older Americans are more likely to attend church because they are more immediately facing the prospect of death.
“Black Americans are much more likely to attend church services on average than white Americans.
“Women are more frequent church attenders than men, but the reasons men and women give do not differ significantly.
“Those who seldom or never attend church can be split into two groups: those who have fairly –well-developed reasons for not attending (‘I don’t believe in God’, ‘I don’t agree with what organized religion teaches’) and those who are willing to admit that they just don’t get around to it, don’t have time, or are just plain ‘lazy’.
“Over the years sociologists have theorized that Americans may attend church because such behavior serves explicit social functions, i.e., the ability to socialize with other members of the community, making business contacts, developing friends and maintaining one’s presentation of self and status in the community. These reasons may be accurate in some ways, but they are not explicitly acknowledged when churchgoers are asked to self-report on their reasons for their behavior. Only 13% of churchgoers provide this type of rationale in the current survey.”
(Asked of adults who attend church services at least monthly) What is the most important reason why you attend church or synagogue? [Open-Ended]
For spiritual growth and guidance - 23%
Keeps me grounded/inspired - 20%
It’s my faith - 15%
To worship God - 15%
The fellowship of other members/The community - 13%
Believe in God/Believe in Religion - 12%
Brought up that way/A family value/Tradition - 12%
Other - 4%
No reason in particular - 1%
(Asked of adults who seldom or never attend church services) What is the most important reason why you do not attend church or synagogue [Open-Ended]
Don’t agree with organized religion/what they preach – 24%
Don’t believe in going to church - 16%
Athiest/Don’t believe in God - 10%
Church wants/asks for too much money - 3%
Don’t have time/Don’t get around to it - 21%
Don’t have a church I connect with - 9%
I’m lazy - 6%
Poor health/Disabled - 2%
Other - 5%
No reason in particular - 6%
No opinion - 3%
So what is the Church, really?
Who is the church? What is the church? Why the church? Where is the church? Is it the church of the temperament of The Crusades and the man crusade-like atrocities committed throughout the centuries in the name of Christ and Church, or is it the church of men and women filled with mercy, compassion, healing and justice such as the Mother Teresa’s of this world?
It’s patently clear to me that the church means many different things to different people and there really is no consensus concerning the church regarding its essential purpose, nor is there unanimity on doctrine, polity, government, internal policy (or politics!), and the like. Furthermore, as results of the Gallup poll above clearly demonstrate, the vast majority of persons attend church mainly for social, business, status-building and other perceived non-religious, non-spiritual reasons; their interest appears to be themselves, not Christ. Even more importantly for me, the survey is revealing as to why people do not attend “church”. “Don’t have time to or simply don’t get around to going to church – 21%.” “Don’t have a church I connect with – 9%”.
Would these figures above be substantially more impressive if there were more small neighbor-based, home churches [but never described or thought of as that profoundly loaded word “church”]?; very small groups just next door or across the street, easily accessible, able to be reached - come-just-as-you-are – in 3 minutes instead of forty-five? A “church” free of frenetic fund-raising for the new building-project, and all the many other essential projects which demand consistent tithe-giving; free of internal church politics, free of biblical, denominational and doctrinal gymnastics; free of rituals and relics? Would it not be entirely and surprisingly refreshing to have available spirituality groups meeting quietly, unobtrusively, centered, gathered together entirely around the way and teaching of Christ - persons reading the four gospels, praying, meditating, demonstrating acts of loving kindness one to another and spreading a caring spirit through living rather than talking? This precisely is the way church was evidenced in the first three centuries after the post-resurrection event. It is what is described in the book of Acts, chapter two, as the so-called “Acts Two Church”. But the tone and spirit of the Acts Two Church did not last very long - three hundred years at most. Before we look closely at that model, let’s take a look at two other kinds of “church”, namely, that of the Crusades and as reflected in the life and ministry of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Church of the Crusades
Even before the infamous atrocities and horrendous acts of terrorism conducted by the crusaders [The Crusades] or holy warriors [“Holy Wars”] in the name of Christ, which spanned Europe and Asia for two hundred years (1095-1291AD), other unspeakable vices had taken place. There was a minimum of eight Crusades targeted principally against Muslims and Muslim held territories.
As soon as Christianity gained legality and the Christian Church became an established institution in 315, pagan temples and their supporters were destroyed by Christian mobs. Pagan priests were killed. Between 315 and the 6th century thousands of pagan believers were slain by Christian devotees. Christian Emperor Theodosius (408-450) had children executed, because they had been playing with remains of pagan statues. According to Christian chroniclers, emperor Theodosius “followed meticulously all Christian teachings…”
The Crusades were a series of so-called, Holy Wars, launched by the Christian states of Europe against Muslims who inhabited and centered about the city of Jerusalem. The objective of the crusaders was at first to release the Holy Land, in particular Jerusalem (from the Saracens), but in time it was extended to seizing Spain from the Moors, the Slavs and pagans of Eastern Europe and the islands of the Mediterranean. For a period of two centuries Europe and Asia were engaged in almost constant warfare. The effects of the Crusades influenced the wealth and power of the Church, political matters, commerce, intellectual development, and other social and material matters, and was an important factor in the history of the progress mainly of western civilization.
But the Crusade wrecked great, unimaginable acts of horror and inhumanity. For example, the conquest of Jerusalem alone, in 1099 (7/15), claimed the lives of some 60,000 souls - Jewish, Muslim, men, women, children. In the words of one witness: “There [in front of Solomon’s temple] was such a carnage that our people were wading ankle-deep in the blood of our foes”, and after that, “happily and crying for joy our people marched to our Savior’s tomb, to honor it and to pay off our debt of gratitude”.
Of the same Jerusalem conquest The Archbishop of Tyre, gives this chilling eye-witness account: “It was impossible to look upon the vast numbers of slain without horror; everywhere lay fragments of human bodies, and the very ground was covered with the blood of the slain. It was not alone the spectacle of headless bodies and mutilated limbs strewn in all directions that roused the horror of all who looked upon them. Still more dreadful was it to gaze upon the victors themselves, dripping with blood from head to foot, an ominous sight which brought terror to all who met them. It is reported that within the Temple enclosure alone about ten thousand infidels perished”. Christian chronicler Eckehard of Aura noted that: “Even the following summer in all of Palestine the air was polluted by the stench of decomposition.” It is estimated there were one million victims of the first crusade alone. In another crusade, the battle of Askalon (8/12/1099), it is reported that: 200,000 heathens were slaughtered… “In the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Researchers estimate that until the final crusade – the fall of Akkon in 1291 – probably 23,500,000 victims, maybe more, perished during the crusades including the Holy land and Arab/Turkish areas, many of them Christians. Regrettably, numerous religiously-based wars and conflicts in the name of Christ, Christianity and the church have taken place in centuries leading up to the present.
Mother Teresa’s kind of Church
Mother Teresa of Calcutta is being cited here not so much for the Roman Catholic faith she faithfully represented, but for the much wider, deeper witness and idea of “Church Universal” one sees demonstrably, powerfully and convincingly exhibited in the extraordinary life and witness of this humble, diminutive woman. It is also a witness and image of “church” diametrically opposite that discerned in the crusading middle-ages. No two pictures, no two understandings of what “church” means could be more different.
In many ways Mother Teresa was a church of one. Born in Yugoslavia, Teresa became a Catholic novice, was sent to Calcutta India, on January 6th, 1929, and to the Loreto nuns at Darjeeling, at the foot of the Himalayas. In 1931, Agnes took the religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and changed her name to Teresa.
September 1946, travelling by train, Teresa experienced what she later described as “the call within the call”; “I was”, she said, “to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order [from God]. To fail would have been to break the faith.”
Adopting Indian citizenship, Mother Teresa began her missionary work with the poor in 1948. The rest, we say, is history. At the beginning of 1949 she was joined in her effort by a group of young women and laid the foundations to create a new religious community helping “the poorest among the poor”.
In her diary Teresa wrote that her first year was fraught with difficulties. She had no income and had to resort to begging for food and supplies. She experienced doubt, loneliness and the temptation to return to the comfort of convent life during the early months. In her diary she wrote: “Our Lord wants me to be a free nun covered with the poverty of the cross… I desire to remain and do your Holy will in my regard.”
The scope of Mother Teresa’s life and work for Christ and Church is unparalleled, having received assistance worldwide to establish thousands of homes, orphanages and other places of retreat and help for the poor and disabled – young and old. In 1952 was opened the first Home for the Dying, in space made available from the city of Calcutta. She opened a home for those suffering from Hansen’s disease, commonly called leprosy. As her Order, The Missionaries of Charity, took in increasing numbers of lost children, Teresa felt the need to create a home for them, which she did in 1955. Many recruits and charitable donations made it possible to open hospices, orphanages and leper houses all over India and other lands.
Mother Teresa is quoted as saying: “By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus.” Analyzing her deeds and achievements, Pope John Paul 11 said: “Mother Teresa has found the strength and perseverance to place herself completely at the service of others. She found it in prayer and in the silent contemplation of Jesus Christ, His Holy Face, His Sacred Heart.”
Teresa had many long hours, even years, struggling with what I understand to be “spiritual depression”, and she even had doubts about the real presence of God in her life. Many saints, Christian mystics and others have described similar experiences of spiritual dryness or what are said to be spiritual tests (“passive purifications”, in Catholic parlance). Saint John of the Cross coined the term the “dark night of the soul”. Mother Teresa’s namesake, St. Therese of Lisieux, called this psycho-spiritual phenomenon: “a night of nothingness”. In our own time it would probably be described as severe, chronic or clinical depression. But Mother’s faith that God was working through her remained undiminished, and even while she pined for the lost sentiment of closeness with God, she did not once question the existence of God the Almighty.
Prayer was the great, sustaining energy of Teresa’s life. On the topic of prayer she wrote prolifically. “It is only”, she said:
“By mental prayer and spiritual reading that we can cultivate the gift of prayer”. She begins the opening paragraphs of her book titled, No Greater Love, with these words: “I don’t think there is anyone who needs God’s help and grace as much as I do. Sometimes I feel so helpless and weak. I think that is why God uses me. Because I cannot depend on my own strength, I rely on Him twenty-four hours a day. If the day had even more, then I would need His help and grace during those hours as well. All of us must cling to God through prayer…. Through prayer I become one in love with Christ. I realize that praying to Him is loving Him… In reality, there is only one true prayer, only one substantial prayer: Christ Himself. There is only one voice that rises above the face of the earth: the voice of Christ. Love to pray. Feel the need to pray often during the day.”
One finds the dominant note of prayer scattered liberally in Mother Teresa’s life, witness and writings, including her 1977 work, titled: We Do if for Jesus. For her, prayer comes first, because it brings us the grace of God to love and do acts of love. So she wishes to lead all humankind in prayer; prayer by The Holy Spirit, to God the Father, through Jesus Christ the Son. Through all her trials, and difficulties, conflicts within and without, Mother Teresa persevered and triumphed mightily.
There is “church” and there is “Church”
Contrasts between the Crusader-Church, and Church from and among all the people as seen in the life and witness of Mother Teresa could not be more opposite. The crusaders exercised a Church of violence and division, celebrating us over and against them, built on the kingdom of man’s will and ego, devoid of holy standards and living. Mother Teresa transformed and extended small catholic (Roman) church into universal Catholic Church, involving all, discriminating against none. Mother Teresa walked in the way of the kingdom of God/Heaven, the kingdom of unadulterated love. The crusaders walked in the way of evil incarnate. Even while creating violence, mayhem, death and proclaiming loudly the way of Christ, the crusaders, in fact, ignored entirely the living Christ’s way of love, forgiveness and justice.
The way of the Crusaders consistently and disobediently violated the first and most important of the Ten Commandments, namely: You shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:3). The golden rule was also violated: Do unto others as you would like others to do unto you. The golden rule or ethic of reciprocity is a maxim, an ethical code or morality which essentially states on the one hand that one should treat others in ways that one would like others to treat oneself (a positive form); and, on the other: One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated (the negative form, also known as the silver rule). The concept of golden rule describes a reciprocal or two-way relationship between oneself and others that involves both sides equally and in mutual fashion. On the other hand, Mother Teresa walked in the fashion of an “Acts Two Church”, a “golden rule church”. We must therefore conclude that there are very right and very wrong ways to be the Church in the world, which means, to represent the living, authentic presence of Christ corporately and interpersonally through fallible human beings.
Commending the Acts Two Church
In the beginning, before Christians, Christianity and the Church got all-organized-up and went on their merry, somewhat uncertain way, following the Council of Nicaea, post 325 AD, there existed a profoundly simple and amazingly effective “Church”, the commonly described “Acts Two Church”.
The Church, based in Jerusalem, mentioned in Acts chapter 2 (42-47), is arguably the very first church formed (or “planted” as our more evangelical friends would say) on the face of the earth. Many believe that it was established by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.
Although there isn’t a single scriptural verse that defines exclusively the purpose of the Church [and nowhere in the New Testament is the Church described as a building!], Acts 2:24 offers us an important clue. Following the baptism of some three thousand souls, the pertinent text concerning the new converts reads: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Another translation, The Message, has put it this way: They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and to prayer.
The Acts chapter two passage to verse 47 also addresses lively themes as: All the believers were together and had everything in common (v.43)/ They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God (v46)/ The Lord added to their number (v47).
There is a sense in which all denominational churches have emerged from this first simple, original, foundational church. This first, Acts Two mother church, followed a near-perfect worshipping format: (1) Devotion to the Apostles teaching [The “Apostles teaching” always used the Old Testament as the Scripture to prove that Jesus is Christ the Messiah. They were also transmitting all the words and teaching of Jesus as best their oral and written traditions could verify]; (2) Fellowship; (3) Breaking of bread; and, (4) Prayers. Here we have a church which practiced the fellowship of love one with the other, and it was a family-based congregation, in that they met together in one another’s homes. These four elements are the essential pillars of Christian living and are of equal importance.
Other astonishing features of this first congregational, Acts Two church is that: Every day they continued to meet together (v46), and, they gave to anyone as they had need (v.45). We have here a model of the very first home-based church, assembled in one accord, living in obedience to their resurrected Christ’s most important, seminal commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments (Matt.22:37-40).
To Serve the Present Age
Admittedly, my first love in the pantheon of The Church and churches universal is that of the people called Methodists. However, in the vein of Mother Teresa, although my denominational status is Methodist, my heart – my ultimate, unmatched allegiance - is tied firmly to The Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Within Methodist faith and practice – primitive and modern - are to be found elements akin to and not dissimilar from that of the Acts Two Church; one such tenet being that of the priesthood of all believers, or, the ministry of all Christian believers, also at times loosely described as, the ministry of all people. In standing order or article 107 of The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline ’88, is found this statement: The ministry of all Christian believers means that the People of God are the Church made visible in the world. It is they who must convince the world of the reality of the Gospel [the Good News of Christ] or leave it unconvinced. There can be no evasion or delegation of this responsibility.
Another attractive feature found in the Methodist ethos, is that of its founder, John Wesley, expressed as The Methodist Quadrilateral. Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was fourfold: (1) Revealed in scripture; (2) Illumined by tradition; (3) Verified in personal experience, and; (4) Confirmed by reason. These four sources, scripture, tradition, experience and reason - each making distinctive contributions, yet all finally working together – ought to guide our quest in all things as followers of Christ.
We know that Holy Orders celebrate the ministry of Jesus as priest, prophet and servant-leader. The early Christian communities (and Methodist polity) viewed Jesus as the one and only high priest, and saw all believers as sharing in Jesus’ priesthood. A prophet is someone who unceasingly reminds people about God and God’s ways. Even before the Resurrection, Jesus’ disciples had a strong sense that The Anointed One, Christ, was the Messiah, sent by God to usher in God’s reign on earth.
The priesthood of all believers, or the common priesthood of the baptized, means that every Christian can minister/serve in a priestly role to reconcile people with God, a prophetic role which proclaims God’s truth, and a servant-leader role.
Much of Methodist theology and practice are embodied in its hymnology, and more specifically in verses produced by John’s brother, Charles Wesley. It has been said that the Methodist hymnbook is a veritable mini-bible, infused generously with scriptural texts of encouragement, inspiration and praise. We also find in it a guidebook inviting us to be ever self-critical and prepared, in Christ’s name and His Church, to launch out into the deep in the ever-changing tide of cultural and historic change.
Two hymns which demonstrate the Methodist forward-looking attitude Christian and Church should always exercise, are: A Charge to keep, I have and, O God of all grace. The lines here to be quoted are selective and brief but instructive:
“A charge to keep I have,
A God to glorify,
A never-dying soul to save,
And fit it for the sky:
My calling to fulfill.
O God of all grace,
Thy goodness we praise…
We all shall commend
The love of our Friend,
For ever beginning what never shall end.”
Imbedded in these poetic verses are code words for keeping afresh and ever-advancing in every age and in all changing socio-cultural times, in dynamic fashion, the Good news of Jesus Christ and His Church. Believers and would-be-believers have a sacred “charge to keep… a calling to fulfill … to ever begin, to begin anew – which means too, in 2014 and beyond - the never-ending work of advancing the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in Heaven where God’s perfect will is realized.
Toward establishing a Spirit of Christ (SOC) gathering
As believers, fully-devoted Disciples of Christ or would-be followers, each of us is free to choose what kind of worshipping fellowship with which to be connected and associated. There will always be smal rural and suburban churches, and large cathedral, super-mega congregations. Churches and church-congregations come in all shapes, sizes and variety. Take your pick, you’ll probably find your institutional church out there somewhere. But there is one major drawback to “doing church” today, whichever church you choose. Aside from developing interpersonal social contacts, devoid of spiritual formation, little effort is expended in developing a meaningful, sustaining relationship with Christ Himself, the Head of the Church. The time, energy and resources people expend in building, planning for, and maintaining the physical, material, financial, socio-cultural, political, polity and institutional aspects of the life of what mostly appears to be a non-Christocentric Church, leaves little or no time for building the more invisible My kingdom is not of this world church about which Christ the Lord spoke (cf. John 18.36).
For the most part, “church planting” and our frenetic activity associated therewith, invariably celebrate human achievement and, in essence, point to the glory of man, not the Kingdom of God, which is to be found and cultivated inside our beings, and not in structural activity. Jesus said: The Kingdom of God/Heaven is not something people will be able to see and point to, neither will you be able to say that it is ‘here’ or ‘there’; for, behold, the Kingdom of God is within you (Luke 17.21).
In addition to the existing church-based realities – large, medium, small, - there ought to be a greater number of options for home-based fellowships, micro-churches if you wish. Hence my proposal of Spirit of Christ Gatherings, mini-churches, home-based, churches without institutional walls, meeting in the tone and spirit of (a) The Acts Two Church and incorporating, where practicable, principles of (b) The priesthood/ministry of all believers/people, and (c) The Methodist Quadrilateral: scripture, tradition, experience, reason. All this, applied in combination, the vital Christian value-expressions of love, forgiveness and justice will be exercised.
Jesus said, in Matthew 18:19-20: I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. The verb gathered and the adverb gathered together appear liberally throughout the New Testament, including Acts Two and in Jesus’ words above. They are dynamic word-phrases always filled with warmth, and sublime spiritual energy. In his bible commentary Notes John Wesley makes these observations of v.20 above: Where two or three are gathered together in my name – That is, to worship me. I am in the midst of them – By my Spirit, to quicken their prayers, guide their counsels, and answer their petitions.
It has been established that the New Testament scriptures provide no detailed, comprehensive or exhaustive method or guidelines for church government or governance, apart from the injunction to meet together and love one another. Furthermore, nowhere in the Christian Canon, The New Testament, is the Church found to be synonymous with a physical structure, i.e. a church building, sanctuary or chapel.
A Spirit Of Christ Gathering [comprising two to twelve souls, with children included if desired] will have as its single purpose, and in all its limited and simple activities, the aim of cultivating fully devoted disciples of Christ, through acts of caring (for oneself and others), praying (not to change God but for God to change us), and reading (reading first of all the holy bible, with a specific focus on the four gospels and incorporating, where practicable, other inspirational or informational literature).
Caring, Praying, Reading (CPR), should be dynamic, the center and basis of a SOC gathering. The atmosphere of worship should be quietly meditative, so as to allow maximum opportunity to cultivate opportunities for the Spirit of the crucified, resurrected and ever-present Christ to be realized in our midst, and beyond in all of our varied activities and experiences.
A SOC gathering is in no way intended to compete with or detract from any participants chosen institutional or denominational church or other religious activity. It is proposed that gatherings should take place on days other than Sunday, and that times of meeting should be shorter rather than longer in duration, with simple, modest food offered before or after the gathering itself. Suggested Christian symbols or icons might include a cross (native in design (?); a lit candle (ever reminding us of Jesus Christ, Light of the world / A candle for Christ) ; a Bible open to The Gospels; and an unseated, ordinary chair to symbolically represent the presence of Christ among us (Christ is the welcomed guest at every meal).
In today’s world of the 21st century, followers of Christ can easily miss Christ’s real presence and so lose the way ahead. The analogy is akin to a young child clasping the hand of an adult on a busy thoroughfare. Child holds tight the adult’s hand - that’s good - but what’s most important is the grip of the adult holding firm and secure in protective fashion the child’s hand.
Commending and encouraging the importance of establishing an SOC gathering in today’s world, is yet another way to place our spiritual hands, heads and hearts in the hand of the Christ the resurrected Lord and Savior, and thereby provide opportunity for Him to have a saving, liberating grip on us His often wandering children. SOC gatherings will complement and strengthen the work of the church’s institutional presence.
Today, January 1st, 2014, finds me completing this paper and turning once again - as is my household’s regular morning practice - to Bede Naegele’s devotional which begins with the text: Let whoever would serve Me follow Me (St. John 12:26); and the reflection: “Let this be my goal for this year: to follow Jesus through all the paths that He may lead me – no matter how difficult or painful they may be. What is there to fear if the Master is with me and He Himself opens the way for me? In faith I know that this path leads me to the Father and always ends in victory and glory.” Prayer: O Lord, take me by the hand and lead me to my blessed goal: to possess You for all eternity.
My wife, Marjorie, son Kevin and I have invited friends to gather together at our home January 6th, 5.45 – 7pm, The Feast Day of The Epiphany of Our Lord - also called the new Advent - to bring into being our first SOC gathering. We celebrate Epiphany as the traditional date for the magi’s arriving in Bethlehem from the East to pay homage to the Christ child; an event that signals the acknowledgement of Jesus as a universal Savior for all humankind. The day is significant but often neglected but it is not difficult to imagine God’s proclamation of hope through Isaiah (and later by Jesus) inviting those who are blind, yet have eyes, those who are deaf, yet have ears to gather and bear witness to the saving grace of God (Isaiah 43:8; John 9:39).
These magi, wise ones of a race, culture and religion other than that of Jesus, willingly remodeled their religious perspective. They joined the celebration of the select few who glimpsed in that sacred and transcendent moment the workings of divine love. May an SOC gathering achieve just that for us too in our own unique time.
In Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, writer and preacher Frederick Buechner tells the story of a nativity pagent staged by children. All went smoothly until one angel, a girl who was smaller than most of them, craned her neck and standing frustrated on tiptoes electrified the entire church by crying out in a voice shrill with irritation and enormous sadness at having her view blocked, shouted, “Let Jesus show!”
The little girl’s cry should be our prayer in the year ahead”: “Let Jesus the Christ be shown!” in our lives, in compassion, creativity, forgiveness and loving-joy – in the way we “do church” too. Let us allow The Word [God] who became flesh in Jesus Christ, become flesh, real, among us here and now, be it in cathedral, business, play, neighborhood, or home.
Am I, and are we together, as open and ready for this new breaking-in of Christ. If we can open windows in our walls of theological, denominational and peculiar or prejudiced cultural beliefs, often colored by civil religion ideation, and stretch our expectations of God’s working among us, we too may experience epiphany in ways that God wants and we need.
I invite you to join me on this new adventure and, who knows, maybe we too may experience a surprisingly new resurgence, a life-transforming epiphany
Prayer for All Things Necessary to Salvation
(From Minute Meditations for Each Day)
I believe Lord,
But may I believe more firmly.
I hope, but may I hope more securely.
I love, but may I love more ardently.
I grieve, but may I grieve more deeply.
I adore You as my first beginning.
I aspire after You as my last end.
I praise You as my perpetual benefactor.
I invoke You as my merciful protector.
Direct me by Your wisdom.
Keep me in Your grace.
Console me with Your mercy.
Protect me with Your power.
I offer You, O Lord, my thoughts, that they may be about You;
My words, that they may be spoken for Your glory;
My actions, that they may accord with Your will;
My sufferings, that they may be accepted for Your sake.
I desire whatever You desire.
I desire it because you desire it.
I desire it insofar as You desire it.
I desire it for as long as You desire it.
-The Glory of God-
In the Name
The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit
January 01, 2014