First, thank you to all my brothers and sisters that gathered at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Ashland, Kentucky to both bless our daughter, Analiese Clare, and extend congratulations on the successful conclusion of my doctorate. The service, litanies, reception and gifts overwhelmed my family and me. More than anything, this past Sunday reminded me again of the beauty of Christ’s Church.
On Tuesday of this past week, the Bishop of Rome, Francis, celebrated a service in celebration of St. George. In his remarks, Francis said, “Christian identity is belonging to the Church, because all of these belonged to the Church, the Mother Church. Because it is not possible to find Jesus outside the Church. The Great Paul VI said: ‘Wanting to live with Jesus without the Church, following Jesus outside of the Church, loving Jesus without the Church is an absurd dichotomy.’ This belonging to the Church is beautiful.”
The irony of his statement is that I agree with his remarks, but not his intent.
Identifying any one denomination with the fullness of the Church of Jesus Christ is a perilous claim. What, or more accurately stated, who, is the Church? Dr. Joe Jones, Disciple minister and retired professor of systematic theology from Christian Theological Seminary, defines the Church as the “liberative and redemptive community called into being by the Gospel of Jesus Christ to witness in word and deed the triune God for the benefit of the world.” The Church of the New Testament is defined in the mystery of the Bride of Christ, the Body of Christ and the New Jerusalem. The Roman Catholic Church has postulated that the Church must be visible. Therefore, a mark of the true Church is closely aligned with a visible unity that is global. In such a definition, the witness of the Roman Catholic Church is a visible and measurable proof that they are the one true Body of Christ. Incidentally, the Eastern Orthodox Church argues the same point, but concludes that it is they, not the Romans, who are the true Body of Christ. Throughout the witness of those called Protestants, a new definition has been suggested that claims the Church’s unity is invisible. That is, it is present, but not made visible in any one organizational structure. The problem with much of this conversation is, essentially, how we define words. The grammar of faith, or how we talk about matters of faith, functions as the building blocks for our ongoing conversation about the nature and identity of the Church.
As I have served in this great fellowship known as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I have come to understand the limitations of language and symbols in our reasoning together (Isaiah 1:18). The Church is visible. I saw it myself on Sunday. I see it when an Archbishop and an Evangelical pastor stand together in speaking to the world about an understanding of Christ’s call to the world. I see it when a progressive pastor and a conservative elder stand together to work toward the ending of human trafficking. I see it when a Roman Bishop makes an appeal for the release of Orthodox Bishops kidnapped in Syria. The visible unity of the one true Church of Jesus Christ is not bound by institutional structure. Our visible unity is rooted in the unity of Christ. Christ is not divided. Our unity is not based on who we are, but whose we are.