Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 38

In the last installment of this series, I said that the primary work of God the Holy Spirit, is to sanctify believers, make them holy, set them apart for God. We said that, this side of the grave, no believer in Jesus Christ is perfectly holy. All Christians are works in progress.

That fact led Martin Luther, the one-time priest and Biblical scholar who inadvertently started what's called The Reformation, to say that believers in Christ are "the Holy Spirit's workshop."

The Apostles' Creed says that the first tools used by the Holy Spirit in the process of sanctification, to facilitate our transformations, are "the holy catholic Church" and "the communion of saints."

The first thing to notice here is that Christian faith is not an individualistic "Jesus and me" proposition. God does care about us as individuals, of course. But we were created to live in a community with God, our neighbors, and all creation. This community God meant to be bound together by love. Not the syrupy, sentimental mush that is often portrayed as love by popular culture, but a tough and unconditional commitment to be the best and do the best for the other.

According to Genesis, the first human beings lived in the community God wants for us. The "self" of Adam and Eve weren't important; they were elevated, enhanced, and defined by their relationships with God, each other, and God's creation. Being part of something bigger and greater didn't diminish them; it lifted them.

Then, all hell broke loose. It happened when the first humans thought to transgress the boundaries God had established for their own well-being.

And what was the first consequence? The two humans, who had previously walked naked, unaware of how their bodies or lives might be misused, hid from God, alienated, afraid that God would see them for what they had become, rebels against the community for which they were made.

When confronted by God, Adam blamed Eve. Eve blamed the serpent. Community was distorted.

God's project ever since then has been, first, to lay the groundwork and then, to create the means by which all humanity could once more be reconciled to God and to others.

It began with the descendants of Abraham, the Jews, God's chosen people to whom God would teach the hard lessons of grace, community, repentance, and renewal, among others, and to whom He would make the promise of a Savior Who would finally and ultimately fulfill Israel's mission to be a light to all nations.

Jesus became that light and through His death and resurrection, made it possible for all people to be reconciled to God, beginning the process of becoming a full partner in God's community of love once again.

Today, when we're baptized, we become part of "the holy catholic Church" and "the communion of saints." We're no longer naked in our sins, alienated from God or others, or ticketed for death. We're welcomed into God's family, covered by grace, and called to love all with the tough-minded commitment with which God has always loved us.

In the Church, we become part of something bigger than "I," yet each individual part is elevated by a sense of self-worth and indispensability. This is what the first century Christian preacher Paul was describing when he wrote, "we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another..." (Romans 12:5).

Paul writes elsewhere:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks*, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)
Notice the words I've italicized above. When we are baptized, we become part of a family of believers, who are nurtured by the Spirit, pulled by the Spirit, and broken by the Spirit, away from our inborn addiction to self and toward community.

That happens in the Church which, the Creed, first of all describes as holy, meaning set apart, and catholic. The word catholic comes from the Greek, literally meaning according to the whole. No matter how many ways we human beings try to slice and dice the Church, all who confess Jesus Christ and receive Holy Baptism and Holy Communion as intended by Christ, are part of one body. We Christians are stuck with each other for eternity.

Church translates the word found in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written, ekklesia. This is a compound word meaning, roughly, called out. Christians, not by their own effort but by God's efforts alone, have been called out--or fished out--of the death-bound ways of the world into relationship with Christ, the life-giver, and which, in turn, changes our relationships with others.

The church is "the communion of saints." The word communion, more strictly, means community. The Church is an eternal fellowship that isn't confined to the buildings of brick, wood, or cardboard in which believers may meet in this world. The Church, in fact, is a community of saints, a good Bible word that simply refers to all who trust in Jesus Christ.

All saints are sinners and, in this world, don't get over their penchant for sinning. But saints are forgiven sinners who, day in and day out, turn to the God revealed in Christ, asking for the power to resist temptation and forgive as they've been forgiven, among other things.

The creation and sustenance of "the holy catholic Church" and "the communion of saints" is the work of the Holy Spirit, work the Spirit has been doing for more than two thousand years now.

More tomorrow.

*Here, Paul is referring to everyone who isn't a Jew, Gentiles.


Spencer Troxell said...

Why don't you gather up some of these posts into an e-book, or go to lulu or something? You've certainly got enough material. This series might be a good place to start.

Mark Daniels said...

Thank you, Spencer. I may look into that.