TOWARDS A STATEMENT
ON THE CHURCH
Because God so loved the world, he sent his Son and the Holy Spirit
to draw us into communion with himself. This sharing in God's life,
which resulted from the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit,
found expression in a visible koinonia1
of Christ's disciples, the Church.
The Nature of the Church
Christianity arose because of the life, death and resurrection of
Jesus. Although it is possible to speak of a "people of God"
from the time of Abraham, the expression "Christian Church"
designates the assembly of the Christian faithful. The ministry
of Jesus himself was addressed to a people, so that the first persons
who heard and accepted the proclamation of the Kingdom were already
oriented to one another by their relationship within Israel. As
is shown by this gathering of those who walked with him and shared
a common life with him, especially the Twelve, the ministry of Jesus
created a community. After the resurrection this community shared
the new life conferred by the Spirit, and very soon came to be called
the Church. Baptized into the faith and proclaiming the crucified
and risen Lord, the members were united to one another by the Spirit
in a life marked by the apostolic teaching, common prayer, the breaking
of bread and often by some community of goods; and those who were
converted and drawn to them became part of this koinonia.
As the assembly of God's people gathered in Christ by the Holy Spirit,
the Church is not a self-appointed, self-initiated community. It
originated in the redemptive act of God in Christ; and it lives
in union with Christ's death and resurrection, comforted, guided
and empowered by the Holy Spirit (see further in the Honolulu Report,
1981, nn. 19-21, "The Holy Spirit in the Christian Community")
4. The Church is a complex reality. The New Testament provides a
great variety of images for the Church (body of Christ, people of
God, bride of Christ, temple, flock or sheepfold, royal priesthood,
etc.- many of these reflecting Old Testament imagery), and theologians
have offered other images and models. None of these can express
exhaustively or even adequately exactly what the Church is, the
whole of its mystery. Nevertheless each has purpose, since different
images illustrate different aspects of the Church. For instance,
as the Second Vatican Council exemplifies, it is easier to think
of reform, chance and repentance if one speaks of the Church as
the People of God (cf. Vatican Council II, Constitution on the Church,
Lumen Gentium, III), because this connotes among other things a
pilgrim people still full of imperfections and liable to sin. Notwithstanding
our sinfulness, the Risen Christ unites us with himself as his body,
and some of the other images we have listed illustrate the holiness
of the Church as the people he has made his own.
In the New Testament period, diversity of time, place and circumstances
produced diversity among groups of believers-diversity of community
structures, diverse formulations of the faith, diverse traditions
shaped by different histories and problems, diverse house meeting
places within the same city, diverse Christian centers. Nevertheless,
passages in the New Testament, such as the account in Acts 15 of
the Council of Jerusalem, attest to koinonia among such diversities,
and to a sense of the Church to which all Christians belong. There
are also passages, such as 1 Jn 2:19, that suggest the breaking
of the koinonia because certain diversities were deemed intolerable
distortions of what was from the beginning.
Just as the Old Testament represents the tradition of the people
of Israel, so the New Testament Scriptures, which have become normative
and corrective for all Christian traditions in every age, themselves
arose from the life and tradition of the apostolic and early Church.
They should be read with reverence and prayer. Yet an important
task of scholarship in all Christian Churches is to examine critically
the biblical material in order to hear the Scriptures in their own
terms and to help the Church discern the word of God for its life
today (see also Honolulu Report, no. 34).
The Church is judged, transformed and empowered for mission by the
word of God as appropriated through the Spirit. The reforming power
of the word is evident in such instances as some of the medieval
reforms (monastic, papa. mendicant), the Reformation and the Catholic
renewal of the 16th and 17th centuries, the evangelical revival
of the 18th century, the ecumenical movement of the 20th, and many
other movements of renewal.
8. The Church lives between the times of the life, death, resurrection
and exaltation of Jesus Christ and his future coming in glory. The
Spirit fills the Church, empowering it to preach the word, celebrate
the eucharist, experience fellowship and prayer, and carry out its
mission to the world: thus the Church is enabled to serve as sign,
sacrament and harbinger of the Kingdom of God in the time between
Christ works through his Church, and it is for this reason that
Vatican II speaks of the Church as a kind of sacrament, both as
an outward manifestation of God's grace among us and as signifying
in some way the grace and call to salvation addressed by God to
the whole human race (cf. Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, I, 1). This
is a perspective that many Methodists also find helpful.
The Mystery of the Word made flesh and the sacramental mystery of
the eucharist point towards a view of the Church based upon the
sacramental idea, i.e. the Church takes its shape from the Incarnation
from which it originated and the eucharistic action by which its
life is constantly being renewed.
For an attempt to capture the nuances of this New Testament term, see no. 23.
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