I walked into the sanctuary apprehensive. I was spiritually bruised and bloodied. Almost two years had passed since I had attended a worship service and my soul was still sensitive. I am embarrassed to say that I was once a church pastor and now teach New Testament for a private university. Church brought back a mixture of memories, extraordinary friendships, and yet deep hurts. Some of the people I trusted with my life and livelihood brought me sadness and tears. I had been wandering across the desert of my soul. That morning I tracked sand into the sanctuary.
After a few weeks of visiting this local congregation, the pastor called so he and I could visit. We met at a local caffeine brewery and quickly became fellow pilgrims. His interest was not in my church membership, but in my spiritual journey. Where was I going? We came to the same path. Week after week, we were comforted by good coffee and each other’s stories. We laughed deeply. We confessed our weaknesses, insecurities, and fears. We reveled in our triumphs. Gradually, I partook of this kind of life with others in the congregation and our lives became the bread and wine of communion, broken and poured-out.
Writing in the third century, Cyprian proclaimed in his Epistulae, “extra ecclesiam nula sulus” (“Outside of the church there is no salvation”). This can mean or has meant submission to the Roman Catholic Church, but for Cyprian it meant that the Christian life was not individualistic. Modern life has become one of isolation and, as Thoreau wrote, “quiet desperation.” At one time the institutional church banded together to face religious persecution. But like all institutions, such as marriage or family, church has fallen victim to the empty promise of individual redemption. Salvation has become self-help, nothing more than a consumer commodity.
But the people who have become my community are more than that. They make up the parts of my soul. They are not only members of the congregation I joined, but also they are my friends who share life with me. They are the couple who always calls me over for late night breakfast. They are the guys who celebrate my Christmas-eve birthday on a day no one else can. They are the ones who generously fill my bookshelves with extraordinary literature, more than I can ever read. They inhabit my world because we are drawn by something greater than individual choice or personal happiness.
The historical Christian confession is: “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” Catholic is spelled with a small “c,” which translates into the word “universal.” So the church is not confined to brick and mortar, or membership and denomination. Yet, community has a local focus because it is comprised of people. In this habitat constructed from flesh and blood, in this tender and inseparable believing body, I have found community.
Sometimes I fail to believe. Sometimes the evils we do to each other cloud my vision. Sometimes my circumstances bring the walls of my world down on me. Trust turns into doubt. Hope becomes fear. During these times, my community believes for me. They soak my parched feet, massage my weary soul, and rebuild my broken spirit. The church might be unpopular and even unfashionable, but I believe in the church. I know that the church too is broken and bruised. According to the medieval church theologian and philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, the ultimately end of the church is to be without “spot or wrinkle.” However, in this world, the church seeks to clean these spots and iron out these wrinkles through imperfect people who seek perfect love.