The Church of Jesus Christ is never a static, unmoving entity. Even as she lives in the present, she is tied to the past as she waits in hope for what the future will bring. Often, conversations about the Church—what she is, what she should do, how she should look—revolve around various points of time: this is what my congregation used to look like; or, these are the problems here and now; or, this is how she should be in the future. Because the Church is an historical entity, those aspects are all worthy of consideration. But we can never privilege one point of time over another. The Church was not better or purer the closer it was to Jesus and the Apostles; the Church is not smarter or more significant because we’ve had two thousand years to get it right; the Church is not heading toward a utopian future in this creation.
Behind all of the disputes and controversies that have disturbed the Church internally is a failure to hold close to the second phrase of the Third Article of the Creed: “I believe…in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Just as we cannot look around at the world, or into the circumstances of our own lives, in order to discover what God is doing, neither can we look at what we can see of the Church in order to discover her source, sustenance, or goal. As with Christian faith generally, the only One in whom we can know for certain what God is doing is His Son, Jesus. Just as Jesus’ death and resurrection tell us what the outcome of this world will be for His saints, so they also tell us the truth about the Church’s existence in this world. Jesus is the source and beginning of the Church’s life in the water and blood of His pierced side, He is the ongoing food and drink to sustain the Church’s life in the midst of this world, and He is the goal to which the Church is headed, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesisans 4:13).
Since that is true for the whole Church—the Body of Christ—it is also true for each of His members. You belong to Christ here and now, because He has clothed you with Himself in baptism and He feeds you with His Body and Blood in the Supper. Because there is only one Christ, there is only one Church, whatever our eyes may tell us. And because there is only one Church, she is united throughout the past, now in the present, and forever into the future. Ignoring the Church’s history in this world, where sinners remain the same no matter the age in which they live, will have disastrous consequences for a Church that did not begin with ourselves, but with Christ. Old heresies reappear; difficult questions and divisions which have been considered throughout the Church’s history sprout up again as if they were new; and Christians do not know where to look for comfort in the midst of a world that is hostile to them because it was hostile to their Lord. The heresies, divisions, and struggles will always be present; in this world, Jesus said, you will have tribulation. But we often fail to appreciate how the Lord who has overcome the world has given strength and wisdom to His Church which lives in the midst of the world.
But this is not a never-ending struggle. The Jesus who is—now—risen from the dead holds the future of the Church in His hands. What happens to Jesus will happen to His Body, and to each of her members. With this past, and this future, we can live and wait in hope in the present. Jesus has given us His resurrection peace. We will always wrestle with our own doubts, but there is no doubt whatsoever that the Lord whom we have by faith now, we will one day have by sight, face to face. We will always grieve our own failures, but the Lord who is risen cannot fail. We bitterly observe the Church’s unhealed wounds and divisions, but like the wounds of the Church’s Head, we will one day see them transformed into the glorious signs of eternal life.
*St. Augustine (354-430 AD), Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, said, “For you I am a bishop [overseer]; with you I am a Christian.”