In the Orthodox service of Holy Baptism, the candidate (or sponsor) is asked, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” The question is put three times, and later is asked again in the past tense, “Have you united yourself to Christ?” It is clear from the dialog and the prayers themselves of the Baptism service that this question goes to the heart of the Church’s understanding of Baptism. Indeed, Baptism is only the beginning. It would be possible to say that all of our life in Christ is a question of union. “Do I unite myself to Christ?”
This understanding has been of major significance in my life as an Orthodox Christian, and certainly played a role in the process of my conversion. For when we are united to Christ, it is not something that happens outside of the Church, but in, through and with the Church, by the Holy Spirit. It is one of the reasons that the subject of Ecclesiology (the doctrine of the Church) interests me. For, as I have previously noted in my posts, the Church is not something separate from doctrine. Properly, the Church is what doctrine “looks like,” if I may be so bold.
All that Christ has given us in His death and resurrection is for our union with Him. In his letter to the Ephesians St. Paul sums this up by saying,
For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (1:9-10).
And shortly after states,
I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe, according to the working of his great might which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come; and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all (1:16-23).
The union with Christ of which St. Paul speaks is nothing other than the Church which is the body of Christ. We are Baptized “into His body,” and all of our life as Christians is lived within His body. The Church is not secondary to Christ’s purpose, nor a mere association of believers, but is that very mystery of union with God that is His purpose in all things.
In my own pilgrimage, understanding the essential character of the Church was a turning point – a recognition that Church was a serious question, and not simply a point of Christian convenience. If God’s purpose is the gathering together of all things into one, then that gathering is the Church itself.
Knowing that did not begin to answer all of my questions, but it began to frame my questions. Where is the Church? How is the Church? What is my relationship to the Church?
St. Paul recognizes in the same passage in Ephesians that what we now know of the Church is not yet what it will be. He says that we:
were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
It is not something perfect we look for, nor yet something perfect that we should try to create. It is the new creation of God, sealed by the Spirit, until the time for the fulness of our inheritance.
On a daily basis, the question, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” remains the best self-examination I have found. It reminds me of the sole purpose of my every action. Everything I am to do is to unite myself with Christ. Whether it is love of neighbor and enemy, prayer, study, fasting – everything – is to unite me to Christ.
God grant us to know the vision St. Paul teaches in his letter to the Ephesians, and to unite ourselves to Christ.
Yes, Ecclesiology is the “undiscovered country” for many from the Evangelical Protestant background, and this is especially true for my own background as a Pentecostal.
Once I began to wrestle with this issue, it was inevitable that I would ask significant questions about every other doctrine I said I believed.
Ultimately, it was the (theoretical?) emphasis of Orthodoxy on the Church as the “incarnation” of theology that won my heart.
The sober and o so practical spiritual disciples of Orthodoxy asks that I baptize every aspect of my life with the faith. So far I have a spotty record in living this truth.
Allowing my theology to escape my cranium has been my greatest challenge.
The Orthodox understanding of the Church puts everything together as a whole. My life, my thought, my actions, all of it are really one thing. Compartmentalization is a major part of our culture, but it’s a misleading view of reality.
“Compartmentalization is a major part of our culture, but it’s a misleading view of reality.”
And in one simple statement you have wonderfully summed up the journey I’ve been on these long two years, first to present myself holistically and authentically, and then to go deeper with that, leaving no area of who I am untouched by Christ. I have a feeling it shouldn’t be as mind-bending as it seems.
Compartmentalization! As yes. In my life it has been a constant struggle to be whole within myself. Fighting against what seem to be the philosphical and cultural imperative to be either a feeling person or a thinking person. A contemplative or a person of action. It is really a subtle (or not so subtle) form of heretical dualism and it can be taced back a long way in western Christian thought. All of us have been infected. It was such a relief to me to find no such dichtomy in Orthodox thought, I have been giving a long sign of relief for the last 20 years. I can really understand Barnabus’ struggle. Jesus theology is simple. Love God, Love neighbor which means caring for the needs of those you encounter out of love of God. Repentance, prayer(individual and corporate), fasting, almsgiving. How simple, yet how hard.
But the call of God is not to us individually, but for each person to be in community because He is a community and it is only in His community, the Church, that we can answer His call to us.