An aspect of the contemporary religious scene could be called “comparative Christianity”: whose version of Christianity is better? In a consumer culture such comparisons are inevitable. Sometimes they are rooted in historical arguments (Protestant vs. Catholic, the details of the Great Schism, etc.). Often they are simply rooted in consumer perceptions (better program, better music, better coffee, etc.). Underneath such comparisons, however, is the greater question of the nature of the Church itself.
Is there are correct way to think about the Church?
The comparative discussions tend to focus on ideas (doctrines), organization (ecclesiology), or practices (sacraments and liturgy). Of course arguments always focus on the weaknesses of one’s opponents. This has skewed perceptions of the Church over the centuries. Protestant accounts of Roman Catholicism focus on the veneration of Mary, the Papacy, prayers for the dead, etc., overlooking most of the experience of Roman Catholicism. The same analysis could be applied to all the various perceptions/misperceptions.
Advocates of the Orthodox Church easily enter into such conversations armed with words like “true,” “only,” and similar words. And while the words used might be correct, the conversation can be deeply misleading.
I offer a different conversation: the Church is the Cross through history. I will explain this in some detail as we go along, but I offer it here as a heading and summary.
We tend to discuss the Church as something created by Christ, tasked with carrying the mission of the gospel into the world. We therefore find it easy to judge the Church according to how well or poorly it fulfills that task.
But what if the Church is considered under a different lens? I am suggesting that the proper lens for viewing the Church is the Cross. The Church is the Cross through history. The Cross is Christ’s self-emptying, reconciling, all-encompassing embrace of the world.
When I am lifted up, I will draw all people unto myself (Jn 12:32).
The Cross is the revelation of God’s perfection, Christ crucified: the Wisdom, Word and Power of God. The separation of the Church from the Cross, relegating the Cross to a theological cypher or single, historical event and interpreting the Church as the promoter and teacher of the cyphers and the event, creates a rupture within the unity of Christ’s work and cripples our understanding of His true work in the world. The Cross is eternal (“the Lamb slain from the foundation of the earth”) and represents the point both in time and timelessly at which God gathers together all things in Christ. It is the point of reconciliation and recreation. It is there that we hear Christ’s last words of the Creation: “It is finished.”
The death of Christ, His act of self-emptying should not be limited to a description of a single, atoning event. We are baptized into Christ’s death. We show forth His death in every celebration of the Eucharist. The death and self-sacrifice of Christ is invoked at every marriage. The Cross fills the whole work of the Church with its presence.
St. Paul says of his own work: “For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” (1Co 2:2 NKJ)
The Cross also describes our ongoing daily life:
For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. (Rom 6:5-6 NKJ)
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Gal 2:20 NKJ)
So how do we think of the Church as the Cross through history?
The Cross is not only the place where Christ is revealed in the perfection of His love, it is also the place where the depth of human sin is gathered and made manifest. The Cross is the point of reconciliation:
Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2Co 5:18-21 NKJ)
And the Church is the Cross through history.
If we bear this in mind, then certain statements can be seen more properly:
The Church is called “the pillar and ground of the truth.” (1Ti 3:15 NKJ) This language is often used with a very static meaning as though the Church’s magisterium, it’s body of teaching, were the subject of the description. This objectification of something that is rather a dynamic working of reconciliation becomes misleading.
A similar mistake is made in thinking of the language that describes the Church as Christ’s Body. We become static in our thinking and reduce such language to a metaphor of “membership.” We too quickly forget that the “body of Christ,” is everywhere else synonymous with Christ’s crucified body. “Body” is Christ’s word for the bread of the Eucharist, “broken for you.”
The same should be said about the use of the word “Blood.” It seems to me that in common usage, Christians often abstract Christ’s blood from the crucifixion and make it a substance that stands along, as though it were some metaphysical reality in its own right. The blood of Christ is not seen apart from His crucifixion. Where the blood of Christ is, there is His Cross.
In previous articles, I described the work of the Cross through history as “the long defeat.” It is a phrase used by J.R.R. Tolkien as a description of the path of Christianity through history. As I noted, such an analysis agrees with the mind of the fathers and the words of Christ in Scripture. The End of all things is preceded by a time of great conflict and suffering on the part of the Church.
My use of the phrase was an effort to describe the cruciform presence of the Church across history. The Church should not be described as an institution whose primary life is seen in its buildings, political prominence, place within the culture, etc. It is the mystical Cross that is everywhere and always the reconciling work of the crucified Christ, His crucified Body into whose bleeding reality we are Baptized and by which we die to sin and rise to newness of life.
As historical reality, that same Cross is also and always the culmination of ironic defeat. It is ironic because the defeat is also its victory. But the Cross is not the historical inauguration of a worldly success (as it is sometimes treated). The Cross is always characterized with the same self-emptying, ironic defeat of the Crucified Christ.
That defeat is self-emptying love. It is for that reason that St. Paul enjoins the Philippians:
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross (Phi 2:5-8 NKJ)
Perhaps equally important is the inexorable quality of the Cross in History and its presence as the Church. The Church is not a human creation, nor is it maintained as a human institution. It may be perceived “descriptively” (because it simply is). It is that place, time, and community where the sin of the world meets the love of God and the tragedy of our existence is reborn in the image and likeness of God.
It is inexorable because no tragedy, no sin can possibly undo its work. No amount of sin could make Christ to be other than who and what He is – for He became sin, that we might become the righteousness of Christ. The Church as the Cross through history is thus the supreme irony. On the day of Christ’s crucifixion, the disciples were at as low a point as at any time – and yet God was glorified in them. The work was being done. They were being reconciled with God and made joint-heirs with Christ.
To think more clearly about what this means consider the thought that the Cross through History is the “Pillar and Ground of Truth.” The Cross through History is the Crucified Body of Christ. And though ecclesiological struggles remain with boundaries at the Cup, and arguments and comparisons abound, the Cross through History is not confounded by the sin and dysfunction of our lives. It is the only place where they are truly gathered and there they are being reconciled to God as the Cross through History inexorably gathers together in One all things in Christ Jesus.