“The church is not the building, and the church is not an idea. The church is not merely the clergy. The church is the people!” Perhaps you have heard words to this effect. True, the church is not the building. Employing the word “church” to refer to a house of worship makes sense only because the church meets there; it’s not the primary meaning of the word. The church is not merely an idea but an actual thing. But is the church merely the people?
No, it cannot be merely the people because in that case any gathering of people would be the church. To be the church, the gathered group must at least be people of Christian faith and be gathering for the purpose for which the church meets: praying, hearing Scripture read and expounded and, most centrally, participating in the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. Well then, does the church exist only when Christians gather to participate in the Eucharist? No, for then the church would be merely a periodic event the people engage in rather than a reality that encompasses their whole persons all the time. Surely the church exists even when it is not gathered and visible.
How can the church be a reality even when it is not gathered and visible? And why is this important? Most references to the church in the New Testament refer to the Christians in a particular locality whether gathered or not. But the letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians refer to the church as the “body” of Christ (Ephesians 5:23, 30 and Colossians 1:24). Paul speaks of how Christ “feeds and cares” for his body the church like we feed and care for our bodies (Ephesians 5:29). The relationship between Christ and the church is a “profound mystery” (Ephesians 5:32).
Paul speaks of individual Christians as having been “baptized into Christ” (Romans 6:3 and Galatians 3:26). Christians are “in Christ” (Romans 8:1; and many other places) and “have the spirit of Christ” (Romans 8:9). Christ is “in you” (Romans 8:10) and you are “in Christ” (Romans 8:34). Just as a physical body has many parts but is one, “in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:5). We are “united” with Christ (Philippians 2:1-2). In the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, we “participate in the body and blood of Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:16).
What, then, is the basis of the existence and the unity of the church even when it is scattered over a city or the whole world or meets under different denominational names? Of course, the answer is Jesus Christ with and in and through the Spirit of God. Everyone who has been baptized into Christ has been united to him. And in him all are united to each other as the church. The church, then, is the people of God gathered together in Christ through the Spirit. They are always together in Christ, but they long for the visible gathering where they can express their faith in Christ and love for each other.
Though the church is always one, holy, catholic and apostolic in Christ, and it exists in full actuality in him, the spirit of Christ drives us together so that we can experience that reality with our eyes and ears and hands. Just as Christ became incarnate in a physical body in Jesus of Nazareth to help us in our weakness, he draws us together to participate in the Eucharist, in prayer and in hymns so that we can touch, taste, and hear him in our time and space. The church is his body, and in it he speaks in audible voice and comforts with physical touch.
So it does not matter how small a church you attend or in what corner of the planet you gather. Christ is there, and where he is, there is also the whole church–the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. And I too am there with you, my brothers and sisters.