Welcome back to the sermon series on the letters of St Paul and this third address on his view of the Church. The subject fits this feast day when we mark his death and the inspiration of his life and teaching.
As for me Paul writes in the epistle from 2 Timothy the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Would that we might say the same when we’ve finished our course!
This teaching series draws on the inspiration Paul has given through the ages to Bible readers and my hope is that what I share might encourage you to pick up your own Bible and draw anew on its inspired teaching.
We’re looking today at how Paul sees the Church.
Previously we’ve looked at what he’s got to say about human nature, the good and bad in us and how we get our nature to be in its right mind. We looked last time at how Paul sees God as love shown in Jesus’ death and poured into our hearts by his Spirit, God whose unity is shown in the fellowship of three persons, as in 2 Corinthians 13:13: the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
The Greek word translated there as fellowship is koinonia and that word gives us a vital clue to his understanding of the Church.
A family I know were on holiday on a Greek Island. They were having a meal in the local taverna when they were greeted by a friendly local. ‘Koinonia’ said the gentleman, waving his arms around the family circle to indicate their evident sense of belonging. That 2 Corinthians ending, with its reminder of Christian koinonia or communion in God, is mirrored at the start of 1 Corinthians, Chapter 1:9 where Paul speaks of how God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship literally koinonia of his son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
The first of Jesus followers to meet with him after his death and resurrection had a koinonia or fellowship with him that extended outwards to fellow believers. Their commitment was to a fellowship built on teaching, sacrament and prayer from which the Church developed as we know it built on the same essentials.
The writings of Paul and other New Testament authors speak of Christian believers’ koinonia with Christ and with one another. Paul especially emphasises how this union is effected through the sacraments. In the one Spirit he writes in 1 Corinthians 12:13 we were all baptised into one body. Earlier in Chapter 10:16-17 he writes The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
St Paul sees the Church as generated by both word and sacrament, a teaching picked up in Article 19 of the Church of England Thirty Nine Articles: ‘The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men [sic], in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance’.
To keep close to Jesus you need the Church, both its preaching and sacraments, which you can’t, as a rule, get at home!
It’s Paul who teaches us most about the Church in the New Testament. His letters start as addressed to churches or to the Church of God in particular places – Thessalonica, Galatia, Corinth and so on. The apostle is first to use that Greek word ekklesia or assembly we translate as Church. It’s used in two senses, one of particular churches as in his opening greeting to the Churches of Galatia (Galatians1:2) but elsewhere as ‘the Church of God’, an institution over and beyond individual local Churches that’s actually expressed or brought into being in them. When he writes to the Galatians in Chapter 1:13 of persecuting the church of God he echoes his vision reported in Acts 9:5 where, questioning the Lord on Damascus road, he’s told I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. In hurting Christians Paul has hurt Christ!
This understanding of the mystical oneness of Christ and his Church comes across very plainly in Paul’s letters. It’s there especially in his teaching about the Church as the Body of Christ in Corinthians and in later letters like Ephesians and Colossians. We Christians are part of Christ’s life and work that fills all in all (Ephesians 1:23) and completes what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (Colossians 1:24). Paul also speaks of the Church as the People of God, the Temple of the Spirit and the Bride of Christ though I’ve no time this morning to pursue those images.
As we think about what Paul has to say about the Church we can’t ignore the obvious point that his letters came about because of the love he had for the churches he founded. It’s his evident concern to keep them in the faith that flowed from Christ’s death and resurrection, safe from interest groups that threatened the apostolic faith. His so-called pastoral letters – 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus – show how that apostolic faith came to have guardians in the bishops that succeeded the apostles. By the end of the second century holy orders as we now know them had emerged – bishops, priests and deacons – as well as the assembly of New Testament documents we now know as the Canon of Scripture. Both Scripture and three fold order are with us still as double grounding in the risen Christ who is the church’s one foundation.
Today’s feast celebrates how both Peter and Paul anchor our bishops as successors of the apostles in their scriptural teaching. The strong tradition of their martyrdom in Rome gives the Diocese of Rome a special title – the apostolic see. The Anglican-Roman Catholic agreement honours that see or diocese and looks to a day when a reformed papacy will serve the unity of all Christians in the apostolic faith.
So what useful thoughts might we take away from this brief investigation of Paul’s view of the Church?
First thought - our communion with God as Christians is inseparable from our communion with one another and there’s a challenge because in choosing God we probably didn’t choose one another! Our evangelism depends not just on your faith and my faith but on generating an intriguing Christ-centred community.
Second thought - Christian faith grows by the Church’s gift as ‘the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance’. In more common parlance Paul strongly urges what we call Sunday obligation - gathering as the Lord’s people on the Lord’s day around the Lord’s table – and not neglecting Christian fellowship.
Third thought - the Church is both human and divine. With all its failings it’s Christ’s body and woe betide us if we make it our own. A 20th century prophet heard God say: ‘I want my Church back’. Letting God have his church back in Horsted Keynes is our joyful task as we seek to put mission before maintenance and money.
‘St Giles Church seeks to grow in faith, love and numbers.’ May Paul’s teaching and prayers further our progress towards that end as we read his letters here and at home and as we partake of the one bread for we are Christ’s body, given once again Christ’s body, to become more fully that body which is the Church.