Why The Church?

Why The Church?

What is the church here for? There are many answers that can be given to this question: it is here to give us a place to be refreshed, it is where we are to learn about Christ, it is the place to find Christ, or it is a pace to find community. All these answers, and more, are common responses when this question is asked.

None of these answers are wrong, but they are all incomplete. They are incomplete because they are things that the church does, or that the church facilitates, but they miss the bigger question of what the purpose of the church is.

The Eastern Orthodox priest and theologian Alexander Schmemann gave an answer to why the church exists in the title of his work For the Life of the World. The church exists for the world, “But joy was given to the Church for the world—that the Church might be a witness to it and transform the world by joy” (55). This is an incredibly important point. Whatever the church does, it does as an offering for the world. The joy that is experienced by Christians in church is there not primarily for ourselves, but for the world around us.

At another point in his book, Schmemann calls the church “the sacrament of the world.” This phrase is interesting because it forces us to look at what the sacrament does from the other side. We are accustomed to thinking about how the grace imparted by the sacraments works on us when we take them, but if we are the church, and the church is a sacrament, what does it look like when the world partakes of us?

When the objects, bread and wine, become sacraments a change occurs in them. They are not simply bread and wine but the body and blood of Christ. When the church comes together to worship we are no longer individual people, but we are the body of Christ. When the church partakes in eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ it destroys them: the bread is gnashed apart and digested, the blood is drunk and absorbed into us. It is only through that destruction that we can take the sacrament.

When the world comes to partake of the church the effects can be destructive. How we have imagined the church to be, what we have made it to be for ourselves, falls away. Those who do not know how to behave in church can appear in our midst and rip apart our nicely ordered service.

Although I would be one of the first to argue that our liturgy, our order, and rituals, are important, they are like the bread and the wine: beautiful containers for Christ that dwells in them. We need them so that we can gaze and partake in the sacrament, but for the sacrament to become effective for us we need, at a certain point, to tear those wrappings off and feast on Christ.

Sometimes those who come to the church need to tear our liturgy, order, and rituals apart so that they can feast on the sacrament. When the world enters the church it can make things awkward: order can be lost when voices are raised at inappropriate times, sermons can be interrupted, commotions can take place, but if the church is there for the life of the world, if we are to be the sacrament for the world, then Christ can work though these things.

 

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