The Holy Catholic Church and The Communion of Saints
Recently I came across an article from The Atlantic titled, “The Misunderstood Reason Millions of Americans Stopped Going to Church.” The article’s author, Jake Meador, cites a book called “The Great Dechurching.” The book finds that the reason so many Americans no longer go to church isn’t that they got disillusioned and left, or worse, experienced abuse and left. Although sadly, of course, those things have happened. But the vast majority of former church goers actually left for much more mundane reasons. Often, they just became busy, and church slowly ended up taking a back burner until they finally just quit going altogether. The book asserts that contemporary American life “isn’t set up to promote mutuality, care, or common life.” Instead, it’s designed to maximize individual professional and financial achievement, which doesn’t leave time or energy for other forms of community. Meador goes on to say that this way of life has “left us lonely, anxious, and uncertain of how to live in community with other people,” and then he calls on the church to bear witness to another way to live.
Of course, the church has always been called to bear witness to another way to live. In the Book of Ephesians, chapter 2, the Apostle Paul writes to the Gentiles in Ephesus, and he describes how Gentiles and Jews have found unity through Jesus Christ. “For he is our peace,” Paul says. “In his flesh he has made both into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. Later, in verse 19, Paul goes on to say that Gentiles and Jews are no longer strangers and aliens, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. You see, the church was always meant to be a community in which dividing walls are broken down, in which people who are utterly different from one another can find unity through the grace of Jesus Christ. Our faith was meant to be formed and nurtured and lived out in this kind of Christian community.
But perhaps Meador is right. In this season of conflict within the church, it often seems like dividing walls are going up faster than they’re coming down. And when things are so divisive, it’s easy to begin thinking of those who are different from us as strangers and aliens, rather than fellow members of the household of God. Perhaps, in the strong pull of our culture’s focus on individualism and personal achievement, we’ve forgotten how to live in Christian community. And in that way, we’ve missed out on opportunities to bear witness to another way to live.
I wonder if one of the reasons for this is that we’ve mistaken unity for uniformity. We’ve come to believe that in order to be united, we have to think and act in the same ways. And yet, like any household, we’re actually made stronger by a diversity of perspectives and a variety of gifts. In my own household, I’m thankful that my husband likes to cook. If it were up to me, our meals would consist of cereal most nights. And my husband appreciates that I like to do the grocery shopping. I enjoy the challenge of saving money with coupons and sales. Of course we don’t always agree on everything. Sometimes our differences present challenges and cause conflict. But ultimately, our household is stronger because we’re united in our differences, not despite them.
Author Kathleen Norris talks about her own church’s struggle to maintain unity in her book, “Amazing Grace.” ”We are not individuals who have come together because we are like-minded,” she says. “That is not a church, but a political party. We are like most healthy churches, I think, in that we can do pretty well when it comes to loving and serving God, each other, and the world; but God help us if we have to agree about things.” Norris goes on to say, “[the church] is a human institution, full of ordinary people, sinners like me, who say and do cruel, stupid things. But it is also a divinely inspired institution, full of good purpose, which partakes of a unity far greater than the sum of its parts.”
So when Paul says that Jesus Christ is our peace, I don’t think he means that we’ll all think and act the same ways, or that we’ll never disagree. I think he means that even though we’re different, even though we have different perspectives and don’t always agree, we can still be united in our purpose–united in our commitment to loving and serving God, each other, and the world. Or, in the words of John Wesley, though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?
In her book, “Braiding Sweetgrass”, scientist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer describes the mysterious way that pecan trees produce their fruit. She says that in order to generate new forests, each tree has to make a lot of fruit–in this case pecans. But in tree economics, nuts are expensive for trees to produce, and they can’t afford to make very many each year. So instead, they save up for production, putting starch away like any of us would put money in the bank in order to save up for something big. Once they have a surplus of starch, the trees do go big, and they produce a lot of nuts at one time.
Now, as you would expect, trees that are in prime locations, with good soil and lots of sunshine, accumulate starch quickly. And those trees that grow in less than ideal conditions take much longer to build up enough starch for nut production. But what makes this process so mysterious to scientists is that even though the trees accumulate starch at different rates, they don’t produce nuts at different times. Instead, Kammerer says, “If one tree fruits, they all fruit–there are no soloists. Not one tree in a grove, but the whole grove; not one grove in the forest, but every grove; all across the county and all across the state. The trees act not as individuals, but somehow as a collective. Exactly how they do this, we don’t yet know. But what we see,” Kammerer says, “ is the power of unity. What happens to one happens to us all. We can starve together or feast together. All flourishing is mutual.” Perhaps this is one way that we can bear witness to another way to live. Not to be uniform in how we think and act, but rather, so united in our purpose–so united in our commitment to loving and serving God and each other and the world, that the result is a flourishing so abundant that there is more than enough to feed the world.
You know, every time we say the Apostles’ Creed, we affirm that we believe in the holy, catholic church and the communion of saints. When I was a kid, that part of the creed always tripped me up. I knew that the word “holy” means that the church is dedicated to God. But I always got confused, because I knew that we weren’t Catholic. We were United Methodist! Of course, I eventually came to understand that the “c” in catholic is lower case. We’re not talking about the Roman Catholic Church, but rather the universal Christian church. In fact, the word “catholic” comes from two Greek words that mean “about or throughout the whole.” That’s why it’s usually translated as “universal.” It’s a word that encompasses every time and place. But it also signifies unity or wholeness.
So every time we say the Apostles Creed, every time we say that we believe in the holy, catholic church and the communion of saints, we make a counter-cultural political and economic statement. We affirm that Jesus Christ is our peace in every time and place. We declare that Jesus Christ can break down the walls that divide us in every time and place. We proclaim that Jesus Christ can create community out of strangers and aliens in every time and place. And finally, we announce that we’re called to live in community with the communion of saints in every time and place. Indeed, we’re even united with those who have gone before us because the dividing wall between life and death has been broken down by the grace of Jesus Christ. So every time we say the Apostles Creed, we bear witness along with the church in every time and place, to another way to live.
We obviously don’t always get it right. Life in the church is messy and hard, and our culture’s focus on individualism and personal achievement is insidious. But I have no doubt that within and among us in The Vine United Methodist Church, with our diversity of perspectives and varieties of gifts, we have all of the resources we need to create communities of healing, hope, and belonging. May our movement of living love bear witness to another way to live. Amen.
Jake Meador, “The Misunderstood Reason Millions of Americans Stopped Going to Church,” The Atlantic, July 20, 2023.
Ephesians 2:14 (NRSV).
“Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith,” Kathleen Norris (New York: Riverhead, 1998), 272-273.
“Braiding Sweetgrass,” Robin Wall Kimmerer (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013), 15.