The Third Article of the Creed concerns the Holy Spirit and the holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Both are embedded firmly in our confession of faith. It is the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Gospel that brings people to faith and unites them to the Church. The Church is not optional for the faithful Christian. Through its auspices we are baptized into Christ, receive Holy Communion, and hear the Word of God in Scriptures and the sermon. In no other place is one able to receive the gift of eternal life. Those who say that they can be Christians without being members of the Church are not reflecting the teaching of Christ or the ongoing teaching of the Church.
Except in the case of the epistle to Philemon, Saint Paul writes to churches. The other letters of the New Testament also are sent to churches or groups of Christians.
The Gospel of John and I John use the pronoun ‘we,’ in reference to the Christian community, indicating a corporate witness. “And the word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, . . .” (John 1: 14a ESV) It is true that Jesus’ encounters in the Gospel of John are often with individuals–Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the blind man, Mary, and Martha. Yet, at the end of John we find a statement of corporate witness, “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.” (John 21: 24 ESV) Again, we encounter the plural first person pronoun.
The Book of Acts describes the activity of the early Church. “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teachings and the fellowship, and to the breaking of bread and prayers.”(Acts 2: 42 ESV) No Christian lives in this world without the ecclesial community.
In I Peter the Apostle addresses Christians scattered throughout the Roman provinces of Asia Minor. In the letter he speaks of a holy people. Our identity is corporate. We are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation . . .” (I Peter 2: 9 ESV)
Each individual must profess Christ, but does it in response to a corporate witness–the witness is from the Church; the one witnessed to is united to the Church. Saint Paul writes that we are the body of Christ and individually members of it (I Corinthians 12: 27).
When we witness to others and defend the faith on behalf of that witness, we are inviting people to participate in the life of the Church, that society that is set against the city of the world. After death we will join the company of those who are in heaven.
Oh, blest communion, fellowship divine,
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one within your great design,
From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost:
For All the Saints, Hymn 174, vss. 4 and 8 Lutheran Book of Worship
Our pilgrimage in the Church ends with the full reality of the kingdom of God.
Michael G. Tavella
December 19, 2023