Flesh and blood is weak and frail
Susceptible to nervous shock
While the True Church can never fail
For it is based upon a rock
The Hippo's feeble steps may err
In compassing material ends
While the True Church need never stir
To gather in its dividends…
I saw the 'potamus take wing
Ascending from the damp savannahs
And quiring angels round him sing
The praise of God, in loud hosannahs …
He shall be washed as white as snow
By all the martyr'd virgins kist
While the True Church remains below
Wrapt in the old miasmal mist. (TS Eliot The Hippopotamus)
What is the Church? A building - usually in a rather dilapidated condition and in continual need of 'fund-raising'? An organisation, with endless bureaucracy, committees, politics? A place to look into for four weddings and a funeral? Or a members club - a place where obscure rituals go on for the benefit of a few die-hards and the rest of the congregation jogs along as best as possible? A spokesman - sorry spokes-person - for a controversial new-age community was recently quoted as saying: "We are not a sect or a cult, just a collection of loosely-held beliefs" Many would say: "how like the Church of England!"
But how does the Bible see the Church?
The church isn't a physical building, it is the gathering of the people who recognise Jesus as "the Son of the Living God". St Peter writes, to the Church: But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. (1 Peter 9, see also Revelation 1:6, 5:10, 20:6)
People join the Church through baptism, which is the sacrament (outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace) of the new birth into membership of the Church. It is not a matter of having a membership card or paying a subscription or who your parents were. Jesus himself gave us this command: Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. And look, I am with you always, even to the end of time. (Matthew 28:19-28)
Throughout the centuries this command has been obeyed. As we speak, hundreds of baptisms are taking place.
Regrettably there are well-known divisions between various groups of churches ('denominations') and although the Church of England officially welcomes to full participation in our services any member of a Christian church others officially do not. But these divisions are crumbling at a staggering rate, and in practice all the mainstream Christian churches allow other Christians to join fully in their worship.
Equally, many Churches have smaller Groupings, Bible Groups or House Groups or whatever. These can be very useful in helping people to grow in prayer, holiness, knowledge and love. But they should never become rigid, exclusive or divisive. Everything must work together for the common good (1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 12:17 etc.)
This is an essential witness to Christ: the great commandment that we Love God and love our neighbour as ourselves. By this my father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you - remain in my love … this is my commandment, that you love one another (John 15:8-12)
And indeed from the earliest times a major part of Christian witness is the love and acceptance that Christians show. 'See how these Christians love one another' was the reaction of many converts. Still today, for all our many imperfections, people are brought into the Church and held there by the love that they find. (see eg 1 John 4:20-5:1)
But in Jesus, this whole aspect of the Law was fulfilled. There is only one High Priest in the Christian Church, and that is Jesus himself (Hebrews 4:14-5:10) - not a priest because he was a descendant of Aaron, but a priest appointed by God. A priest for ever, a priest like Melchizedek - the mysterious King-Priest who brought out bread and wine and blessed Abraham (Genesis 14:18-20, Psalm 110:4 etc..). And Jesus, on the cross, was the Lamb of God, the full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice reconciling God and man (Hebrews 10:12). There is no other sacrifice reconciling humanity and God - there can be no other sacrifice.
Jesus, the High Priest, has passed into the heavens, so who are the Priests on earth? Who are called to proclaim God's love and forgiveness. Who have direct access to the Father? We do, the Church, the whole Church. St Peter, writing to the Church as a whole, says: "You are a royal priesthood" - a kingdom of priests. Direct access to the Father is available to every Christian through Jesus.
The early Christians had people called 'elders' or presbyters who were the leaders of the local churches, under the authority of an apostle or some other 'overseer' or episcopos. And presbyter became prester became preost became priest. There was no need in English to refer to specific people as priests in the old cohen/heireus sense, because there weren't any in England.
So a priest, in the modern sense (presbuteros), is an ordained church leader who is authorised to celebrate the Eucharist and do a number of other things in the name of the Church. As the Anglicans put it: It is evident to all diligently reading holy Scripture and ancient Authors, that from the Apostles' time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ's Church: Bishops, Priests and Deacons. These offices were always had in such reverend estimation that no one might presume to execute any of them, except he were first called, tried, examined and known to have such qualities as are requisite for the same; and also by public prayer, with Imposition of Hands, were approved and admitted thereunto by lawful authority.
Many Priests are appointed to be Pastors in charge of a congregation of Christians, following the command of Jesus to Peter in John 21:15-19: 'Feed my lambs ... tend my sheep ... feed my sheep.' In the Church of England such people are called Vicars, Rectors or Priests-in-Charge. In some situations, the Pastor of a congregation is not a priest, for example an Abbot or Abbess does not have to be a priest (St Benedict was not, nor was St Francis, and in the Roman Catholic Church no Abbess is a priest).
The Anglican/Roman Catholic agreement on the Eucharist speaks of "our being drawn into the movement of [Jesus] self-offering as we celebrate the Eucharist and receive communion.
Sometimes people have an idea which is so original and so compelling that it becomes part of the language, and it is hard to see how startling it is. I remember being astonished to learn a few years ago that there were two old ladies in America who had composed 'Happy Birthday to you' and were still collecting royalties on it.
St Paul had the amazing insight that, although Jesus was no longer physically present on earth, the Church was, in a very deep sense, the body of Christ in the world, and that each person in the Church was like a different part of the body - a finger, eye, foot or whatever. Each is unique, each is different, each is indispensable in its own way (1 Corinthians 12). Jesus says that Christians will do greater works than the works Jesus did, because Jesus was leaving the world and going to the Father (John 14:12). No-one has been a greater healer or teacher than Jesus - yet through his Church, Jesus has healed and taught thousands of millions - far more than he was ever able to see in his earthly life. The term "member of a body" has become a cliché, but St Paul means it literally.
At the last supper Jesus had with his disciples before he was executed, Jesus took the bread and blessed it and said to them "take, eat, this is my body" (Matthew 26:26). St Paul's great insight is that it is not just the Eucharist which is the body of Christ - it is the disciples as well. Each one of us, with our imperfections, our faults and our failures, as well as with our gifts and talents and opportunities for growth, is called to be a unique and valued part of this Body.
It is no accident that the Body of Christ in the Eucharist is intimately connected with the Body of Christ as the Church. As some Eucharistic liturgies put it so beautifully, when calling people to communion: "receive the Body of Christ, become the Body of Christ".
From the very earliest times, the Eucharist has been the central act of Christian worship, faithfully following the command of Jesus himself, as we saw earlier. This does not mean that all Christian worship must contain a Eucharist, but it does mean that all Christians should be members of a Eucharistic community. The cup of blessing which we bless: is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation 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. (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).
It has been the experience of Christians through the centuries that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist under the forms of bread and wine. Regrettably, a lot of confusion has arisen over this point, most of it wholly unnecessary. People sometimes talk about the Eucharist as if it were a form of mumbo-jumbo: since the bread and wine remain bread and wine they "obviously cannot possibly be the body and blood of Christ". Actually, in the 1990s, we are far better placed to see how this can be so.
What is at £20 Note? Is it a piece of paper or is it £20? Physically, it's a piece of paper. But actually, really, it's not 'a piece of paper' but £20. If my daughter were to say 'can I have a piece of paper' and took a £20 note I would rightly feel misled. How do I know it is £20? Because I understand and believe in the concept of paper money, because I believe this note to be genuine, and because there is a promise from someone I can trust: 'I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of £20'. Similarly, when your priest celebrates the Eucharist you know it becomes the Body and Blood of Christ because you understand and believe in the concept of the Eucharist, because you believe this Eucharist to be genuine, and - crucially - because there is a promise from someone you can trust: Jesus himself says: 'This is my body ... do this in remembrance of me.'
As the 17th Century Anglicans again put it so well, a Sacrament means "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace" and the bread and the wine become "the body and blood of Christ, which are indeed taken and received by the faithful in the Lord's supper." The benefits of this Holy Communion are "the strengthening and refreshing of our souls by the body and blood of Christ as our bodies are by the bread and wine.".
In the words of the great priest, poet and pastor, George Herbert:
Not in rich furniture or fine array
Nor in a wedge of gold,
Thou, who from me wast sold
To me thou dost thyself convey
For so thou shouldst without me still have been,
Leaving within me sin:
But by the way of nourishment and strength
Thou creep'st into my breast:
Making thy way my rest
And thy small quantities my length:
Which spread their forces into every part,
Meeting sin's force and art.
Yet can these not get over to my soul,
Leaping the wall that parts
our souls and fleshly hearts:
But as the outworks, they may control
My rebel flesh, and carrying thy name,
Afright both sin and shame.
Only thy grace, which with these elements comes,
Knoweth the ready way
And hath the privy key
Opening the soul's most subtle rooms:
While those spirits refined, at door attend
Dispatches from their Friend.
The Church is the Body of Christ but she is also the Bride of Christ. No human marriage is perfect and if we look down through the centuries we find that the relationship between God and his people has been full of misunderstandings and disappointments. Whatever the problems and difficulties - and these have sometimes been very serious - the flame of God's love and truth has never been extinguished, and the Holy Spirit has always blown new breath and new life into the Church. St Paul writing to the Christians at Ephesus, says: Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, so that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies…for no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes it and cherishes it, as Christ does his church, because we are members of his body. (Ephesians 5:25-30).
As Origen, one of the earliest Christian teachers put it: Christ has flooded the universe with divine and sanctifying waves. For the thirsty he sends a spring of living water from the wound which the spear opened in his side. … From the wound in Christ's side has come forth the Church, and he has made her his bride. (Commentary on Psalm 77,31 - Commentary on Proverbs 31, 16)
Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven as a wedding feast - a great banquet of celebration. And his first miracle was to transform a wedding feast where they had run out of wine into one where wine was overflowing - about 150 gallons (John 2:6). Overflowing with love, overflowing with joy, overflowing with new life. This is what the Church is about. On earth we can never fully realise this, on earth there will always be difficulties. But even the difficulties can become part of the road of spiritual growth. In earthly terms, no church is perfect, but any church where the gospel in proclaimed can be what St Benedict calls a 'school for the Lord's service.' Following Jesus we follow the way of the Cross, but to the joy of the resurrection. Jesus says to his disciples, and to the church for all time, and to us today:
In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)