Who Do You Say I Am: The Centrality of the Church in the Christian Faith

He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’” (Luke 9:20). Just as the Apostles before us, Christians have developed many responses to this question Jesus asked two thousand years ago. Some answers— “the way, the truth, and the life”—have become standard across all of Christianity. Others—“the only son of God, eternally begotten of the Father”—became tests of orthodoxy and heresy. Foundationally, however, any response to this question must lead back to the Church—not the individual—as the normative means by which we come to know Jesus as the Christ and deepen our relationship with God.

For Trinitarian Christianity, to understand Jesus in addition to the creedal statements handed down over the generations, we should understand Jesus by what He does at the most fundamental level. As is so beautifully declared at the conclusion to the hymn to the Logos (the philosophical title that John the Evangelist ascribes to Christ), “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” In the 4th Century, St. Athanasius writes on how the Incarnation allows the reconciliation between God and man that lies at the heart of Christ’s mission, a mission that depicts Christ as recovering through His obedience what Adam, through his disobedience, had lost. Moreover, from both John and the tradition of the Church, we see Christ as the means by which God the Father has revealed Himself to the world.

The Christian scriptures developed slowly after Christ’s death and, as they stand now for most denominations, came to official if not entirely universal recognition in canons throughout the first few centuries. Nonetheless, even as they underwent this process, the Church took on the task of promulgating the faith as it had received it from the Apostles. Bishops and presbyters formed councils to maintain orthodoxy and in the end were responsible for establishing the biblical canon in line with the criteria of catholicity and apostolicity. The individual gospels and epistles ultimately derive from the life of Christ, the divine revelation Himself. The biblical canon which ties them all together derives from the life of the Church, which carried on Christ’s life and teachings through the centuries.

I mention these ties to make clear the importance that the Early Church had, outside Scripture, in passing on the faith, even while Scripture had been written and was being compiled. To ignore the importance of the “holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” as passed down from the First Council of Nicaea, or the “holy catholic church” as passed down from the first or second century onward, is to ignore the history of the Christian faith and the importance of our baptism into the Church.

While major denominations disagree on its meaning, Christianity has traditionally considered baptism the beginning of a new relationship with God. As St. Paul notes in his epistles, “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death”2 and just as we have been “buried with him in baptism, [we] were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”3 And our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection joins us with the Church. This may trouble many individuals. Churches are flawed; they are messy, run by fallen human beings who rob, steal, rape, and kill. Would it not be better to go it alone and try to grow by ourselves with Christ? In short, no. As Michael Ramsey notes, “we do not know the whole fact of Christ Incarnate unless we know His Church and its life as a part of His own life.”4 The Church provides the normative space for us to grow as Christians. This isn’t to say that Christians cannot grow alone; on the contrary, many do, and this is an important aspect of the Christian life. But Christ’s teachings, as interpreted by Paul, foreclose a solely personal walk with God. In John, Christ states, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from Me you can do nothing.”5 St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians ties these images together: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”6

To ignore the importance of the ‘holy catholic church’…is to ignore the history of the Christian faith and the importance of our baptism into the Church.

The “you” to whom he refers is the Church in Corinth, not just one of many churches without shared apostolicity, but part of the universal Church whose foundation is Christ and whose founders are his apostles. The Church is the Body of Christ, and our baptism is both into Christ’s death and resurrection and, thus, into the Church. The life of the Christian, notes one prominent churchman, is a continual response to the fact of his baptism.7 To act as if our baptism is somehow separate from the Church is to ignore the instruction we have received from Christ and his Apostles to grow in him and in his body, so that we may bear much fruit and so that we can commune with the great “I Am” who alone has true being, for “in him we live and move and have our being.”8

The Church serves to make manifest the mystical communion of individual believers with Christ through its worship, especially through its music, preaching, fellowship, and liturgy. These means provide the most visible way that Christians experience the body of Christ on any given day. Music has enormous power to shape belief and action, to convey different parts of humanity and the divine and stir the soul. The Psalms show forth the wide range of human experience, from despair and turmoil to hope and renewal, always pining for communion with the Lord. Preachers convey messages about God to audiences that are invited to reflect upon how the life of Christ and the life of the Church—one and the same—shape their own lives as they go into the world. Fellowship creates the more interpersonal aspects of community that are so important in drawing people closer to one another, a move toward self-giving love and joining with others toward the common life that the Gospels and the Epistles call us to live. Liturgy with all its ritual and elegance takes us out of the mundane reality around us and, at its best, brings us to a mystical experience of Christ and His beauty and timelessness, an experience that transforms us continually into new creations, prepared to live His life in the world. Through the Church, we come to God, to declare and show forth the great “I Am” in his fullness.

For us as Christians, we need all of these things, and for them, we must return to the Church. Leaving aside the thorny issues of apostolicity and catholicity for now, return to a church, if possible, that feeds you emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. Our culture is often obsessed with what it means to find ourselves as if we were solitary beings wandering this earthly journey with no one beside us to comfort us or struggle with us, to remind us that we are meant for more and that we are loved. The temptation to go it alone—to rely on our own interpretations of Scripture or to drop by a church only during the holidays—is strong, but recognize that, except in extraordinary circumstances, that temptation draws us away from the humble faith we have received from the Apostles and away from the community of believers to whom we have committed ourselves in our life of faith.

1 Jn. 1:18 (NRSV)

2 Romans 6:3 (NRSV)

3 Colossians 2:12 (NRSV)

4 Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church, p. 35

5 Jn. 15:4-5 (NRSV)

6 1 Cor. 12:27 (NRSV)

7 Ramsey, p. 33 8 Acts 17:28 (NRSV)

Article written by Armando Ghinaglia, YDS ’17

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