It is said in our tradition that the church did not begin some two thousand years ago, but rather the church started in Paradise when God had intimate conversations with Adam and Eve. It must have been awesome! Sadly, so much has changed in the millennia since that first talk. So much from that first love has soured. The familiarity and the mystery now seem faded, almost too distant to ever have been real. And though that break was restored once again on Pentecost, our scars never really left, leaving scabs of brokenness, inadequacy and yes, sinfulness. How then is the church to live?
In the Bible, the word "church" means "to be called out;" that is, called out by God to be a holy people, because our God is holy. And that means that we pursue holiness not as an idea but as a lifestyle, where we say yes to becoming the house of God. We say yes to relating to each other as if to Christ. We say yes to loving God above everything else. We say yes to Jesus Christ as our eternal salvation.
The church is not the building or the icons or the candles or even the religious services. The church is the people of God. The church is the community that believes in Jesus Christ as their savior, their lover, their God. The church is that unique family that is meant to live, to love, to care for, to support and yes even to die for each other. In the church everyone counts. Each one of us that has been baptized is a part-an important and vital part-of this family. To the extent that if one person no longer is involved with the church, then the church misses something and becomes, in a way, handicapped. It mourns and does everything to bring that lost son and daughter back into the family.
There can't be any pretending in a church-in a true community. Relationships have to be real. There has to be a strong sense of belonging, where everyone knows they will be listened to and supported by all the others, where everyone shares in each other's joys and struggles as if they were their own. This is what people always wanted from church, and I think probably want that sense of belonging now more than ever because it is community that defines who we are.
We can look at it this way. We know that when Jesus calls us to enter His kingdom, He calls us first to enter into a new relationship with Him. But by entering this new kingdom, God then calls us to community, because even God is community. God is three in one-Father, Son and Holy Spirit-each so distinct yet also so completely related to one another through pure and deep love that they are one. It is this mystery of God-so completely one, yet also so completely community that we are called to represent and to be in the world. In other words, the church is nothing but a people who are so closely united that our own communion with each other is like that of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So much so, that as St Gregory of Nyssa said, if anyone then looked at the church, he would look at Christ.
And I think that sums it all up. You know, Church is radical. It is insane and crazy, according to the world's standards, to live like this. It calls for a depth of relationship where we cover each other's back; that we help each other stay away from sin; that we become the hands and feet of Jesus to each other; that we model God to the world because the church is the new model for humanity.
But this love has to be real. It is a love that makes great demands on us. It is a love that demands respect for every person. It is a love that demands care, kindness, patience, active concern for others, and giving of one's self— one's life to and for others because that's what Jesus did-He loved us and was delivered up for us.
If we saw the church this way, then the world would see God in us. We know that no one on the planet has ever seen God. But if we love each other; that is, if the church really lived like the people of God — then the world would get a picture of God through us (cf 1 John 4:11). Or as the nuns at the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania put it: "When [we] love each other in the spiritual sense [we] actually recognize God dwelling within the other. As we greet someone, we worship God, for man is the icon of God. Man is a living icon." So we, the people of God are the church. We, the people are the true icons. I don't believe God wants us to spend our time and money just trying to make a building beautiful, but rather He wants us to build up people — people who are the real church buildings — the real houses of God. But I'm afraid we've gone so far away from this understanding of what the church is, that it's no wonder that people say they are bored with it, that they no longer get anything out of church.
So where do we go from here? Above all, we need to go back to our real calling which is the mission given us by Christ, the work of Christ himself: "to preach the good news to the poor, to heal the broken hearted, to preach deliverance to captives and the recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to announce, 'This is God's year to act!'" (Luke 4:18). We also need to show people how remarkable it is to be in love with God—to treasure Him and to want nothing more but to be with Him. In order to do that, though, we have to live as though our citizenship is not here on earth but is in heaven.
Another thing we must be aware of is that so many people walk into our church buildings on Sunday, carrying silent but heavy burdens of hopelessness, of fear, and of pain and no one reaches out to them. We have to work harder at loving each other. We need to find ways to be more hospitable. We tend to be too focused on our personal spirituality, not understanding that our faith, our Christianity cannot be lived in isolation. It is expressed, validated and lived out in relation to others.
I think this is why the church in the early centuries grew by leaps and bounds. The gospel explodes all our prejudices, our hatred, and our greed and replaces it not only with a peace beyond all understanding but also with a love that is extravagant. Where we take on each other's burdens. Where we sacrifice our wants and maybe even our needs. Where we become ready to fight for justice, to fight against child sexual slavery and hunger, to help unwed mothers, and to stop the disintegration of the family. And I think once we start doing that, then the world will begin to see the church-the people of God-as relevant and meaningful, as something they want to be a part of.
This is after all what church is. God calls us to follow Him and love, as He loves. And if we do that-if we live knowing that our own happiness, our own peace and our own joy depend on whether we live for others— then we will finally have true communion with God and with each other. Then we will at last live as the church of God-as a people living in the light and power of the coming Kingdom. And I know that when we can achieve that, then the world will have come one step closer to seeing God.
John Kapsalis is a graduate of Holy Cross Seminary.