What does it really mean to be the church? What defines us, as a movement, as a body, as a people? Historically, four characteristics, known as the “Marks of the Church,” have defined the life of the Body. As laid out in the Nicene Creed, (UM Hymnal #880), “We believe in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” (Emphasis mine) The church traditionally defined its faithfulness of its identity, and effectiveness in mission, by these benchmarks. Even during and after the Reformation, these traits were never questioned, by Catholics, Orthodox, or Protestants. But what do they mean for Callahan? I’d like to take the next few months to look at each of these characteristics, and what they mean for us today.
First, the church is called to be One. Paul writes in Ephesians 4, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit-just as you were called to one hope when you were called-one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (vv 3-6) Out of all the characteristics of the church, this seems to be the most pertinent in our world today, as we are often divided by denomination, by skin tone, by ethnicity, by class, by worship style.
Yet the unity Paul is speaking of takes some interesting forms, it seems. In the very next breath, after calling for us to be united under one Lord, faith, and Baptism, Paul throws in a “however…” “However, he has given each one of us a special gift according to the generosity of Christ.” (v7, NLT) Then Paul goes on to describe a variety of gifts and roles in the church, each with their own unique place in this unified Body. And if we look at the variety of churches that have passed down the tradition of the church being “one,” we see many different peoples, many different forms, many different languages, musical instruments (or lack thereof). Each expressing its faith in unique and creative ways, each still united as one. We are one church, but we are one in diversity.
So what’s the secret? Paul tells us. “…Hold to the truth in love, becoming more and more in every way like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. Under His direction, the whole body is fitted perfectly together…” (vv 15-16a, NLT) As we focus on Christ, focus on becoming more like Him, and on reflecting His love to the world, He will bring us together as one. By focusing on styles, agendas, methods, our eyes are on ourselves. And if we are focused on ourselves, we’ll only see each other’s flaws. But if our focus, as individuals and as a body, is Christ, and on the mission He is calling us to, than we see only His holy love, and He will bring us together.
So how do we become one church? By acting in Christ-like love to one another, and to those outside these walls. By spending time with Christ, seeking His direction in all we do. By opening our hearts to His transforming Spirit, and letting Him make every part of us reflect His love. By laying aside our differences as things that divide us, and instead see them as divine gifts that can inform and enrich each other. Then, and only then, will we be one.