Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! (Psalm 133:1).
Can a soldier be a soldier without an army? Can a teacher be a teacher without students? Can a quarterback be a quarterback without a team? Can a citizen be a citizen without a country? Can a salesman be a salesman without customers? Can a Christian be a Christian without the church?
St. Cyprian (A.D. 200-258) said, "You cannot have God for your Father if you do not have the Church for your mother…. God is one and Christ is one, and his Church is one; one is the faith, and one is the people cemented together by harmony into the strong unity of a body.”
Cyprian died a martyr for Christ and His church on September 13, 258, in Carthage, North Africa, where he served as bishop. Roman Emperor, Valerian I, issued an absolutely merciless edict. Bishops, pastors, deacons, and the church were punished with degradation and confiscation of goods to be followed by execution if they refused to offer sacrifice to the heathen gods of Rome.
As Roman authorities implemented the Emperor’s edict, the wheat separated from the chaff. Those who were members of the church out of convenience quickly renounced the church and Christ to be spared humiliation, loss of property, and execution. Those like Cyprian held fast.
In prison, Cyprian comforted his flock and his condemned pastors. When he was sentenced to lose his head by the sword, his only answer was "Thanks be to God!" He removed his garments without assistance, knelt down, and prayed. After he blindfolded himself, he was beheaded by the sword.
Faithful to Christ, faithful to his church and to his pastors, Cyprian and those like him stand in sharp contrast to the popular theology of today that espouses, “I can be a Christian without the church.”
Blood established the church - the blood of Jesus, God the Son. When the church gathers at the table, we drink his blood and eat his flesh represented in the cup and the bread of the Lord’s Supper. There is no such thing as a Lone Ranger Christian. Yes, there is an individual salvation. Jesus is my personal Savior. There is also a community aspect of salvation. I am part of Jesus’ body. “In Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:5 NIV).
“For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body-- whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free-- and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Now the body is not made up of one part but of many” (1 Corinthians 12:13-14 NIV).
Yes, a person who dies in the Lord is taken to heaven. For some, that is their only concern - to be good enough to make it to heaven. How many funerals have I been to where the pastor preached the person into heaven who never was a part of the body, the church, or who had severed relationships with the church? This is Lone Ranger theology. It is a soldier without an army which is nonsense. Jesus didn’t call one disciple. He called twelve to form the genesis of His community.
Jesus comes to take those who are members of his body. “For we are members of his body” (Ephesians 5:30). In the beautiful imagery of Scripture, the body is called the bride of Christ. “Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear." (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.) Then the angel said to me, "Write: 'Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!'" And he added, "These are the true words of God"(Revelation 19:7-9 NIV).
Here is the image of the wedding supper. The Lord is not going to set me down to a giant table alone in a banquet room with no one else. I will be seated with members who are the body of Christ. Jesus is the bridegroom presiding at the table. The church is His bride. If I die before Christ’s return, I die as part of His body, the church. If I am alive when He returns, I am taken with the church. Christ is not taking me. He is taking His body to be joined with Him forever and ever.
St. Cyprian wasn’t executed by himself as an individual Christian. He was executed because he was a part of the church at Carthage. His entire congregation or at least those who did not renounce the faith to save their necks were executed. In the church, we live together, and if necessary, we die together.
That is the blessing of community. God in His infinite wisdom and love established the church with a contract signed in the blood of His Son.
Jesus’ infused the church with His Spirit and His authority. “Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me...And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20 NIV). That’s the blessing of community living under the authority of Christ, the head of the church.
Jesus promised the overthrow of evil through the power and love He gives the church - not an individual sitting on the lake or on the couch Sunday after Sunday. Jesus proclaimed, “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18 NIV). The meanness and cruelty of the guards protecting hell here on earth fall with the onslaught of the love of the church through the love of Christ. That’s the blessing of community, loving people into His kingdom with the love of Christ There are so many blessings! So many!
How about community worship on Sunday morning? I often find that people won’t squeeze in time to read the Bible and pray during the week. In Sunday worship, the Bible is read, and prayers are prayed which are used by the Lord to renew my spirit and the spirit of the church. The blessing of community.
How can someone administer the Lord’s Supper to himself? The sacraments were given to the church.
How can someone face trials and tribulations without the loving, kind, and sympathetic ministry of the church and the pastor bringing the love of Christ to help them bear their burdens? I guess people outside the church somehow make it through, but I don’t want to walk that lonesome valley alone.
How can someone live with the shame and guilt of sinful actions and moral failures without the tangible forgiveness and acceptance of Christ through the church? It’s amazing to me how people want to hide their sins. I can understand that too. Unfortunately, many churches shoot their wounded and throw them under the bus instead of like the Good Samaritan who binds the wounds and compassionately cares for the injured. Everything I read and study about my Savior is that He accepted the sinners. He sought us sinful people out. The adulterer, the thief, the prostitute, the cheater, and the murderer. He accepted them all. Forgave them all, and made them into community - His church. A real church does the same as Christ which is to accept and forgive in a tangible way of love receiving the outcast into the fellowship and rejoicing with heaven above over the lost sinner coming home to the Father! This is the blessing of community.
This is not a human community. It is a divine community - a little taste of heaven on earth. A community of foot washers who get down and dirty in service to one another which is service to the Lord. A community who lifts up holy hands in praise together on Sunday morning to glorify the King of kings. A community who must have fellowship with one another and pass the peace and blessings of Christ to one another. A divine community. Heaven’s community on earth that one day will join the community of multitudes from all lands, nations, and peoples to fall at the feet of Jesus and cast their crowns at His feet crying with loud voices, ’Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing” Revelation 5:12)..
And a word of caution. Do you think those in St. Cyprian’s church in Carthage made it to heaven after they renounced Christ and sacrificed to the Roman gods? Was their religion a fair weather faith? Was it a convenient religion because it was the proper thing to do when times were good? If a fox is in the hen house, does that make the fox a chicken? If I’m in the church, does that make me a Christian? No. But, if I love Christ, and He has made me His child, then I will love the community He died to create and serve Him in the community of the redeemed.
I long for fellowship in spirit,
That mingled with the saints I’ll be,
Long to be saved from independence
And to be built with saints in Thee.
I long for fellowship in spirit,
That opened shall my spirit be,
Long to be rescued from seclusion,
And with the saints to worship Thee.