By The Rev. Canon Dr. Dennis Okholm
There are times when I relish being knocked a notch or two off of my comfortable orientation in life. Sometimes this is called a “paradigm shift.” Well, I experienced one a few months back while reading Liturgical Theology by Simon Chan.
I usually think of the church existing to serve the world, and there is truth to that sentiment. But Chan is right to say that it is more biblically and theologically correct to say this: “creation exists to realize the church.”
I should have known this. My favorite New Testament letter is Ephesians, and Paul makes it very clear in the first chapter (v. 4) that God had his covenant community in mind before the world was even created. And the Swiss theologian Karl Barth taught that the covenant is the “internal basis” of creation while creation is the “external basis” of the covenant, which, to put it in simpler language, means that creation is simply the stage on which God’s plan to be in a covenant relationship with his people gets played out.
So, in one sense, the church precedes creation. As Chan says, the church does not exist to fix a broken creation. In other words, the problem of sin is not the reason for the church’s existence. The church exists because God has always wanted to be in covenant relationship with others outside of God’s self.
This has important implications for the way we think about us—about church. For one, it connects the Old Testament with the New Testament: the church of the New Testament is in continuity with Israel as the one covenant community that God intended from eternity (Ephesians again!).
It also means that the church is not to exist as a counter-culture, but that the church is a culture (an alternative culture if you’d like). And as long as ACNA—or any other church, for that matter—sets its agenda as a counter to something else (even a “liberal” denomination from which it broke), that “something else” will be determining ACNA’s identity. Instead, our identity as church is found in the life of the triune God. We are organically linked to the triune God because the Head of the Body is the second Person of the Trinity—Jesus Christ. The church is the body of the eternal Son, brought into history by the action of the Holy Spirit. The church is a divine-human reality that is more essential to our lives than anything else in God’s creation.
Chan bounces off of Cyprian’s idea of Mother Church:
“ . . . the church is our nourishing Mother, and we are entirely dependent on her for our existence as Christians. We are not saved as individuals first and then incorporated into the church; rather, to be a Christian is to be incorporated into the church by baptism and nourished with the spiritual food of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. Failure to understand this fact has led to a reduction of the church’s role to a largely sociological one of a service provider catering to individual believers’ spiritual needs.”
Thinking of our existence as church this way is profound. That is why this Sunday, once again, we will pray our corporate prayer of confession. It’s in third person plural: We . . . as church . . . have not loved the One who called us into existence. We . . . as church . . . have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. But we . . . as church . . . not only repent, but desire to be Christ’s body in the coming week, delighting in that which delights Christ and walking in his ways for the glory of the God who had us in mind before the creation even came into being.