Called out to be God’s People
The insurer of most of our churches is a company which now happily accepts the title EIG. But what we gain in conciseness we lose in precision. For the word ecclesiastical is one that should be thought about often, and certainly not lost sight of under the simple letter ‘E’. The word, of course, means the Church – not a building, but the world-wide Church, the community of believers; it is the worshipping group, not the worshipping location.
The Church is more than a collective name for Christians – pride of lions, pack of wolves, school of porpoises and a church of Christians. The word describes a reality which is more than the sum of its parts. It is into the Church we are admitted when we are baptized; it is within a communion which spans years and distance and even extends into eternity that we share our fellowship; it is as living members of the body we share a greater life with other members. As St Paul suggests, the Church is a living organism into which we are grafted, and from which we draw our life, and for the benefit of which we exercise our Christianity.
It has to be said that this was not a particularly new idea, for the nation of Israel in the Old Testament had been encouraged to think of itself as something very special and important in the eyes of God. They too were, in the words of St Peter’s first letter, ‘the chosen race, the royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.’ They too were to think of themselves as having special work to do for the sake of God, and a sanctity that would mark them out from the surrounding nations.
The great difference between the Jews of the Old Testament and the Christians of the New was in that word, Church, or in Greek ecclesia from which we get our tongue-twisting word ecclesiastical. For the people of Israel, they were born to this special status; it was their inheritance and their birthright as people of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. The Christians, in contrast, were not ‘to the manor born’. Their birth into the new Israel was through the sacrament of baptism, it was with Christ the new member died and then was also raised with him into his resurrection family. Even baptism was not the whole story – it was not a ceremony which could be administered – or indeed demanded – willy-nilly. For not only had the individual to express a desire to become a Christian, but he or she had in the first place to feel being called by God to membership of the Church.
For that is the root of the word ecclesia: it is the people who have been called out of ordinary human society into the fellowship ordained by God to share a special relationship with him. This makes membership of the Church to be quite different matter from that of being a Jew. The Jew is born into his community of faith; the Christian is called out of the world to join the Church.
Both Jew and Christian are by their own separate lights ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’, but we have been ‘called out of darkness into his marvellous light in order to proclaim the mighty acts of God.’ We are the Church, the called-out people; we are the ones who have responded positively to the call of God to come together to worship him and offer him the holy sacrifice of his royal priesthood. The greater our readiness to respond to his call, the more fulfilling and productive our membership comes to be, the more his grace can work its transforming effects in our lives, and the more we can witness to this holiness which is a characteristic of the authentic Church.
Unless we really take to heart this truth of being called, being the ecclesia of God, it is all too likely that we will fall into the ready trap that the people of Israel fell into. They took their specialness in the eyes of God as some kind of privilege that could be exploited selfishly for their own benefit.
But we are a chosen race, because we have each been called out of darkness into his own marvellous light; we were once no people but now we are God’s people; once we had not received mercy, but now we have received mercy – so that we might proclaim in word and deed and in holy sacrifice the mighty acts of this God who calls.
This then is the uniting factor that makes up the strength of the fellowship of the Church, this is the life-blood that gives us our vitality in the Body of Christ, that we are all called into his ecclesia and we respond with humble service and willing obedience. May this Easter season be one in which we rediscover the call of God – both to worship him in his Church, and to serve him out in the world.
Chris Collins is Vicar of St Aidan’s, Sunderland.