Yup. You read that right. Let me write it one more time. The Church is not the people.
Now, before all the torches, stakes, and lions are let loose, let’s have a little talk about this. After all, one of the most important things to understand biblically, once you’ve got a biblical (orthodox) understanding of God, is the Church. Jesus died for the Church. God formed the Church to accomplish His mission. The Spirit indwells, sanctifies, and empowers the Church to fulfill God’s will. So what’s the Church? Most of us grew up to the prophetic call of respected Christians telling us “The Church is not a building.” They were right. Now it’s our time to recognize what God speaks into our own day: “The Church is not the people.”
One of the more well-known definitions of the Church in Scripture is the the “Body of Christ.” It’s all through Paul’s letters, in fact. It seems to be Paul’s way of exploring the teaching Jesus gave His disciples about how they are to be in Him in the same way that He and the Father are one. Luke’s teaching in Acts seems to work in a similar way (The prologue to Acts, in chapter 1, describes the book as following all that Jesus began to do and teach”, implying that Acts is describing the ongoing ministry of Jesus). The conclusion we make of out of all this biblical teaching is that the saving work of Jesus and the ministry of the Holy Spirit form us into the Body of Christ, into the Church. That’s nothing new yet — that’s the reason our elders have insisted so strongly that the Church isn’t a building. Again, they’re right. But, brothers and sisters, being Jesus’ people doesn’t form the Church.
So what newfangled idea do I have for you? Actually, I’ve got a very old one…it comes from the apostles’ teaching in Scriptures and one of their disciples sums it up pretty neatly:
…wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church. –Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, ch. 8
It’s incredibly pastoral. It’s crucial. It reminds us that the Church isn’t me, you, or anything we can do. In the mystery of who God is, we can see the mystery of what the Church is: it’s union with Jesus. It’s inseparable from Jesus. Wherever Jesus Christ is, the Church is. Friends, we are not the Church because we exist, or because we congregate, or because we evangelize, or anything else that we do. We are the Church because Jesus, for the sheer pleasure of the Father, through the Holy Spirit, makes Himself present in us, with us, and over us. Jesus makes us the Church. Let’s not be so quick to forget it.