At church yesterday, my worship leader spoke about the nature of being a disciple, focusing especially on the fact that to be a disciple of Christ is to be vitally connected to the people of God–the community of believers. On the whole it was an excellent discussion and he brought up some very apropos points about how the identity of a follower of Christ is indellibly marked by the community of believers to which the believer is joined through Christ. This message stirred my thinking quite a bit, so I would like to note some very brief observations about the nature of ecclesia and what it means to be a part of the church.

First of all, to be a part of the community of believers is synonymous with participating in the salvation of God. Stated another way, God's salvation is uniquely manifested in the church. While this might seem strange to the modern, individuated mind that has been conditioned to understand salvation in atomistic, forensic terms, it is really not a shocking thing when understood in the grander stroke of salvation history. As salvation is realized not through the juridical pardon of punishment for sins, but rather in the reconciliation between humanity and God and the restoration of this primal relationship forged in creation, wherever reconciliation occurs–whether it be between humans and God, or humans and each other–there is God's salvation also manifest.

As an example, this is why Catholics and EO's (and some Protestants) understand the sacraments to be salvific ordinances. It is not that water and wine are in and of themselves mechanistically capable of forging reconciliation and restoration of relationship between humanity and God, as if to be wetted by the waters of baptism and to imbibe the bread and wine of the Eucharist are causal instruments of salvation in and of themselves. Rather, their efficacy in salvation is realized in the truth of God's salvation that is manifested within the community of believers. As the neophyte is initiated into this community of the reconciled through the waters of the institution of baptism, they too partake and drink deeply of the restoration of divine/human relationship, experiencing in their own person the newness of recreated life proclaimed in the resurrection of Christ and his unifying presence through the Spirit of God in the community of believers. And as the baptized imbibe the wine and bread, an amenesis–a rememberance–occurs. However, this remembrance is not simply a psychologizing of the abstract salvation of God that is distant and only the object of speculation and expectation; rather, it is a rehearsal of the God's salvation in human history and a prophetic acknowledgment of the continuing salvific work of the Spirit of God within the Church, not only in history past, but in the present, dynamic life of the people of God extant today.

This is why partaking of the sacraments in an "unworthy" manner is of such a serious nature. When the individual becomes the focus of the sacramental rite, the reality of divine/huamn reconciliation is abused and broken, the rites becoming yet another tool for sinful manipulation. When the sacraments become objects of convenience and/or neglect, the integral witness and amenesis of the reality of God's salvation in the history of God's people is lost as the psychologizing efforts of the individual are exalted and become the focus of the celebration. Here, there is condemnation not because of the threat of punitive retribution (as if God indignantly punishes for the ritualistic impropriety of the thing), but rather because the individual has severed the ties of salvation in the community, trampling upon the reconcilation of God and humanity which is engendered in the celebration of the sacraments of the church.

Secondly, and related, if the salvation of God is manifested in the reconciliation which occurs in the community of the people of God, so too is individual salvation radically redefined. In such an understanding, salvation no longer becomes something that one "has," as if it is an object that is bartered back and forth between God and the individual. Rather, salvation is not a thing at all, but a deep and intimate participation within the kingdom of God manifested in the reign of Christ through the Spirit of God in history. In this way, it is impossible (as my worship pastor said yesterday) for salvation to ever be a "private" matter, as if it were something properly and terminably located within the individuality of the singular person. Quite to the contrary, salvation is the life of the people of God as they participate within the reconciliation and restoration of divine/human relationship which has been heralded in the advent of very God in the person of Christ.

Again, the ancient understanding of sacrametal life illustrates this reality dramatically. The waters of baptism are not for the individual alone, as if the rite reveals nothing more than an individual dying to sin and raising to newness of life in Christ. More robustly, the waters of baptism are the waters of God's Spirit which enfold the history of salvation revealed in the life and story of the people of God. To be baptized then, is to be initiated into a new way of being, to be joined to a new people, to be given a brand new identity that is not determined on the basis of individuated, atomized criterion, but rather by the family into which one has been reborn. And moreover, to feast at Christ's table is not simply for the nourishment of the individual stomach; rather, the very nature of the table presupposes the existence of not only Christ, who has provided the feast, but also of all those for whom Christ has prepared the feast. The wine and bread, in which God's salvation becomes dynamically and immanently present, joins the community together as they feast upon the very Christ who sustains them as one body in unity of ecclesia in the power of the Spirit of God.

Third, this conception of discpleship draws an interesting link between confession and healing. The writer of James notes this relationship when noting that believers should confess their sins one to another that they might be healed. From a western standpoint of indivdualized, forensically understood notions of sin and salvation, one might be led to conclusion that the mechanism of confession is to remove the ailments accrued from penalty for breaches of judicial law. However, if the aforementioned motif of relationality is presupposed, the link becomes much more organic and meaningful in the scheme of ecclesia. That is, if sin is realized not in the violation of abstracted, divine law, but is manifested rather in the distortion and dissolution of divine/human and human/human relationships, then confession is no longer an isolated, individual admission of guilt, but is rather the first step in the reconciliation of persons. In this moment, both the confessor and hearers participate within the destructive powers of sin which have characterized their relationships. But as confession and forgiveness enfold all, the fissures and fractures of sin are overcome by the inbreaking of the reconciling love and forgiveness of the Spirit of God. As reconciliation and restoration of relationship occurs, the separations, privations and negations wherein sin was manifest are healed and removed, thereby permitting the community of believers to fully participate within the healing and salvific presence of God within their midst through the Spirit's power in their prayers, worship and celebration of the sacraments.

I could go on, but I do not wish to extend this post unduly. Clearly, there is a robust cache of powerfully insightful theology in this reorientation of ecclesia away from the classic Western chacterizations of individuated belief to an understanding of the church as the unique location of God's salvation in human history, a salvation which is ever being revealed
n the recon
ciliation of God and humanity as is dramatically typified in the life of the people of God, the reconciled (and reconciling) community of believers.