Living church every day

Church. The structure of Truth and Love; whatever rests upon and proceeds from divine Principle.

The Church is that institution, which affords proof of its utility and is found elevating the race, rousing the dormant understanding from material beliefs to the apprehension of spiritual ideas and the demonstration of divine Science, thereby casting out devils, or error, and healing the sick.

- Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, p. 583

According to one source, today there are 19 major world religions, made up of more than 270 faith traditions, 67,000 denominations, and six billion people. Christianity alone—which most experts cite as the world’s largest faith (though not growing as fast as Islam)—comprises more than 38,000 congregations and more than two billion congregants worldwide. That’s a lot of buildings, and members! But is it Church? 

We know that Christ Jesus’ church was not a place—not a building or even a particular location, though “as his custom was” (Luke 4:16), he was a regular at the local synagogue on the Sabbath, and he often preached and taught in Jerusalem’s Temple. But he instructed, lectured, and healed in lots of other places, too—in fishing boats at the seashore, on roadsides, in marketplaces, and in people’s homes.

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Mary Baker Eddy, founder of The Church of Christ, Scientist—designed to “reinstate primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing” (Church Manual, p. 17)—once wrote of Jesus: “When he was with them, a fishing-boat became a sanctuary, and the solitude was peopled with holy messages from the All-Father. The grove became his class-room, and nature’s haunts were the Messiah’s university” (Retrospection and Introspection, p. 91).

When people talk of church today, it’s often in reference to a physical structure or a group of people. But to Jesus, church hinged on one thing: the ever-present Christ, the truth and spirit of God and His creation. When Jesus asked his 12 closest followers who people thought he was, they cited prophets of the past—Jeremiah, Elijah, and John the Baptist. But when he asked these same disciples who they thought he was, Peter couldn’t get the words out fast enough: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16).

Jesus blessed Peter, and then described why this true understanding was so vital: “I tell you, you are Peter [Greek, Petros—a large piece of rock], and on this rock [Greek, petra—a huge rock like Gibraltar] I will build My church, and the gates of Hades (the powers of the infernal region) shall not overpower it [or be strong to its detriment or hold out against it]” (Matt 16:18, Amplified Bible).

In the weeks and months that followed this exchange, no one started gathering stones, mortar, wood, and craftsmen. No Christian church or building was constructed while Jesus walked the earth. Also, no one started signing up new members. In fact, in the last year of Jesus’ ministry, 70 students abandoned their teacher. The crowds that had followed, listened, and seen hundreds healed, also deserted this new movement.

Finally, even the original band of brothers started to disintegrate. It looked to be the last chapter of a short-lived upstart sect. Instead, it turned out to be the first act of a whole new sense of God, man, and church. After Jesus’ ascension, there was explosive church growth—geographically as well as numerically—even as its adherents were persecuted in every way and place by those who feared the movement’s success.

To Jesus, Church was a spiritual idea. It was a living, giving, outward-and-upward collective movement of thought. And it couldn’t be stopped, because in a very real sense it had never started. It had never not existed. It was as permanent and living as God and His Christ. It was and is the demonstration of the body of Christ, as St. Paul described it (see I Cor. 12:27).

In Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, Mary Baker Eddy wrote of Jesus: “His mission was both individual and collective. He did life’s work aright not only in justice to himself, but in mercy to mortals,—to show them how to do theirs, but not to do it for them nor to relieve them of a single responsibility” (p. 18). So, in following him, one finds that
 every person’s mission must be collective as well as individual—both aspects vital to one’s progress and well-being. 

Being a divine idea, Church is not limited by time or space, is not dependent on physicality or history. Its structure is not material but spiritual, a union of hearts and minds more than a collection of bodies in a building. As an institution, it represents the highest form of shared, useful endeavor, illustrating, at its best, how all collective associations, how society itself, should and will one day function. Its purpose, even now, involves awakening human consciousness to spiritual understanding, improving communities and societies, and healing personal and corporate ills. 

Science and Health defines the ideal: “The structure of Truth and Love; whatever rests upon and proceeds from divine Principle” (p. 583). How does one join this Church? Through inner spiritual rebirth. By adopting God-centered views, motives, and desires; spiritualizing thought and Christianizing life. We unite with this timeless, omnipresent Church every time we opt for honesty instead of deceit, kindness over callousness, courage rather than fear. We do it through spiritually scientific prayer that recognizes and affirms the reality of God, good, even when circumstances report the opposite. 

We also feel our eternal union with God and sense our natural unity with others through the prayer that seeks to know God’s way, looks out from His vantage point, and understands more of the allness of Spirit.

Why is this needed? Because every activity—mental or physical—is improved through spiritual thinking. We become more loving, moral, healing, trustworthy, wise, progressive, productive. We are uplifted, enlightened, healed.

I recall a time when I had been thinking a great deal about the Bible’s description of man (the true identity of each of us) as made in God’s image, after His likeness (see Gen. 1:26). I pondered this one day during a 15-minute walk to the subway.

On entering the station, I passed a man at the top of the stairs. By the time I reached the bottom, I heard him calling to me, “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.” When I asked why he was sorry, he apologized again for something he’d apparently said to me. I hadn’t heard it.

As I thought about this later, I came to the conclusion that the Truth-knowing I’d been doing had had a cleansing effect, making this man feel uncomfortable with whatever unkindness he had apparently spoken, and leaving me untouched by any offense—intended or not. In a small way, that little bit of “rest[ing] upon . . . divine Principle” had saved us both. It was a moment of Church.

Church, in its spiritual significance, compels us to think beyond ourselves. It encourages compassion for others, nurtures an appreciation of the world around us, both natural and man-made, and develops a brother- sisterhood that enables us to do more together than we could ever accomplish alone.

Church also challenges us to grow spiritually, calling for us to put off human self-centeredness or indifference in seeking a greater good. This pushing beyond the borders of one’s comfort zone may help explain why The Church of Christ, Scientist, publishes an international newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor, as well as other periodicals that examine both individual and collective needs, approaches to healing, and evidence of progress, solutions, and health.

We live Church each time we pray for peace in our world; each time we affirm the true, Christlike nature of a neighbor; each time we attend church services and testimony meetings and contribute mentally or orally. It might be through song, prayer, silent acknowledgment of the truth we’re hearing, or love and support for one another.

Church comes alive every moment we look up instead of down; go with God, instead of the crowd; offer a word of encouragement; really listen instead of react; silently, humbly “impart truth, health, and happiness” in the face of a need (Mary Baker Eddy, The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany, p. 165). On all such occasions, we embrace the Church universal and triumphant, and help bless humanity.

Some years ago, as a member of a Christian Science church, I worked with others in our community on an annual peace march that included representation from a variety of faith traditions, civic organizations, and local and state government. It was the main fundraiser for a nonprofit organization whose mission was to prevent violence by young people through school programs, and through healing outreach to victims’ and perpetrators’ families.

The previous year, I had chaired the event with minimal success. The next year, as I prayerfully listened for what my role should be, I was led to turn down the leadership post. Instead I volunteered to pray about the weather. (For each of the previous ten years, the day of the event had been rainy and cold, and the turnout low.) 

To my surprise and joy, several others joined the prayer effort—all from different faith groups—and everyone agreed to pray for the entire event. A new chairperson brought great skill and energy to her post, and we experienced new levels of cooperation in the preparation. 

Church is not limited by time or space, is not dependent on physicality or history.

That year the weather on the day of the march was perfect. Many city officials, city and suburban organizations, and faith groups participated, bringing the total attendance to nearly 5,000. Several speakers before the march that day openly acknowledged God’s hand, not only in the weather, but in the purpose of the day, and as the source of solutions to the city’s youth violence.

The impact of “the structure of Truth and Love,” cherished and lived, can never be overestimated. This ideal institution will always be the one that lights the way—often quietly, always through demonstration of Christ’s Christianity and healing—for everyone, from governments to businesses, from schools to civic and cultural organizations. 

The reach of “whatever rests upon and proceeds from divine Principle” is universal, since the Christ-consciousness is illimitable. Mary Baker Eddy believed this to her core, and once wrote to a Christian Science congregation summarizing her high expectations for what Church lived could accomplish: “You worship no distant deity,” she said, “nor talk of unknown love. The silent prayers of our churches, resounding through the dim corridors of time, go forth in waves of sound, a diapason of heart-beats, vibrating from one pulpit to another and from one heart to another, till truth and love, commingling in one righteous prayer, shall encircle and cement the human race” (The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany, p. 189). 

January 17, 2011

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