In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. In fact, he began his journey on this very day!
For months, he and his crew were out on the ocean, cut off from all communication with Spain. No iPod, no internet, no Wii! There was no email, snail mail, or telegraph. Even today’s astronauts do not experience that level of isolation.
Nonetheless, because Columbus and his crew sailed for Spain, they remained organically connected to Spain; so much so that all the territories they discovered and all the wealth in those territories were claimed not for themselves as individuals but for the nation they represented.
(Of course, no one asked the Incas, Maya or Aztecs what they thought of the arrangement.)
As I have been writing about the Church and its role in spiritual life, I have realized just how much all this goes against the grain of contemporary thought. Christians now think of themselves as individually connected to God but voluntarily assembled with others who are also individually connected to God. That is what constitutes a church in our contemporary way of thinking. However, the New Testament doesn’t present things that way.
Paul begins many of his letters with a greeting to a particular local church. “To the saints who are in Ephesus,” he says. Or “to all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints.” As with the other apostles, Paul assumes that believers will be faithful members of local assemblies. The New Testament writers never assume any other possibility. The thought that a believer might not be organically planted within a local church just doesn’t occur to them.
On the other hand, the apostles did not envision the believer’s relationship with the local church as “membership,” in the sense we use the word today. The believer didn’t voluntarily join a church; he or she was born into the church. The church was the spiritual family of the believer.
Furthermore, the relationship between believer and the congregation had to be deliberately nourished by someone.
Paul writes in Colossians, chapter 2:
For I want you to know what a great conflict I have for you and those in Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, and attaining to all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the knowledge of the mystery of God, both of the Father and of Christ.
“Knitting people together in love” requires a healthy community. We are not “knitted together in love” through private piety, by doing good things like reading the Bible or by praying at home. We are knit together with other believers through the rumble-tumble of life, through our ups and downs, through attachments and misunderstandings, through victory and grief: through living out real life in the context of our spiritual family, the local church.
Our private piety is an outgrowth of our community life and our community life is an outgrowth of our shared piety.
Thus, we cannot be “knitted together in love” by jumping from one church to the next or by hopping from one “good gospel show” to a better one across town.
Spiritual growth simply does not happen if we keep an arm’s distance our brothers and sisters in Christ. Being knitted together in love requires intimacy. It only happens, if, over time and through commitment, we live together, work together, learn together and grow together.
As Columbus sailed into the West and gradually lost sight of land, the sailor’s sense of adventure turned into the routine of surviving on the open seas. After a while, when no new land came in sight, when it began to look as though the ocean was infinite; the sailors began to complain. Their fear of meeting untold monsters from the deep, falling off the edge of the world, or merely running out of food and water, gripped them and wouldn’t let go. But Columbus was the captain because inside that ship, they were still in Spain.
I have no idea what the sailors did to remind themselves that they were still Spaniards an on Spanish territory inside that ship. I suspect that they did things like raise flags, sound bugles, celebrate special holidays and observe other kinds of ritual that would keep Spanish life alive in their hearts. If so, then someone had to see to all of that. Someone had to “knit everyone together.”
Then one day, land was spotted. The journey was over. The ship had carried them across the wide expanse to the other shore.
I bet they were glad to get off that stinking ship!
But while they had been at open sea, the ship sure had come in handy – stink and all!