Chats with the Saints: Cyprian on The Church

How shall we come to know God?

The Church points to Herself as the deposit of faith by which a wo/man shall come to know Christ. Why?

I have come to understand that Christ did not come to institute relationships with people, he came to fulfill the Davidic covenant and bring the Kingdom of God into our midst, and then, and only then with and through those goals establish “relationships” with humanity. You cannot have a relationship with God if you do not have a relationship to His kingdom, namely the Son and His Church. But where I think much theology especially protestant theology misses the mark is making the relationship the ends, instead of the means.

Of course it is an ends, but not a primary ends. I guess if I were to put it into words, I’d say that humans approach God to know Him, and then discover the mission of the Church through proper instruction and then develop a deeper spirituality that returns them back into challenging relationship with this God.

However, this spirituality must happen in and with a community all working towards a unified relationship with a mission. It is no accident that the Eucharist was first instituted at a communal meal where all Israel remembers solidarity in Egypt, nor is it an accident that the apostles built churches not collectives of individual converts.

True Christianity is not about you or me, or an abstract god who means nothing but the affirmation of my good feelings. It is all about The Triune Lord, and His demanding, discipling alter-narrative kingdom. It is all about building a loving and restorative kingdom, a liturgical empire geared towards the worship of the One Loving and True God worshiped in Christ. This empire has a founding in the cross of Jesus and his alternative politics. His politics establishes a robust and suffering community of faith centered around the Eucharist, and all the other sacraments.

To have these sacraments we need the mediation of the Church, and the blessings she has imparted to us through her priesthood to make active the blessings of Christ. We cannot have the blessings of Christ without the apostles whom mediated Him to us first, or their followers who bear the interminable burden of succession in this great and apostolic line. As St. Cyprian wrote:

Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adultress is separated from the promises of the Church; nor will he that forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is an alien, a worldling, and an enemy. He cannot have God for his Father who does not have the Church for his Mother… Does anyone believe that in the Church this unity which proceeds from the divine stability and which is welded together after the heavenly patterns can be divided, and can be separated by the parting asunder of opposing wills? Whoever holds not fast to this unity holds not to the law of God; neither does he keep faith with the Father and the Son, nor does he have life and salvation. (St. Cyprian of Carthage, The Unity of the Catholic Church, [AD 251/256], in: The Faith of the Early Fathers, (Vol.I), The Liturgical Press, Minnesota, 1970: 221).

Those sound like harsh words to many ears, not least of which, mine. But it’s simply a matter of citizenship to the ancient Church that’s at stake in Cyprian’s words. In early Christianity, religion was not just a part of life, it was a new politics, a new citizenship, a new way of conceiving power, politics and community.

To be separated from the community of faith was not just a choice against a religious association, it was a choice against citizenship in the Kingdom of Jesus of Nazareth. It was a choice for citizenship worshiping other gods whose worship only leads to hell on earth. The unity of the Church for Cyprian is not only modeled after, but participates in the Unity of Christ to His Bride, but also analogically in the unity of the Father with the Son. It is an indissoluble bond that necessitates our analogical showing forth of that self-same reality in our congregations.

Notice how for Cyprian keeping the faith is not a purely a human endeavor, but an act of cooperation with the Trinity, for the Early Church, the faith and the Church are matters of actual divine providence, and are given to us for real salvation not just moral cleansing. It is our great poverty that we have forgotten these things and instead made preferential a faith that has no mother, and thus a very confused and distorted picture of the Father.

People wonder how we got to the point where the gods worshiped in many churches are spiritual soda machines in the sky. My answer: we forgot our Mother, and thus distorted our picture of the Father, and ended up with father gods who are not the Father God of Jesus of Nazareth. We cannot help but examine the unity of witness between strong churches and orthodox Christian theology, and weak churches and increasingly un-Christian theology.

What Cyprian is pressing at is a robust Church, which is scandalous to many minds in the North American and European countries where the churches have in many cases become an ailing social structure instead of a leading proponent of virtue and culture. However, I think Cyprian is exactly right, that to separate ourselves from the Church is to abandon keeping the faith with the Father and the Son and their Unifying Spirit who fills all things with the unity of Christ. The oneness of the Church is not simply a matter of opinion or desire, it is what life and salvation look like when properly contextualized for the blessing of humanity.

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