Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Ark of Christ's Church


 I wasn’t raised in the Episcopal Church. I didn’t begin attending Episcopal services until I was an adult. Being new to the Church, I found there was all sorts of terminology that was also completely new to me. Becoming an Episcopalian sometimes felt like moving to a foreign country where you have to learn how to speak a whole new language. People would say things like “the acolyte training session will be meeting in the nave” and I would stare at them blankly.

The thing is though, once you learn the terminology, and the traditions surrounding it, you find that it is rich in meaning and symbolism. Take for instance one the terms that I just used a moment ago, “the nave.” The nave is the main body of the church where most of the congregation is seated. It extends from the entrance all the way to the chancel, which is the space surrounding the altar where the choir and clergy are usually seated. The word “nave” comes from the Latin word “navis” which means “ship.” It is the same word from which we get our English words “navy” or “naval.” In many old churches the timbers of the roof are even built to mimic the ribs of an old boat, so that staring up into the nave itself looks something like looking down into the hull of a ship.

Now you might think that is a rather odd choice. What does a church have to do with a ship or with sea travel? The choice isn’t an unprecedented one, however, as the ship has been used as a symbol for the church from very early days.  Back in the days when Christians needed to be more cautious in displaying crosses, they would often use a picture of a boat whose mast, to the initiated, is reminiscent of the cross. Also, in documents from the earliest days of the Church, the Bishop surrounded by the assembly is sometimes compared to the helmsman of a ship.

The imagery is in fact biblical in nature and is meant to draw an analogy between the Church and Noah’s Ark. In 1 Peter Chapter 3 the analogy is made between those who have been received in God’s Church by baptism and the eight persons who were kept safe in the Ark during the time of the great flood. Baptism, like the flood, is meant to be a purging away of evil and a new start, a new creation. The Church then is the Ark of God in which God’s redeemed are carried safely through the turbulent storms of this life and the wrathful judgment of God. A line from an older version of our baptismal prayer read, “wash him and sanctify him with the Holy Ghost; that he, being delivered from thy wrath, may be received into the ark of Christ’s Church.”
The Church as the Ark of Christ is an image that the Early Church Fathers drew upon heavily. They noted that just as there was but one Ark to preserve mankind and creation in the days of the Great Flood, there is today one church called upon to be God’s shelter of safety from the dangers of the world. God has called his church out from the rest of the world to be his special instruments of salvation. The Ark was like the womb through which God formed a new world, and the Church is likewise the means through which Christ is making all things new.

In this morning’s gospel reading we see this dramatically depicted. Jesus and his disciples are presented as on a boat in a stormy sea. I believe that we need to read this story in light of image of the church as the Ark of Christ. The church is the place where God protects us and carries us through the turbulent storms of the world, through hardship, sickness, temptation, persecution, heresy, and apostasy. Christ is with us in the boat. He is in control. He is the sovereign Lord and creator of all things and he loves and cares for us.

The church is not exempt from being tossed and shaken by the tumult of the world; God calls us to endure times of great strife when our hearts fail us, and to journey with him to the other side.  During those times when the waves crash against the walls of the Church and the water pours in, threatening to sink us, we must trust that Christ is with us and will not allow us to be destroyed.

During times of great turbulence and distress, we like the disciples might be tempted to question whether God cares for us at all. It may seem to us as if Christ is indifferent to our hardship, as if he sleeps while the world crashes in around us. We might cry out to him in desperate prayer, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Although we at times may feel abandoned, Christ never ceases his loving care for us. If it is not apparent to us now, it soon shall be. He told his disciples, “In this world you have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world!” To our anxious hearts, he says, “Peace. Be still!” When all his disciples are terrified for their lives, Jesus is calm in the storm. He never wavers because he has perfect trust in the will of his Father.
He is our anchor. When all the world is swept up in chaos we can find perfect peace in Jesus Christ our Lord.

The waves are stilled at his command. "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" This is the Lord of heaven and Earth! The Almighty God and creator with us in human flesh! He is the God that speaks to us in whirlwind when we feel abandoned and forsaken; when we feel that we cannot go on.

Jesus is the Alpha and Omega. He was there at the beginning of creation. He hovered above the primordial waters. He tamed the chaos. He is the one who carried the Ark along on the great waters. He is the one who split the Red Sea and led his people forth on dry ground. He crushed Rehab of the deep, the great sea monster, and scattered his enemies with a mighty arm. He is the Lord of creation and nothing is out of his control. He was there at the beginning and he will be there at the end. He is working all things for the good of those who love him.

Brothers and Sisters, let us not lose heart! Our mighty Lord is with us. "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?"