A few years ago my husband and I went to visit the ‘Sagrada Familia’, in Barcelona. Designed by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, and begun in 1882, it is as famous for being unfinished as its magnificent architecture.
Consecrated despite being unfinished, it is intended as a place for people to go and praise, pray, learn and reflect. Gaudi himself said, “La Sagrada Família is made by the people and is mirrored in them. It is a work in the hands of God and the will of the people.”
The Spanish word for ‘church’ is iglesia, derived from the Greek word ἐκκλησία (ekklesia). Like the English term ‘church’, iglesia is used to describe both a place of Christian worship and the community of people who meet there.
However, for the earliest Christians, ‘church’ was never about buildings. They met in each other’s homes (Col 4.15; Philemon 2) to break bread, pray and worship together. Each day they would go about their daily lives, telling others about what they were learning and experiencing as followers of Jesus (Acts 2.41-47). They were κυριακός (kuriakos) – meaning they belonged to God – the term from which ‘kirk’ (Scottish) and ‘church’ (English) are derived. And if the book of Acts (2.47) and Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians (1.6-10) are accurate in their depiction of how their example impacted on their wider communities, as a way of life it was irresistible.
These ekklesiae (plural of ekklesia), as the churches were known, were not only irresistible in the way they demonstrated love, generosity and grace. They were radical too. The term ekklesia, literally translated, means ‘the called-out’. In Jesus’ time it was a term routinely used for an elected civic body in the Roman Empire. By adopting it for their own use, the earliest Jesus-followers were demonstrating that they were already operating as organised groups. More notably, they adopted an egalitarian structure which was, at that time, totally counter-cultural. There was no distinction between slaves and free citizens, women were as likely as men to lead the churches, and Jewish believers had parity with Gentiles (non-Jews). Most importantly and radically of all, they refused to acknowledge the Roman Emperor as a god – and that was what really marked them out and set them apart from others.
I dearly wish we had two words for ‘church’ – one for buildings and one for communities – but we don’t. The Sagrada Familia teaches us that there is nothing wrong with the awe-striking magnificence of an iglesia/church – after all, our ability to appreciate such beauty is a gift from God. But there is more to ‘church’ than draw-droppingly beautiful buildings. As Christians we are called to ‘be’ church – shaping our lives as Jesus taught and the early disciples demonstrated: to love God with a passion, and to live in community with an attitude of generosity and grace that others just won’t be able to resist.
To read about a theology of church based on love click here.