They must have thought their “church” was dead. Its founder was gone, its members were scattering. It’s easy to imagine that they figured there was nothing left to do but give up.
But then something happened. As two members of the “church” were walking away, leaving Jerusalem after the crucifixion of Jesus, and heading to the nearby town of Emmaus, they had a change of heart. Jesus appeared to them and explained that all of the events they had recently witnessed—the betrayal of Jesus by one of his followers, his arrest, trial, and crucifixion—were not a contradiction of his teachings, but a fulfillment of prophecy. He was not dead, but risen. Resurrected and very much alive.
That’s when those two disciples felt something stir inside of them. They returned to Jerusalem and recommitted themselves to church. After that, the Bible says, they “were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God” (Luke 24:53). Before long, their church was booming.
Of course, their “church,” which consisted of Jesus’ disciples, differed considerably from the churches of today. But the approach they took in building their ministry, based on all they had learned and experienced in the hours and days after Jesus’ resurrection, can be instructive. After all, the fruits of their experience were that “the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47).
So, what was it that Jesus ignited in those followers’ hearts on the road to Emmaus? Perhaps, in addition to the understanding that Jesus hadn’t died, it was also the understanding that his church—everything he had worked to establish—wasn’t dead, either. That his church was not something that could die, because it was much more than a human institution. It was a wholly spiritual idea.
Church already exists. It has always existed. And that means it is ours to bring to light through living and healing as Jesus and his disciples did.
Mary Baker Eddy set forth this concept of Church when she defined it as “the structure of Truth and Love; whatever rests upon and proceeds from divine Principle” (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, p. 583). Church, as she understood it, isn’t human or material, isn’t a congregation of like-minded people or a building made from bricks and mortar. Rather, it is the very structure of Truth and Love. It is the expression of divine Principle, God. And as such, it is limitless, spiritual, and eternal.
Furthermore, this Church already exists. It has always existed. And that means it is ours to bring to light through living and healing as Jesus and his disciples did.
“The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, Mass.,” Mrs. Eddy wrote in the Manual of The Mother Church, “is designed to be built on the Rock, Christ; even the understanding and demonstration of divine Truth, Life, and Love, healing and saving the world from sin and death; thus to reflect in some degree the Church Universal and Triumphant” (p. 19).
She didn’t say this church had been built; she said it is designed to be built. Might this not so much indicate a past occurrence, but rather an activity that continues throughout all time—past, present, and future? Might she not have been describing a church that is intended to be built now and forever, in continuous and perpetual unfoldment?
Just as the disciples built the early church in the years following Jesus’ ministry, his modern-day followers can continue to build it today. And they can do so the same way the disciples did: on the foundation of resurrection.
Resurrection, as defined in Science and Health, is “spiritualization of thought; a new and higher idea of immortality, or spiritual existence” (p. 593). It’s turning away from false material evidence—from a dead body that the disciples initially looked for in the sepulcher where Jesus was laid—to the present reality of the risen Christ. Resurrection brings complete redemption from the belief of mortality and death. So, resurrection, as it relates to church, involves complete redemption from belief in the death or irrelevance of the church’s teachings.
I saw the practical power of this kind of resurrection, this spiritualization of thought, during my very first experience with a Christian Science branch church. The way the members “built” their church not only transformed my life, but it transformed the lives of many others. And this happened at a time when, in some ways, the church appeared to be on its last legs, when many believed that what the church had to offer was no longer relevant to humanity.
It was the 1960s. Time magazine had suggested that God might be dead (see April 8, 1966), no longer a meaningful part of the average person’s daily life. And certainly, the teenagers I hung out with in New York City’s Central Park did not seem to be looking for God or for His presence in their lives. But I was. Although I had been raised without any faith tradition, I’d been searching for years for an understanding of God. When I was in high school, that search led me to this Christian Science branch church.
The building was large and the membership had been quite active in the past. But by the time I arrived, the pews were fairly empty during church services, and I eventually learned that some people assumed the church would soon close. It was located in what had become an unfashionable, somewhat seedy part of the city. Many of its members had long since left, heading for safer, cleaner climes.
However, a handful of faithful members stayed on to “build” the church. As I soon discovered, they were not looking back at the “sepulcher,” at church history, to mourn their loss or try to figure out what might have gone wrong. Instead, they were busy spiritualizing their thought, working to gain a new and higher idea of the immortality and spiritual existence of Church. And they were healing.
Church was the center of their lives, not in a dutiful, obligatory way, but as the practical extension of their love for humanity. To me, they embodied the idea articulated in Mrs. Eddy’s poem, “Mother’s Evening Prayer,” that says, “His arm encircles me, and mine, and all” (Miscellaneous Writings 1883–1896, p. 389). These were not people who permitted their expression of God’s love to be confined to themselves, or to “me, and mine.” They consistently worked to include “all”—and this is what undergirded their commitment to church.
As I began to attend Sunday School and eventually Sunday church services, I came to understand that this is what prayer in Christian Science churches is all about. Each church member’s unselfish love, moving beyond “me, and mine,” and reaching out to “all,” is what impels their service in church activities, their dedication to sharing the healing power of Truth and Love with others.
I believe it was this reaching out that called me and brought me to that particular church. The church welcomed me, showed me how to love unselfishly, and began to teach me about Christian Science healing. Many other people responded to this reaching out as well. Within a few years the Sunday School was thriving, and soon the church itself was thriving, too.
If we devote ourselves to building the church that uplifts and heals the stranger, the newcomer, and the faithful member alike, we root ourselves in selfless love.
But the good results didn’t stop there. Many of us who were nurtured by that small group of steadfast members followed their example. We joined the church and became active members. When we later got married, grew in our careers, and started families, we carried what we had learned at that church out into the world. Several of us went on to become full-time practitioners of Christian Science, devoting our lives to healing others.
Why did we remain so committed to Church? I believe it’s because we had seen so clearly that not only was Church not dead, or irrelevant in regard to the public, but it was also supremely relevant to our own individual practice of Christian Science. Indeed, Church is the culmination of Jesus’ teachings. It is pure Christianity, practiced. It is the selfless expression of God’s love for His creation, shared impartially and universally.
If we leave Church out of the equation—if we try to practice Christian Science only for “me, and mine”—our practice will be incomplete. But if we devote ourselves to building the church that uplifts and heals the stranger, the newcomer, and the faithful member alike, we root ourselves in selfless love. And that love cannot help but come back to bless us tenfold, because it is unselfish.
That is how Christian Science prospers, both in one’s own life and as a worldwide movement. Growth can only be achieved by giving outside of one’s own circle.
In the end, the impact of the “resurrection” of my first branch church rippled out far beyond that particular edifice at that particular time. The healing effect of its spiritualization of thought carries forward to this day, as those touched by its members’ understanding of Church continue to build on that foundation of resurrection.
As modern-day disciples of Jesus, we carry on the work of building church today, and so in some measure we are on our own daily walk along the road to Emmaus. We can rejoice in knowing that we are not headed away from Truth, but are walking toward the living Truth, God. We can delight in the inevitable result of this journey: that we, too, will be found continually in the temple, praising and blessing God.
Emily Byquist is a Christian Science practitioner living in Saint Louis, Missouri.