I delight to serve a church that was gathered in 1642. Our present Meetinghouse was built in 1830 and I often spend a few minutes during the day sitting in the pews. The rich presence of the many thousands who have worshipped, loved, suffered, and brought their highest aspirations through our doors during these hundreds of years is a constant inspiration. On Sunday mornings they join with our present congregation (and, I believe, all who will follow), a true Church Universal.
In this final sermon in the series "The Perfect Life," William Ellery Channing speaks of this Universal Church including all who have gone before. Part one...
"THE CHURCH UNIVERSAL.
Ephesians iv. 4: " There is One Body, and One Spirit, even as ye are called in One Hope of your calling."
THIS passage declares the living Unity that will bind all Christians together, in proportion as they are filled with the Spirit of their Religion, and are joined vitally to their common Head. They constitute One Body. Christians are not distinct, separate, independent followers of Christ, each walking in a lonely path, living by an undisclosed faith, locking up in the breast an unparticipated love. Christ came not merely to teach a Doctrine, but to establish a Church to form a Religious Society, to organize a Spiritual Community. His religion was revealed to be a common possession, a common joy, a common ground of gratitude and praise, of sacrifice and work, for the whole Human Race...
...let us consider more nearly the extent of this Unity in the Church Universal,—how far it reaches, how many it embraces,—in order that we may gain a correspondent largeness and elevation of views and affections, of hopes and principles of action.
There is One Body and One Spirit. Christ has One Church, not many Churches. All Christians are comprehended in One Community. However scattered, separated, and divided,—in their fellowship with One Head, in their participation of One Faith and Spirit, they are attracted by a combining principle,—which, though counteracted now, can never be destroyed; and which will ultimately manifest itself in blending all unbelievers, visibly and indissolubly, into One. From the very nature of the Christian Religion—as a Religion of Love—all who embrace it must be gathered into One Society. Christian Union cannot but be co-extensive with the Christian Religion, and diffused with it wherever it is spread. Such is the general doctrine of the text.
1. Now if all Christians constitute One Community only, then it is implied not merely that Christians of the different denominations, which are scattered through the world, are nearly connected with one another here below, but that Christians on Earth and Christians in Heaven are lovingly bound in fellowship. Being equally united to Christ, these two classes are necessarily comprehended in that One Body, which is quickened by the One Spirit of adoption, that animates the whole vast Family of the Children of God. Consequently they sustain most intimate relations with one another, instantly and everywhere.
It is common to speak of these two classes under the names of the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. But these words merely denote the respective circumstances, amidst which different members of the same Community are for a season placed. The Church Militant and the Church Triumphant are One Church; and the time is approaching in which these distinctions shall vanish away, and when all Christ's followers, crowned with the same triumph, shall be gathered into the same Visible Communion, around their common exalted Head. This doctrine is announced in a passage of singular magnificence and elevation, both of thought and language, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, where the writer says: "Ye are come unto Mount Sion, and unto the city of the Living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn whose names are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect." In other words, by unity of soul with Christ's Church, we are admitted into a real Communion of Saints, tender and confidential, which will gain strength and largeness as we and they advance towards celestial excellence..."