I like to think there is some sort of logical progression in these chapters, as we move from considering our Christian calling, to our place within the church, and the place of the church within the plan of Jesus. Let us begin by pretending there is no such thing as church. I read the gospel, and, as I reflect on the message, I wonder if this would really work.
This does appear to be a very radical message, one of the most revolutionary proclamations of all time. It speaks about the proud being knocked off their perches, and the humble being raised up. It speaks of food for hungry people, and of God being on the side of the down-trodden and oppressed. It promises much, but I need to find out if it can deliver on those promises. If it can, then nothing on this earth could ever continue to be the same again.
I decide to try an experiment. I gather a group of people who are going to help me with the experiment. There are several conditions that must be applied right from the beginning. Firstly, each member of the group must be different from the others. What we hope to do is form a body, and if all were similar, we would end up with all heads, hands, or feet. As I look around my assembled group, it is evident that they meet that first requirement.
The second condition is a little more difficult. Each member must accept the fact that all of the others are different, and not expect them to be carbon copies of him or her. Unless this is accepted as fact, the experiment won't work, because the stress will be on uniformity, rather than unity, as if we were in the business of producing Hitler Youth, all goose-steeping out the door together!
The third requirement would be that it is accepted as fact that each is uniquely gifted, and, that whatever gifts one possesses are to be made available to the group. In other words, it must be accepted that God gives me nothing for myself. He didn't give me my gift of speech to go around talking to myself! The image I would use would be a mirror, or the engine of a car. I take the mirror, and shatter it. Then I give a piece of the shattered mirror to each one in the group. Each reflects some part of who Christ is, and when we put the pieces back together again, and everyone makes each part available, only then, as a group, do we reflect the face of Christ.
I take the engine of a car, and I give some vital part to each member of the group, and we will soon learn that the car cannot function until each makes available to the group the part entrusted to each. There is a very impressive phrase for this, when we speak of unity in diversity. In simple English, this means that, although we are each very different from the other, we can be very united, with a common purpose, without destroying the unique and special qualities that make us different.
As human beings, we have so much in common with each other, that it would be a great pity if we allowed the few ways in which we differ to keep us apart. Until we begin to live with this freedom, I cannot see much hope of the Christian churches coming together. If the coming together means that one church swallows up another, or one church saying "We will have Christian unity, when you all are prepared to give up your beliefs, and become part of us", then I would not wish to see such a travesty, and have it called unity, in Jesus' name.
Jesus came on earth, did what he came to do, and then returned to the Father. He sent the Holy Spirit to complete the work of our salvation, and to guide us safely home. The primary work of the Spirit is to bind, and to unite. The trade mark of Satan is division and conflict, dividing and conquering. The awful destruction and genocide going on, a few years back, in what used be known as Yugoslavia, is a good example of an evil force at work. When people come together, in unity, to work for the good and welfare of others - that is the work of God's Spirit.
The apostles were very different from each other in many ways. Poor Peter always seemed to get it wrong. Thomas was insecure, and needed constant reassurance. Philip was not too bright, and needed things spelt out in great detail, while John and James had their mother come to Jesus to put in a good word for them, to ensure they got posts of responsibility in whatever sort of business he was going to set up. Jesus never tried to turn Peter into a James, or John into an Andrew. When the Spirit would come, they would share a common spirit, and that would unite them, as no earthly force ever could.
When the Spirit came upon Mary, it was to avail of her body, of her flesh and blood, to provide a body for Jesus, who would be God incarnate, God in a body, among us. Later, the Spirit came once more on Mary, and the apostles in the Upper Room, and once again, the body of Jesus was formed. When Jesus returned to his Father, he brought the body he had with him. Now, through Mary and the apostles, he would have a new body, and his work would continue, until the last sheaf of wheat was harvested into the store-house of the Lord. This time, the Body of Christ is formed of members that are separate individuals, all joined and united with the common Spirit of God.
The role of the Christian is to contribute towards providing the body, and God will provide the Spirit. When Mary asked "How can this be?", she was told that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and the power of the Most High would overshadow her. That is exactly what happened at Pentecost, when the church was born.
St. Paul never met Jesus in person. He was a very religious Pharisee, who was completely committed to destroying the early church, which he saw as a serious menace to his Jewish tradition. He was on one such journey of commitment, when he was thrown from his horse, on the road to Damascus, and a voice asked him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" His name was Saul , which he later changed to Paul. Saul asked, "Who are you?", to which the voice replied "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." From that moment on, Paul thought of Jesus and church as being one and the same. Jesus had identified himself as being persecuted, when, in practice, it was apostles, disciples, and followers that were being thrown in jail.
So far, I am speaking about the church in theory, and saying what it is intended to be, and how Jesus thinks of his church. I am not saying the church you and I know, has always lived up to that ideal. I will now look without fear or favour on what has happened in practice I have shared something of what I think the church is, or should be, rather than talking about what the church is not. At this stage, I need to say that the church is not the bishops and priests, even though that part of the church has been over-emphasised to such an extent that one could be excused for making this mistake.
We hear it said, in official church circles, that the church is not a democracy, but is an hierarchical organisation that will not allow criticism of its teaching. Let me put that in simple English, before commenting on what it says. The church is not like a political party, where people are elected to office. Priests and bishops are appointed. The Pope is the only one who is elected. Personally, I think that is a great pity, especially in the case of bishops, where the priests and people of the diocese don't have a say in who should lead them. Religious Congregations, monasteries, and convents frequently elect their superiors. I also consider the very word "superior" as being a sad choice of word, and, thankfully, it seems to be on the way out. As someone said one time, anyone who thinks he's superior has a problem, and anyone thinking he is a major superior has a major problem!
The hierarchical organisation part has to do with a structure of authority, reaching from the Pope, through the various levels of ordained members, to the laity. Obviously, no matter how many nice words we use, the laity are at the bottom. I never thought this would ever change, to be honest with you, but I now believe that we have begun to see the dismantling of this structure. I believe much of this structure comes from a misunderstanding of authority, and power. In the language of the world, those words imply having rights over others, and being in a position where others have to look up to those in authority as being some sort of superior beings.
Jesus himself said that the world thinks this way, but that must not be the way among his followers. He said that he came to serve, not to be served, and the greatest in his kingdom are those who serve. From the point of view of management, and practical structures that facilitate the on-going mission of the church, I believe in special responsibilities, and I also believe in having competent people involved in the decision-making process. Jesus was not at all haphazard and laid-back to the point where there was no organisation in what he did. He selected a few of his apostles for special occasions, he organised the people in groups before feeding them with loaves and fishes, he sent a few of his friends ahead to prepare for the Last Supper. Nowhere, however, is this seen as delegating power and authority to them. All of this has to do with proper order, and common sense.
I don't wish to get bogged down in this whole authority bit, but I do think that bishops and clergy have got to see their place, more as people with a basin of water and towel, ministering to others, rather than being ministered to, in the service of others rather than lording it over anybody. In the following chapter I will share how I see the present fall-off in voactions, and where, I think that will lead the church. All I am dealing with now is that constant barrier one comes up against when we speak about church, and where this is confused with bishops and clergy, to the exclusion of the main, and most important part of the church, the laity.
This concept is totally understandable, because of the way things have been up till now. Costantine did nobody a favour when he became a Christian! He was a Roman emperor, and, in a way, he almost took over the show, and made it look more like a secular power. His princes, in their castles, became the example for what came to be called princes of the church, where bishops ended up living in palaces!
In our own day, the bishop's residence has usually been called his palace. This was a sad travesty of what Jesus had in mind, and, thankfully, we are beginning to see the end of this. I believe this wrong witness has alienated many people from the church, because, no matter how we try to defend it, it is totally at variance with what Jesus had in mind. I do not think that the church should be above criticism, and, to pretend that all has been well, is a denial of the truth.
I am not despondent, or unduly upset by any of this, because I believe that, no matter how far we wander from the ideal, the Spirit will continue to guide the church back into the way of the Lord. It is one of the greatest proofs of the Lord's involvement with the church, that it has survived every possible scandal and corruption in the book. At this very time, indeed, the Church seems to be in travail, and we can have reason to hope for the birth of something entirely new. I know that the church will continue to be there when you and I are dead and gone. I would love to live to see a much humbler church, that is not above criticism, and that can be big enough to listen to the diverse voices within it.
In fairness, it must be said that no church has ever submitted itself to such open scrutiny, and self-examination as the Catholic church did at the last Vatican Council. The insights gained then, and the ideals restated then, can actually bring the church back to what Jesus had in mind, when he entrusted us Christians with the message of the gospels. One can just hope and pray that those ideals will be kept in sight, and that the direction clearly pointed to by the Holy Spirit will be faithfully followed.
In the meantime, we need great patience, because change on such a large scale, can be all too painfully slow. I live in the hope that the work begun by Vatican II will be brought to completion, like the words of Paul, when he prays, " May the work begun by the Lord be brought to completion within you".
I don't pretend to have any inside information, but, it did seem to me that quite alot of effort has been put into slowing down that work, of keeping it under control, and of holding on to alot of what should have been discarded. Prudence and caution are all very well, but, when they stultify growth, and freeze us into inactivity, they cease to be life-giving. That is why I have to trust God's Spirit to complete the work he has begun, "until Christ be formed" anew in his Church.
Obviously, the church is not a building, made up of bricks and mortar. It is a gathering of people, who share a common spirit, and who have a common view of our role in the world. The central purpose of church is its witness value. When I worked in a parish, I never concerned myself unduly about people who do not attend church. I believe with all my heart that when those who attend church begin to show evidence of the positive effect of that on their lives, that others will want to come along, and be part of that.
"See how these Christians love one another," was the remark of people who witnessed the early church in action. Jesus prayed at the Last Supper that we might be one, because that would be the only acceptable proof that the Father had sent him. He told his disciples that other people would know they were his followers if they loved one another. Witnessing to the gospel is the main purpose of the church's existence.
I remember seeing a notice outside a church in England one time which had, in bold letters C H - - C H. Underneath was the question, "What is missing? Answer : U R!". I also remember a church gathering being asked to spell the word church, and the emphasis was thus c h U R c h. A minister surprised his congregation one Sunday, by announcing that the church was dead, and there would be a funeral on the following Sunday morning. The following Sunday, many showed up, if only out of curiosity. There was a coffin in the sanctuary, with the lid to one side. The minister invited the congregation to come forward to view the remains. Imagine their surprise, as each looked in the coffin, and saw their own faces reflected in the mirror on the base of the coffin!
Yes, indeed, we are the church, and it is a test of our maturity that we are prepared to take our place in the church, warts and all. I cannot change the church by leaving it. I can react or respond to what I see there. One man told a priest that he would not go to church, because they were only a bunch of hypocrites, and he wanted to have nothing to do with them. The priest smiled, and suggested that maybe he might come along sometime, because there was always plenty of room for one more hypocrite!
If I look at the vast amount of good that the church has championed down the years, the care of the leper and outcast, the homes for the handicapped, and the huge undertakings to feed the hungry of the world ; if I look at this honestly, and without bias, and if I am honest enough to look at my own contribution, then I may well have to concede that I cannot point a finger, or throw a stone.
The church has survived every effort to suppress it down the centuries, by tyrant and dictator. It has been to the forefront in standing up to injustice and oppression. The life of the Church is in greatest peril whenever it tends to conform, and to be used to preserve the status quo. It was thus, for example, in Latin America, but all of that seems to have changed totally. In that part of the world the church has become the voice of the helpless, and the champion of the down-trodden.
In this way, we can see the church as the salt of the earth, and as a light to the world. It has had its failures, and it has lost its way, and even some of its Popes were very far from what one would expect from the leaders of a Christian people. And, yet, the church survived, and continues to push ahead with its task of evangelising the world. Some years ago, missionaries went in their thousands to the developing and underdeveloped nations.
Today, the church is showing signs of more vibrancy in those parts than anywhere else in the world. Pope John XXIII prayed for a new Pentecost for the church, and, I believe, that he got one. The details of this is something I will look at in the following chapter. Suffice for now to say that we are living in times of great change, not least, within the church.
Change does not come easily to such a large and ancient organisation, with thousands of years of experience behind it. It would be wrong to throw out thousands of years of wisdom, just for the sake of having something new. It is a process of becoming, rather than arriving anywhere. New is not always better, and no matter what comes along, the church has seen it all before.
One could summarise all attempts to reform the church as nothing more than trying to get back to the church Jesus founded. As I said earlier, I believe that Pope John got his new Pentecost, and I see many signs that we are living in the Acts of the Apostles of that second Pentecost. I believe we are at the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one.
Much of what I had to say on this side of the cassette was about the era we are leaving behind. Most of what I have said in this chapter has been about the era that is coming to a close, while the following chapter will look at the era that is now beginning.