A Perfect Invisible or Imperfect Visible Church
This Seventh Sunday of Easter finds itself between the Feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost and focuses on the visible and apostolic nature of the Church. Most people believe that Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples, was the beginning of the Church, but a real case can be made that the Ascension of Jesus was the beginning of the Church. How so?
It was never the risen Jesus’ intention to remain in this world. Jesus loved this world and came to save it from its focus on violence and death and refocus the world on the precious gift of life. This is what he lived and taught his disciples. They didn’t always get the message, but the task was for them to figure it out, live it and preach it. Jesus would return to his Father, get out of the way, and let his disciples have a go at it with the help of the Holy Spirit he gave them and would continue to give them until he came again.
When the risen Jesus ascended, he blessed his disciples one last time while he was on this earth, and then departed from them. The disciples went back to Jerusalem full of joy. Jesus had entrusted them with carrying on his ministry and the purpose of his coming into the world. In a real sense the Church began when Jesus ascended. The ones he had “called out” (ekklesia=church) were left behind to figure out how to proceed from there. We’re talking about something (the church) manifestly visible and, at the same time, human, and prone to weakness and sin.
The Church is a mystery of holiness and human weakness. The sinfulness of the Church, manifest in history over and over again, led some to conclude that the “real” Church must be invisible: made up of those, known to God alone, who have been most faithful to God. God knows who these individuals were and are and they form the “true” Church of Christ. But the principle of the Incarnation, God’s Son taking on our human nature and flesh, would point us to something very visible, not invisible. Jesus, in his humanity, didn’t appear different from other men. There was no “holy shine” around his head. Jesus looked like everyone else and was thought to be prone to weakness like everyone else. He was even accused of being a sinner because of the people he hung out with during his life.
So while an Invisible Church sounds better when the weakness and sin of the Church down through history is calculated, I think a visible Church, warts and all, is closer to the truth. Those eleven joy-filled disciples and their friends heading back to Jerusalem were not perfect by any means, but they were chosen by Jesus who promised the Holy Spirit to help them with the task before them. A very “visible” enterprise was begun.
Something special about this enterprise was that it was to be a new Israel. Israel consisted of twelve tribes and Jesus had called twelve to follow him at the beginning. When Judas Iscariot left the twelve it left a vacancy. The Apostles brought before them two candidates, both of whom had been around from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, heard his teaching, and most importantly, witnessed in person the Risen Jesus. This last requirement was most important, the person chosen needed to be able to testify to the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. As St. Paul put it: If Christ is not risen from the dead our faith is in vain.
So after prayer for the Holy Spirit’s guidance, Matthias was chosen by lot to fill out the vacant spot. Matthias would join the rest of the Apostles (disciples called to leadership and commissioned by Jesus). This apostolic group would have the task of continuing the process of bringing about change of heart and thinking that Jesus before and after the resurrection set in motion. Their task would always be the discovery and creation of God’s mercy in the new Church and in the world. Even mistakes made due to their own weakness and sins would help them, and not really hinder them in this, because receiving forgiveness and mercy over and over again themselves would help them bring the message of God’s mercy to others.
Jesus prayed that these apostles/disciples would be sanctified in truth. If they were perfect they wouldn’t need Jesus’ prayer, but they weren’t. They would not be removed from the world, but sent into the world, and, with the Spirit’s help, not be of the world.
To be a member of a very visible, and, at times, sinful Church is not easy. In history the human beings who make up the Church have made many mistakes and, at times, not lived up to Jesus’ Gospel message of mercy, love, and peace. But the Church is the only institution that continues to testify to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and tries to orient the world away from violence toward the love of God. As Peter asked Jesus: To whom shall we go? You alone have the words of everlasting life. We can ask the same question of the Body of Christ, the Church, today.
Saint Alban Episcopal Mission (English, Anglican Communion) meets for mass every Sunday at 10:00 A.M. (see welcome letter at sidebar) at Casa Convento Concepcion, 4a Calle Oriente No. 41, Antigua, Guatemala.