All this week the Church’s scriptures for daily Mass have taken us on a journey with St. Paul. He is in the midst of his missionary adventures, moving from place to place, city to city and as he does so he is introducing people to the Lord Jesus and inviting people to share Christ’s gifts in his Church.
Thus, it is Christ who is acting through St. Paul to fulfill his own messianic mission- a mission by which the nations are gathered into a relationship with the God of Israel. No longer will being an Israelite simply be a matter of blood or family or culture, but it has been transformed in Christ into a matter of a relationship with him. Christ has given rise to a new kind of Israel, a reality that we know as the Church and it is through the Church that the nations share a relationship with God in Christ.
St. Paul’s proclamation of a new Israel transformed by Christ was controversial to say the least. Both Israelites and Gentiles found the whole idea problematic if not crazy. On a practical level, many understood (correctly) that if enough people accepted St. Paul’s invitation that the world would change. This is precisely what happened. As more and more people accepted St. Paul’s invitation, both Israelites and Gentiles began to work together to create a new kind of civilization. St. Paul was not trading in some therapeutic spirituality, he was fomenting a cultural revolution.
The idea that the Christian way of life would be construed to be akin to a philosophy of personal affirmation and the Gospel reduced to life lessons and self help strategies would have been repugnant to St. Paul. St. Paul was insistent that Jesus Christ had changed the world and the purpose of Christians was to give testimony to this new world by lives that radically challenged the world’s pursuit of wealth, pleasure, power and honors.
The purpose of being a Christian was not to be assimilated into culture, but to stand out. The purpose of the Church was not to provide divine sanction to cultural expectations, but to invite people to repent and to live in accord with Christ’s expectations. This causes trouble, as is evident from all that St. Paul suffered during his missionary endeavors.
A couple years ago Pope Francis surprised a lot of folks when, while speaking to young people in Brazil, he advised them, in terms of their Christian Faith “to make a mess”. Some folks, in their ideologically induced perceptions, interpreted the Holy Father’s words as giving sanction to a rebellious attitude towards the Church. “Making a mess” meant making the Church more like the world.
He meant nothing of the sort. Instead, he was expressing the great Pauline insight that Christian faith is about changing lives and changing the world. To some, that missionary work will seem like making a mess, but from the vantage point of a missionary, what seems to the worldly to be a mess, is in actual truth, signs of the advent of Christ’s Kingdom of God.
Christ speaks in his Gospel of his imminent departure and then return.
The Lord Jesus notes that in a little while his disciples will not see him, but then they will see him again.
His disciples are perplexed. What does the Lord Jesus mean?
One reference point is the death of the Lord Jesus and then his return in the surprise of his resurrection. Another is equally mysterious- the strange revelation of Christ’s Ascension into heaven and his continual revelation in his Church.
The New Testament is sure and certain of a truth about the Lord Jesus that many either do not appreciate or have flat out rejected. This truth about the Lord Jesus is that his life and presence have not just disappeared into heaven, instead Christ is really and truly with us in his Church. The Church is not merely an institution. In fact, the institutions of the Church are the least interesting things about the Church. What is most interesting about the Church is that the Church is the extension of the Christ’s Incarnation in space and time. The Church is the life and presence of the Lord Jesus in the world right now.
If people outside the Church don’t have a sense of this astounding revelation it can only be because we Christians are either blocking access to this great mystery or because we Christians neither appreciate nor understand what the Church really is.
The Church is not just an aggregate total of institutional components. The Church is Christ’s continued presence in the world, the privileged bearer of the gift of his divine life. The Church is the extension of the Incarnation in space, in time, and in our very lives.
Christ’s continued presence in the world, the privileged bearer of the gift of his divine life. The Church is the extension of the Incarnation in space, in time, and in our very lives.