The Church, in fits and starts


Here are some pre-edited notes I wrote as I prepared a talk I gave this week. That’s how I write most of my talks. They start as a collage of disparate and loosely related ideas and then gel into one presentation. This time I was thinking about the church in fits and starts, though most of this never made it to my final talk (which the listeners should be glad for!)…

The church is: a conspiracy of love for a dying world, a spy mission into enemy occupied territory ruled by the powers of evil; a prophet from God with the greatest news the world has ever heard, the most life changing and most revolutionary institution that has existed on earth. — Peter Kreeft

I have always looked for fresh ways to describe the church when I teach, to shake people out of the sense that the church is primarily a dusty institution, an elite club or a social grouping organized to do nice things. How dreary. 

The church, rather, is the living Body of Christ, His Bride — which is really a tautology since marriage is the cleaving of two-in-one flesh, as one body. Christ is the human face of God, the most perfect and complete expression of God-with-us. So insanely complete that the “I” of Christ is God’s “I” — I AM — one divine Person with a human and a divine nature.

The church cleaves to Christ in the Sacraments. Just think of the Eucharist, making us one-flesh and one-spirit with Him. When we eat His Flesh and drink His Blood, we participate in Jesus’ same stunningly intimate union, as my “I” joins God’s “I”. As my son said when he was 8, and we discussed God having no beginning: “My brain just shut down.”

St. Paul says as much in Galatians 2:20:

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

The church is humanity, person by person, being taken up by sheer grace into God’s “I”, His Heart, assuming His vantage, entering His innermost world. How terrifyingly vulnerable of God to let us in that close. What?

Here St. Catherine of Genoa slays us with her radical language:

My Me is God, nor do I recognize any other Me except my God Himself.

The church is really the extension of the Incarnation, mud vivified by the Spirit, an organic and sacramental manifestation of God tenting among us. From the moment of Pentecost, the church, like the Incarnation, is the epicenter of God’s response to every cry to heaven: “Where are you, God?” This is the mission of the Church: to be God’s awakening to the world’s desperate pleas for justice. Once we receive the impact of the Word and are drenched in the speech of God, if we hold our tongue, “there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jer. 20:9).

I am a pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world.” — Mother Teresa

To use an unusual image, we could say that God founded the church to be a living sign, an effective instrument of His FRANTIC desire to build a home for the homeless, to adopt the orphan, defend the widow, give voice to the voiceless, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, free the prisoner, visit the lonely, tend to the wounds of the fallen, heal the sick, and bring good news to the poor.
The church is God’s habitat for humanity, a mother who is a homemaker.

The church is liturgy, which is simply Christ unleashed. In fact, liturgy is nothing more than the realization here-and-now of the whole activity of God in the cosmos erupting through, with and in the church. The church is pregnant with God, remember.

God wishes the world to know He is true and faithful, patient and compassionate by means of us, we who are the Body of His Son. So we are, so to speak, God’s Body Language to the world.

They (the unbelieving world) are watching us, carefully, closely, critically, and rightly so. Persecution is really an excruciatingly close examination of the church’s true character, by the world, picking at us with a fine-tooth comb. This is why Jesus can say about persecution,

Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad (Matt. 5:11-12).

c/o Ciszek — The real demonstration of faith for Christians to a skeptical world is how we respond to our enemies and detractors. I always say that non-Christians treat us so poorly because they’re really testing how serious we are about this love thing.

Alfred Loisy famously said, with a touch of irony, “Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom, and what arrived was the Church.” God wishes to blow our minds, we blow dry our hair. Loisy refers to a church who forgets she is first a sacrament of the inbreaking Kingdom of God with the magma of grace bubbling just beneath the surface; who forgets that she is a sacrament of the Running Father who hounds his lost sons and daughters down through the ages; who forgets that she is the marriage feast of heaven and earth. Such an amnesiac church gets locked up in her neurotic naval gazing and bureaucratic obsessions and is rendered impotent. She fails to be who she is. She fails in her transparency to His saving power.

Pope Francis catches this well:

I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a church concerned with being at the center and then ends up by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.

But NT Wright brings us home, back to the ground of the church’s vocation from the beginning. My vocation.

Genesis tells us we are made in the image of God. To be an image-bearer really means to reflect God into the world. Think here of an angled mirror or a prism which refracts God’s invisible light and paints creation beautiful. And humanity not only reflects and refracts God into creation, acting as wise stewards by cultivating the earth and bringing forth good fruit, but we are then called to gather up as royal priests all of creation and offer it back to God. We alone can give creation’s inarticulate praise an articulate voice, turn its groans into a new song.

The church is creation empowered to turn upward toward its Creator and say, “Thank you.”

I must now end with composer Jim Wilson’s marvelous recording of the sound of crickets slowed down. The crickets sound like they are singing with an angelic chorus in perfect harmony. Though it sounds like human voices, everything you hear in the recording is the crickets themselves. Listen and then join your spirit to their song in praise to God:

3 comments on “The Church, in fits and starts

  1. Jennifer says:

    Tom, I literally kissed my screen reading this! Thank you for setting my prayer on fire with this this morning! ,’frantic desire’, ‘Christ unleashed’, so many soyl-shaking proclamations of the truth of our God’s unrelenting love for his world…O praise Him…..
    (And you included the cricket video…. My favourite favourite! What a fabulous reminder of the hidden treasures to be found hidden in His creation.,.. signatures of wonder!)

  2. Jim Skofronick says:

    How nice to read your beautiful reenactment of our Catholic past history and its continuation now and to the future. It brings strength to my soul.

    While I was reading your remarks, I recalled your last visit here and the many other encounters you had in the Tallahassee area. Bless you for being a part of my life.

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