The Church as Pilgrim People of God, yet also the Body of Christ
Autumn, by Andy Newman
What is it you are debating as you walk? They halted, their faces full of gloom.
-- Luke 24:17
I don't like to think of myself as a pessimist by nature, but there aren't a lot of outward signs for hopefulness right now. For the Church, for the country, and for the planet, I think things are going to get a lot worse before they get any better.
Luke's Gospel has the story of two disciples on their way to Emmaus after the crucifixion, full of confusion, and carrying the heavy disappointment of dashed hopes. A stranger falls in step with them along the way, listens to their story (recounted with some irritation in the telling), and patiently opens their eyes to the meaning of the scriptures. It wasn't until the stranger stayed with them and broke bread with them in the eucharist that they recognized who had been walking with them all along. They had discerned the Body of Christ.
And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, "Were not our hearts burning (within us) while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?" So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem where they found gathered together the eleven and those with them who were saying, "The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!" Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
-- Luke 24: 30-35
As we make our way through our own lives, there is plenty of opportunity for us to feel abandoned, disappointed, and disillusioned. We can walk our own roads to Emmaus as solitary pilgrims, not discerning the Body and not seeing Christ walking beside us the whole time. I guess the same thing can apply to those times in our journeys when we are full of joy and contentment as well. We can walk alone, or we can recognize that we don't need to walk alone; that we can walk as one Body, not only with Christ, but with each other.
The late scripture scholar Fr. Raymond Brown S.S. wrote a terrific little book in 1984 called The Churches the Apostles Left Behind. Moving through the books of the New Testament, he created little portraits of each of the earliest Christian communities, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each.
St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians is very much a letter about the Church. A few posts ago, I wrote about how Lumen Gentium, reaching back into Old Testament imagery, had defined the Church as the "People of God." This was very important at the time, because up until then, the dominant motif and understanding of the Church had been solely that of the "Mystical Body of Christ." In Ephesians, the Church is described as "the spotless bride of Christ," which makes a reforming spirit difficult. It makes it seem as if no reform is possible or necessary. Brown, while thoroughly approving of the "People of God" designation, felt that at some point the notion of the "Body of Christ" would need to be recaptured and re-emphasized again too. He wrote this about the weaknesses and strengths of the ecclesiology of Ephesians:
A weakness in this ecclesiology concerns the possibility of reform. It is difficult to think of reforming a spotless bride. If the members of a body are being knit together in growth that comes from God and are being upbuilt in love, is there place for defective and cancerous growths, for sickness, and for corrective operations? Does the inherent triumphalism of Colossians/Ephesians allow for failure?
This basic difficulty about the thrust of Colossians/Ephesians may be brought home to Roman Catholics by reflections on Vatican II, a self-reform council where the Roman Church accomplished from within, by its own decision, some of what the Reformers had attempted from without, by protest.
In the years before the council the dominant biblical image of the church for Catholics had become the body of Christ. The encyclical on the Mystical Body by Pope Pius XII (1943) had the effect of challenging a purely canonical understanding of the church in terms of jurisdiction. The Pope's presentation was largely informed by the basic imagery of Colossians/Ephesians, even if the encyclical already, by its title with the word "mystical," went beyond the Bible.
If a poll on biblical church imagery had been taken among bishops entering the council, the "body of Christ" would surely have won first place in familiarity. But that is not the biblical imagery that emerged from the council. Dominating post-conciliar Roman Catholic ecclesiology is a biblical image that would rarely have been mentioned in preconciliar sermons, namely, the people of God.
An important but partial answer is found in the different thrusts of the body of Christ and the people of God. The awesome holiness of the body of Christ which is the spotless bride did not lend itself to self-reform. Indeed, Catholic resistance to the reforms of Vatican II was often based on the thesis that such changes implied previous church error or fault. And so, perhaps without adverting to the dynamism of the shift, the council facilitated reform by turning to the image of the people of God-a people that is unique because it is of God and yet may still consist of sinners; a pilgrim people on its way to the promised land, wandering at times and needing to be brought back from detours. This image was needed alongside the body of Christ in order to give expression to the tension in ecclesiology between holiness and the constant need for reform..
Lest I end this section on a negative note, I wish to reaffirm the tremendous power of the Colossians/Ephesians ecclesiology with its elements of holiness and love. No church can survive without giving it due emphasis. Inevitably, after their strong condemnation of the Roman Church, the Reformers applied the body of Christ imagery to the reformed churches that emerged from their protest. The sixteenth century churches were seen by their adherents as the true heirs to the title of the spotless bride that Christ had cleansed and sanctified. Within Roman Catholicism, if we have another decade of the dominance of the people of God imagery, the body of Christ motif will need to re-emerge. After all, Israel was (and, for many, still is) the people of God. What is distinctive about the Christian church is the relationship to Christ and the special holiness that has flowed from that relationship.
May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a spirit of wisdom and perception of what is revealed, to bring you to full knowledge of God. May God enlighten the eyes of your mind so that you can see what hope God's call holds for you, what rich glories God has promised the saints will inherit and how infinitely great is the power that God has exercised for us believers. This you can tell from the strength of God's power at work in Christ when God used it to raise him from the dead and to make him sit at God's right hand, in heaven, far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, and every name that is named not only in this age but also in the one to come.
And he put all things beneath his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.
-- Ephesians 1:17-23