ACCEPTANCE: Integral and Mutual
Susan Troy, MDiv
It has been part of being Catholic and being a member of a parish for as long as current memory: One Sunday morning it is announced from the pulpit that your pastor has been reassigned by the Bishop. You hear for the first time the name of your new pastor. It is a heart wrenching moment in the life of every Catholic, but an action that is felt to be inevitable and to be endured. It is part of our Catholic identity. But is it truly? Being a faith rooted in the authority of tradition, too often our sense of tradition relates only to recent history. As Catholics we have forgotten our powerful, Spirit-filled roots as “church.” We have collectively abrogated the mission given to all of us as recipients of the Spirit of the Risen Christ in baptism.
Catholics know what a new pastor can mean. First of all, he personally affects each member of the parish; he affects our spiritual and faith lives. Add to this a recent tradition wherein the pastor brings the defining parish agenda with him upon reassignment. Through current experience Catholics know that the entire character of a worshipping community can be changed with a change of pastoral leadership. As “church” we seem to allow this to happen, over and over. Sometimes we get lucky, sometimes we do not, and the consequences for the life of the parish can be deadly. It is an interesting phenomenon especially in light of the genuine Christian tradition elucidated in our sacred scripture. Here is the source of our understanding of what it means to be “church.” The Greek word “ekklesia” is the original word of scripture that the Western world has translated as “church.” The latter is rarely used in the four synoptic Gospels. In the Gospels there were the followers of Jesus, the disciples. This was their identification.
It wasn’t until Christ’s death and resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit of the Risen Christ that we find the growth of the use of the word “church” to mean those disciples who gather in various locales throughout the Roman Empire for worship and community based on faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. The Acts of the Apostles,attributed to the evangelist Luke, is truly the story of the going forth of “Christianity” from Jerusalem to the world. And from Acts and the epistles of Paul, we come to understand the true origins of Christian “church.” What defined a “church” is clear to us – faith, discipleship, worship and community. From the earliest post-Resurrection days, the identity of believers as being “church” begins to develop. It has very little to do with what is recognized as “church” in the 21st Century. As we learn in Acts “Peter was kept in prison: but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.” (Acts 12:5) A loosely defined community of believers in Jesus as the Christ at prayer is emerging as “church.”
And what does leadership in this church look like? That too emerges from a reading of Acts and the Pauline letters. Whatever form “leadership” takes, its function from the earliest days is to bear witness to the resurrection (the meaning of “apostle”) and to preach repentance and redemption through Jesus the Christ to build up the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus.
There is a particular rhythm to the growth of the faith, and growth of “church” in these earliest church documents. Disciples, such as Paul, Barnabas, and Timothy travel to places to speak of Jesus and what has been accomplished through Jesus the Christ. The message, the recalling of the work and teachings, carries authority; Jesus the Christ, His life, teachings, suffering, death and resurrection are authoritative. At this time, there are still people alive who knew Jesus, were witnesses to His resurrection, or knew other disciples who were witnesses to the reality of Christ’s life or death and resurrection. What is crucial to the early spread of the gospel of Jesus the Christ, is the acceptance of this authoritative message by the people whose hearts and minds have been converted. Lives radically change because of acceptance of the message. Like-minded people, people whose hearts have been converted, choose to gather to reinforce their acceptance of a new way of living in the world – a “Christian” life. Their worship becomes centered on Christ and the meal of remembrance that makes Christ present to them in community.
The origins of “church” lie in accepting the message of Jesus Christ that results in the conversion of hearts. A force of early Christian life was the spread of the “good news.” This evangelizing spirit animated all of earliest Christianity. It was the gift presented to all believers at Pentecost. The mission of Christ was to be carried out by all believers and the mission of the earliest believers was to spread the good news. These earliest communities of believers felt intimately connected to the larger mission of Christ and the spreading of “the word.” In prayer, with financial help, they sent selected persons forth to journey to other cities, other lands, to spread the word and, therefore, build up the Kingdom of God on this earth.
It was always seen as a function of believers to make sure that the faith was supported and spread. The most famous and well recorded missionary of the word was Paul of Tarsus. Paul’s life gives us the most clarifying model of leadership in the church. Paul traveled to the people, and lived among them, becoming known to them and learning local customs and understandings.
It is recorded in Acts that after preaching to the Greeks at the Areogagus, Paul left for Corinth somewhat frustrated by his lack of progress with the Athenians who had so many gods to worship in so many beautiful temples. In Corinth, he went to visit with Aquilla and his wife Priscilla, Jews exiled from Rome. He lived with them and “because he practiced the same trade, stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade.” Every Sabbath, he entered into discussions in the synagogue, attempting to convince both Jews and Greeks. Here is the great tradition of getting to know the people of God, and gaining their acceptance so that there might be a community of people open to further hearing the truth of Jesus Christ from their friend’s mouth. Paul’s need to “convince” speaks to the understanding that hearts must be changed, that the good news must be accepted for Paul to have truly spread the faith. Implicit is Paul’s understanding that the Jews and Gentiles of Corinth, of any city or place, must be a receiving community and this can be achieved through a shared life, respect for shared customs (such as Sabbath worship and respect for the community).
This is only one model. In the letters of Paul we have examples of Paul’s outreach to new communities of “Christians” – a term recorded as being first used in the city of Ephesus. After commenting on reports of their faithfulness, Paul requests that they welcome him in the name of Jesus Christ. There is implicit understanding of the importance of welcome, of the authority of the welcoming community. The success of the mission of preaching repentance and redemption and the building up of the kingdom of God is seen as dependent on this relationship of being in respectful and proper communion. It is recorded in Acts that Paul, unwilling to settle when “some in their obstinacy and disbelief disparaged the Way before the assembly” (Acts 19:8), withdrew and held daily discussions with his disciples outside the synagogue. It is reported that this went on for two years. Minds and hearts needed to be converted, the seed planted needed patient nurturing before their would be acceptance and growth. What was going on during these years? We can only surmise.
One of the paradigms of the letters of Paul and of Acts is the sending forth and receiving of the message of Jesus Christ. There is a rhythm of traveling, of gaining acceptance, of being sent forth, of being received, of being known, of having one’s reputation affirmed because of the community that sent you forth and the community that receives you.
Certainly the very earliest people of faith in Jesus as the Christ anticipated and welcomed with interest the arrival of someone who could help them grow in the faith. They welcomed the visitor into their midst, into their community and into their lives. But, underscoring this welcome was the understanding that they were being asked to receive the word, the wisdom of the other, and they had their part to play in accepting the teachings as truth, as wise. They had to discern, to discuss, to pray in community. We have examples of teachings and persons not accepted or received well, for example, Paul in Athens.
In reading Acts and the Pauline letters which give us a sense of the early days of “church”, we are left with a sense of the responsibility of the people of God in gathering themselves together, of fostering and accepting missionary work, in recognizing a need for various ministries, and recognizing the talents for leadership in members of the faithful.
The earliest evangelists, the apostles and disciples, having listened to their master, recognized the truth of Christ’s parables of the seed and the sower. They wanted to plant their seeds, in soil properly prepared to receive and nurture, to sustain genuine life in the Spirit of the Risen Christ. Paul spent years knowing a community, gaining acceptance, before the word could be planted and a rich harvest anticipated. The goal is the continued health of the believing community, because there is a recognition that it is in community that the faith will grow, that the mission of building up the kingdom of God in this world can proceed with success.
Somehow, the current state of the church, where the people in the pews feel they must accept the leadership of their community, over their parish, without “receiving” and “accepting” does not resemble the “church” of tradition, of scripture. This contemporary model of church diminishes the dynamic role of the faith community established in the first centuries after Christ’s life, death and resurrection. This contemporary model of church belies the truth of Pentecost where the power of the Spirit of the Risen Christ was given to all so that the Kingdom of God could be attained. The dynamism missing is the acceptance of the work of the Holy Spirit in each of us, and, even more powerfully, in the community gathered.
The faithful need to relearn the lessons of Scripture which are the great tradition of our faith. We need to become more intimate with the revealed truths of Scripture that name our responsibility concerning the well-being of the faith, and our responsibility in the work of building up God’s reign. If the work of the Spirit of the Risen Christ is suppressed in the faith community gathered as “church”, gathered as a “parish,” we become agents of suppression of the work of the Spirit in us and in our world. From the earliest days of the faith, it has been recognized that it is in the community of faithful gathered that the work and word of Christ is best realized. To deny or be complicit in undercutting the vibrancy of this worshiping and faith-filled community is a serious negation of who we are as Christians.