Living in Jesus Is Unity

7It is incredibly encouraging to read the moving words of Pope Francis on Christian unity that were given to a general audience last week at the Vatican.

Yesterday, I asked how Pope Francis could speak of unity with various other Christians, especially evangelicals, when the Catholic Church confesses itself to be the one, true church. Today I offer my commentary on the first major portion of the pope’s address. Here is what he said:

The image of the body helps us to understand this deep Church-Christ bond, which St. Paul has developed especially in the First Letter to the Corinthians (cf. chap. 12). First, the body brings our attention to a living reality. The Church is not a charitable, cultural or political association, but a living body, that walks and acts in history. And this body has a head, Jesus, who guides, feeds and supports it. This is a point I want to emphasize: if the head is separated from the rest of the body, the whole person cannot survive. So it is in the Church, we must remain bound ever more deeply to Jesus. But not only that: just as the body needs the lifeblood to keep it alive, so we must allow Jesus to work in us, that His Word guide us, that His presence in the Eucharist nourish us, animate us, that His love gives strength to our love of neighbor. And this always! Dear brothers and sisters, let us remain united to Jesus, let us trust in Him, direct our life according to His Gospel, nourish ourselves with daily prayer, listening to the Word of God, participation in the Sacraments.

Note that the pontiff begins, as Catholics generally do, with the image and metaphor of church as the body of Christ. While I am perfectly content to employ this metaphor for the church (it is clearly Pauline, thus biblical) I find it unhelpful to use this metaphor to the virtual exclusion of many other important metaphors that are used in the New Testament for the church; e.g. family of God, living temple, household of God, pilgrim people, etc. When we rightly employ the entire richness of the New Testament’s language about the church we come much closer to a holistic understanding of the nature and reality of the church. I prefer to primarily speak of the church as “the congregation of the faithful” and then use these various metaphors in the light of this major biblical idea. I also prefer to think of the church as existing in community to serve the advance of the kingdom of God (i.e., Christ’s mission). The church and the kingdom are not the same. Vatican II was right to correct this longstanding misconception.

Pope Francis is thus right to say:

The Church is not a charitable, cultural or political association, but a living body, that walks and acts in history. And this body has a head, Jesus, who guides, feeds and supports it. This is a point I want to emphasize: if the head is separated from the rest of the body, the whole person cannot survive (italics are mine).

Note well, the church is not an association, a club or a humanly constructed organization. It is a “living body . . . Jesus guides, feeds and supports [it].” The key to understanding this metaphor of the body is not the papacy, or even the historical reality of the Roman Catholic Church, at least never in the first place, but rather it is the living Jesus who creates a congregation that is in vital, living union with himself. To think this way first is to understand better what unity really means. It is not, at least at first, about organization, or even about bishops, but about Jesus!

Pope Francis then adds:

This is a point I want to emphasize: if the head is separated from the rest of the body, the whole person cannot survive. So it is in the Church, we must remain bound ever more deeply to Jesus.

We remain bound to Jesus, our head, thus we cannot survive without him as our head since there is no life without the head. We must remain deeply bound to Jesus. Here true unity is found when we pursue Jesus above all else. There is much else to consider about this matter but until, and unless, we have entered into union with Jesus, and drawn close to him in deep unity, we cannot and will not experience unity with one another as the followers of Jesus. This again is consistent with Vatican II thinking and it is completely biblical.

He then said:

. . . just as the body needs the lifeblood to keep it alive, so we must allow Jesus to work in us, that His Word guide us, that His presence in the Eucharist nourish us, animate us, that His love gives strength to our love of neighbor.

Please read this carefully. We must “allow Jesus to work in us, that His Word guide us . . . His presence in the Eucharist nourish us, animate us.” And what gives us the strength to love our neighbor but this animating, life-giving love of Jesus that we commonly share in him because all true believers in Christ belong to one and the same Christ, not to a divided Christ. Tragic divisions in the visible church are just that, tragic. They are only overcome when we first go back to basic, core principles. The first principle is “abiding in Christ” as the true vine with us the real branches.

But how are we to live out this union in shared deep unity? The Pope answers clearly:

Dear brothers and sisters, let us remain united to Jesus, let us trust in Him, direct our life according to His Gospel, nourish ourselves with daily prayer, listening to the Word of God, participation in the Sacraments.

We live our daily lives by trusting Jesus, by living according to his gospel, by listening to the Word of God and by participating in the sacraments. (Obviously, we do not all agree about the nature and number of the sacraments but we should all agree that baptism and the eucharist are given to us by Christ to receive him in faith and to be fed by these divinely given actions as we grow into the experience of the real presence of Christ!)

I will say more about the second part of this general audience address tomorrow but please note that Pope Francis wants us to begin our quest for the experience of Christian unity precisely where I have placed the stress in my own life and mission. This is why I am so thrilled to listen and pray for this global Christian leader, a man who clearly loves the same Christ that I love and prays for what I pray for each and every day.

One must embrace a radical form of sectarianism to be blind to what is really happening here. If you miss the uniqueness of this moment in history you will remain outside of the Spirit-given pursuit of real unity in Christ’s mission. The loss will be great, to you and to your church family. I encourage you to embrace this moment by faith and then to pray for the entire Christian Church that we might experience divine oneness in Christ’s mission for the whole world.

 

 

 

This entry was posted in ACT 3, Current Affairs, Missional Church, Missional-Ecumenism, Personal, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Sacraments, Spirituality, The Church, The Future, Unity of the Church. Bookmark the permalink.