Mere Catholicity

“Poems, parables, and paradoxes! That’s all the Bible is!” At least that’s how one cynic described it. His crass reductionism aside, he did bump up against something that is worth exploring: there are a lot of poems, parables, and paradoxes in the Bible. There are also many precepts, principles, and promises in there too, but we will leave them for a more convenient season.

God gifted us with poems and pleasant prose so that we might be able to fully express ourselves. He spoke to us by way of parable and paradox because we learned to express ourselves all too well. Parables are God’s way of stupefying those who reject plain speech. Paradoxes are God’s way of mystifying those who are stupefied by plain speech. Poems require eyes to see world around us; parables and paradoxes both require ears to hear the Word before us.

This is never more true than when Jesus speaks to us concerning His kingdom. Either we don’t understand His rather obvious statements or we just don’t like their implications.

To one group of Jewish followers He makes it plain that the Kingdom is much broader than they think. He takes crumbs from the table of Israel to feed a feeble, Syrophoenician pup. The Kingdom has gone to the dogs! He astonishes yet another group of Hebrew hearers by clearly stating that the Kingdom is much narrower than they think. (Admittedly, even His plain dealing is somewhat paradoxical.) He openly chides those who think that they can identify their spiritual lineage by pointing to their birth certificates. A faithful heathen gains admittance and faithless hebrews are shut out. Such is the Kingdom of God.

Jesus was saying that Kingdom was, at once, both inclusive and exclusive; it was to be marked by unity and purity. It’s little wonder that such plain speech was too hard for them to hear. We still haven’t warmed to the idea.

So He opened His mouth in parable and paradox. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like wheat and weeds. The Kingdom of Heaven is like an arboretum, and a woman baking bread, and gold in a garden, and a sailor searching for pearls, and a pile of dead fish.” Perhaps the only thing that is clear from the words of Jesus is that the Kingdom is clearly not what we have thought it was.

If we could be permitted to speak the way that the Bible speaks, we might say that the Church is, at once, a river and a redwood. These seeming opposites are in no way opposed.

A river begins all over the place. A small spring up in the hills; a distant lake, itself fed by streams; a glacier that has seen one too many summers—all of them and hundreds more contribute to the babble and rush of water, the smooth flow here and the swirling rapids there. Gradually other streams, even other whole rivers, pour forth and make their contributions. Out of many there emerges the one.

On the other hand, a tree begins with a solitary seed. An acorn into the soil: tiny, vulnerable, alone. Through the administration of water and light, it sprouts and puts its roots down into the dark earth. Simultaneously it raises a shoot upwards into the sunshine and air. The roots quickly sprawl out and probe all over the place, looking for nourishment and water. The small shoot becomes a large trunk, again a single standing stalk, but this, too, quickly diverges. It will spread far and wide in all directions. Whereas the river flows from many into one; the tree grows from one into many. Such is the Kingdom of God.

The Church is like a rolling river. In the Apocalypse, John the visionary sees a huge throng of people from every nation, kindred, tribe, and tongue coming together in a great chorus of praise. Like a river, they all started in different places, but they have now brought their different streams into a single flow. The image of the river forcibly reminds us that, though the Church consists by definition of people from the widest possible variety of backgrounds, part of the point of it all is that they belong to one another, and are meant to be part of the same powerful flow, going now in the same single direction. Diversity gives way to unity.

But at the same time the Church is like a sprawling redwood. The one seed, Jesus Himself, has been sown in the dark earth and has sprang forth in resurrection power. Easter branches have set off in all directions, some pointing almost directly upward, some reaching down to the earth, some heading out over neighboring walls. Looking at the eager, outstretched branches, you’d hardly know they were all from the same stem. But they are. Unity generates diversity.

The plain teaching of the Scriptures is that the Church of the Living God bears the image of the One who formed her: unity and diversity. She must never be forced to choose between the two. Likewise, there is no disparity between unity and purity, or between exclusivity and inclusivity.

C.S. Lewis, following Richard Baxter, admonished the people of God to rally under the banner of “Mere Christianity.” That is, we should prioritize what we are instinctively as Christians who affirm the same creeds above what we may be distinctively as Christians affirming different confessions. To this I add my hearty, “Amen.” But common orthodoxy should lead to a common orthopraxy. Eventually it has to put on boots and do something or this “Mere Christianity” just becomes mere talk, or what the apostle Paul once called, “vain jangling.”

“Mere Christianity” should lead quite naturally to “Mere Catholicity.” This answers the problems of postmodern multiculturalism as well as the lingering racism of modernism. In the Church, fragmented humanity is put back together. So we must be about the business of putting the Church back together. If Christianity embraces “one Lord, one faith, and one baptism,” then we must learn to embrace one another. And this should happen without jettisoning purity and unity. It can be done. Those wise sages, Loggins and Messina, once mused that “Momma don’t dance and Daddy don’t rock and roll.” Yet, here we are. They were able to cohabitate in spite of such glaring liturgical diversity.

Since there is only one, holy catholic Church we have to act like it. Or else those two words recited at the beginning of our creeds just add up to one big fat lie. How’s that for plain speech?

The present fragmented state of the Bride of Christ would put to a shame even a certain Levite who once shipped bits of his late wife in the mail. At least they were able to come together as one man. Enough of our “holy huddles” and “Me-and-my-son-John-us-four-and-no-more” ecclesiological insanity. The one Church is both holy and catholic—that includes both holiness and wholeness.

“Divide and conquer” is a wonderful strategy for victory unless it’s turned on it’s head. We can’t be the ones who are divided if we hope to conquer. No one ever won a war by shooting himself in the foot.

Genuine catholicity may require telling some brethren that the Kingdom is broader than they think. If God has welcomed people to His table what right have we to bar them? It may also require that we tell some brethren on the other side of the Tiber that the Kingdom is narrower than they think. What is certain is that we will never tell them if we don’t talk to them. But be careful if you do…you might just learn something.

It isn’t altogether clear how we are to get from scattered and fragmented bodies to a single army, marching lock-step with one another. Lord, Thou knowest. But the least that we can do is prophesy to the wind and speak to the divided and strewn bones. God has breathed on such things before.

We should probably start with the bones in our own backyard. Stop looking at your brethren with sidelong glances. Be more eager to offer the tender hand of fellowship than the tightened fist of controversy. Pray for their ministries…by name…on Sundays. Stop thinking of “them” and start thinking of “us.” After doing such things, I have a sneaking suspicion that soon we would hear the sound of joyful singing coming from the cemetery. “Hip bone connected to the thigh bone, thigh bone connected to the knee bone, knee bone connected to the shin bone. Now hear the Word of the Lord!

Then we might be ready for poetry once again…

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’

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