The Task of the Church: Learning to Love
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
At the start of his ministry, Jesus gathered around him men and women, disciples and followers from all walks of life, to become his friends and travelling companions. It was as if he knew his teachings could only be learned person-to-person, in community.
St. Paul called the early church the Body of Christ. Each part, he said, no matter how low or lofty, was necessary for the working of the whole, with Christ as the head. Furthermore, members of the church in biblical times were often referred to as brothers and sisters, with God as the parent over all.
While founding the church may not have been Jesus's intention, creating communities of faithful people most certainly was. This remains one of the gifts the local church can still offer to the world, even as the larger institution dries up and dies off--a community where you learn the ways of love.
We sometimes say we can choose our friends, but not the members of our own families. The difference is, we like our friends. But something quite miraculous happens at church. We may think we're choosing a congregation because it comprises people just like us--educated, perhaps, good-looking, interesting. Inevitably, into that cushy group of like-minded people are dropped the difficult ones, the misfits, those not educated, or good-looking, or interesting.
In almost forty years of parish ministry I was always fascinated to see how the congregation dealt with the interlopers, those not like the rest, who sometimes actively undermined the status quo. As much as some members of the congregation wanted to inform the newcomers that they might find another church down the road more to their liking, they could hear Jesus's words in the back of their minds, saying, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," or, "What you do to the least them, you do also to me."
So, one way or another, they had to slide down the pew and make room. They had to learn the names and hear the stories and eventually come to see the newcomer as God's beloved child, just like them. Inevitably, their faith was stretched and their hearts were opened. They learned to love God, and their neighbour as themselves.
Despite all the words spilled from all the pulpits in all the churches on Sunday mornings, no lesson is as viscous as the one we learn from experience. And for that we need a real community of real flesh and blood people, some of whom we might not choose as our friends. How else to learn the ways of love?
Next week: And what of the clergy?