At its source Trinitarian, the Church is the oneness of the Father and the Son opened up to believers in the Spirit. Beginning in the Upper Room with Jesus’s prayer…
At its source Trinitarian, the Church is the oneness of the Father and the Son opened up to believers in the Spirit. Beginning in the Upper Room with Jesus’s prayer to his Father, the Church leads us simply to follow what began there that night — what we’ve called the mission for glory.
Tracing that mystery from another perspective, it must be noted that the Church is more than what can be traced geographically, and more than what can be described interpersonally and personally. Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the Church from Jerusalem to Rome, but clearly the Church is bigger than that — immeasurably bigger.
The Church, to put it a certain way, can also be described cosmically. That is, not only is the Church spread across the globe, and not only does the Church exist as the faith and joy shared between reborn believers, but the Church mysteriously encompasses creation itself — all of it. The Church is communion in Christ, who is the creating and redeeming Word (Logos) through which “all things” came to be (Jn 1:3). Some of the Church Fathers wrote about this, St. Maximus the Confessor for one. In and through the Trinity, he said, no less than the whole universe may be “deified” (Ad Thalassium 2). That’s because Christ created the whole universe. Thus, the Church’s communion, in a sense, reflects and signals the universal redemption and reign of Christ as Lord of all. God in Christ, in whom believers are baptized, is of the same substance as the “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:6). Thus, as Christ is the creating and redeeming Logos of all that is, so the Church is the sacrament (a sign) of that truth.
We see this in the Letter to the Ephesians. Believers are those whose hearts — curiously, the “eyes of hearts” — have been “enlightened,” because they “know what is the hope” and the “glorious inheritance” that belongs to them. That is, believers know that Christ, died and risen, sits now at God’s “right hand in the heavens, 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.” They know that Christ is head of all, the “fullness” of all things (Eph 1:18-23). The word for “fullness” is pleroma, a quite charged term in early theological debates, for instance, in St. Irenaeus’s debates with various Gnostic thinkers. In one sense it means the fullness of God; in Jesus, for instance, the “fullness” of God dwells (Col 1:19). That is, Christ is fully God. Yet God is the fullness of all things. That is, God is the creator and sustainer of all that exists. Thus, Christ is the pleroma of all things, and the Church shares in Christ’s pleroma. Which is what I mean by cosmic, that the Church bears witness to the universal dominion of Jesus Christ.
This isn’t merely hyperbole. To understand the claims being made in Ephesians, it’s helpful to remember here how the ancients viewed the political and religious world. Politics in the ancient world was thought to be a sacred, semi-divine art. The emperor’s person was considered sacred and semi-divine, and so too the state. Also the natural world, again to the ancient mind, was sacred and semi-divine, controlled by supernatural powers both good and evil, and also by fate. For ancient minds, the world and the universe was terrifyingly enchanted. So, what Ephesians is saying is that believers, whose hearts have been enlightened, knowing that Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father as both Lord of the Church and Lord of the world, of even the entire created universe, know personally a power greater than all other powers and authorities and dominions either political, angelic or demonic. They know that Christ is Lord over all of it, the same Lord in whom they live by the Spirit in the communion of the Church.
And think how liberating that is, especially for marginalized or peasant believers. It means that — believing Jesus is truly Lord over all things, the same Lord in whom believers now live and he in them (Gal 2:20) — one needn’t any longer fear the frightening powers of the world, political or demonic or otherwise. Even fickle fate is humbled by the reign of the Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s easy to see here why the Christian message was so attractive to the marginalized. It’s easy to see why Christianity was considered subversive in the early centuries of the Church. If the Roman emperor is the semi-divine embodiment of the sacred power of the state, what does it mean for Christians to say, “No, actually Jesus is Lord”? You see the problem from the Roman point of view? This is why the early Church had so many martyrs. Imagine a young woman in late antiquity, for instance, coming to believe in Christ. Joining the Church, she decides to wed herself to Christ, embracing lifelong virginity. Immediately she’s done two quite dangerous things. First, she’s demoted the sacredness of the Roman state and the Roman emperor, thus becoming a political outcast. Second, by embracing a life of virginity, she’s rejected the patriarchy of Roman society, patriarchy more lethal and powerful than anything ever even thought of in Christian society. The father, the pater familias, wielded power of life and death over his children. And so, for a young woman to embrace virginity was an explicit rejection of the claims both of her father and society. This is why Christianity in these early centuries was considered by many a dangerous anti-family movement. Because, recognizing Jesus as Lord, Christians refused to recognize any other.
Christianity relativized all earthly authority and all earthly relationships — political, patriarchal, and so on — and so, it’s easy to see how this rustic Palestinian religion appealed to those oppressed in such a society. Christianity appealed first to the poor and the marginalized precisely because at the center of the Christian message is the story a powerless man who died on a cross but who also was raised above all powers, offering to any who believe in him a destiny just like his, all for “the praise of his glory” (Eph 1:11-14).
This tracks with what Jesus said during his earthly ministry about the kingdom of God. To talk about the cosmic scope of the Church is to talk about how the Church relates to the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. The kingdom, in a real sense, is “at hand” (Mk 1:15). Yet, it’s also something in the future, something we pray in the Lord’s Prayer will “come” (Mt 6:9). But the kingdom is also, in another sense, even closer — it is “among you,” Jesus said (Lk 17:21). It is fully present but also mysteriously not complete, not until it gives way to a new heaven and a new earth as John saw (Rev 21:1). “Kingdom” is another image given us to understand the communion of the Father and the Son that Jesus prayed for in John 17. It’s another way to describe the Church, although not entirely. The Church belongs to the kingdom of God; it is not itself the kingdom. The Church bears witness to it; it exists in the kingdom of God. This necessarily is a blurred mystery — the Church’s relation to the kingdom. The point is simply that the Church is no mere worldly organization. Rooted in the Trinity, the Church extends well beyond the measure of any human institution. It shares in the pleroma of Christ.
The Church belongs to a kingdom that is both visible and invisible, comprised both of people, living and dead, as well as angels. The Church belongs to the kingdom that is the “heavenly Jerusalem,” filled with “countless angels in festal gathering and the assembly of the first born” (Heb 12:22-23). In worship we acknowledge the presence of such heavenly colleagues, most notably in the Eucharistic prayers of the Church when the priest introduces the Sanctus (“Holy, Holy, Holy…”). “And so, with Angels and Archangels,” the priest says, “with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven, we sing the hymn of your glory, as without end we acclaim…” (Eucharistic Preface I, Ordinary Time). When people gather for Mass, those present are not just those we see, but also angels and saints. Explicit in Scripture and in our worship is the belief in a Church both earthly and heavenly, of angels and saints co-mingled, so to speak, with us. This I’ve always considered a refreshing feature of Catholic belief. Because if the Catholic Church was only comprised of the Catholics you could see, that at times would be miserable, even unbearable. Who would ever want to join such a sometimes squalid group? But what we see of the Church isn’t all there is of the Church. It is encouraging to think that when you step into your parish church or some chapel or into any community of believers, you’re also stepping into a sacred country, the borders of which stretch beyond every visible horizon — into a cosmic Church as big as the cosmos itself.
Father Joshua J. Whitfield is pastor of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and author of “The Crisis of Bad Preaching” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95) and other books. Read more from the series here.