The New Testament, blessedly, does not read like instructions for installing a flat screen. It is not even a work of systematic theology, of some theologian writing in logical sequence. Rather, the New Testament is an inspired body of texts (a collection of Gospels, letters, a brief work of apologetic history, and an apocalypse), which portray, like art, the truth of the Faith. And that truth is the Gospel: the good news that the incarnate Son — died and risen — is one with the Father who sent his Son and who, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, shares that oneness with believers in the communion we call the Church.
Taking an even wider look at the New Testament, we notice that this thing we call the Church is described in these sacred texts in different ways and at different angles, using several different images. Each image, in a sense, takes a different measure of the Church and reveals another aspect of it.
But let us begin by looking at the Church first as an interpersonal phenomenon, that is, as something that is born, endures and grows within and between persons who share faith in Jesus. Given what we learned from John 17 — how Jesus prayed first for his disciples and then for those who believe “through their word” — to look for the beginnings of the Church interpersonally makes perfect sense (Jn 17:20). In fact, it is exactly what we find at the beginning of the First Letter of John. Acts of the Apostles portrays the geographic and spectacularly charismatic blossoming of the Church and great numbers being added to the fellowship of believers. But in John’s first letter, we see how that happened, but intimately, interpersonally. John describes, theologically and spiritually, what Luke describes historically: how the faith spreads, how evangelism happens. By the Spirit, person to person.
“What was from the beginning, what we have heard … seen with our eyes … looked upon … touched with our hands … the Word of life” (1 Jn 1:1). This is the disciple who laid his head on Jesus’s breast at the Last Supper; and basically, all he is saying is, “I know him. I have personal experience. I’ve had this encounter with Jesus.” But then John goes on to say, “what we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you, so that you may have fellowship with us” (1 Jn 1:3). This is the mission for glory — the Father sends the Son and the Son sends the apostles and John says, “we proclaim now to you.” That is how it happens, how the Church grows — one disciple sharing the “Word of life” with another, all throughout history.
And notice why John is sharing the Gospel — “so that you may have fellowship with us.” This is the communion of the Church, sharing in the communion of the Trinity. Personal witness draws believers into communion. This is important to understand. What John is not saying is, “OK, there’s this thing called Christianity with this amazing set of propositions and explanations to which you’ll really want to give your intellectual assent.” Rather, he is saying, “I’ve met Jesus, and I want you to meet him too. Why? So that you can join our fellowship which, mysteriously, is also fellowship with God.” And notice too that this is an apostolic fellowship. John, one of the Twelve, invites readers into “fellowship with us.” That is, personal faith in Christ also necessarily draws each of us into the Church. Belief and fellowship are inseparable. This may seem strange to our modern individualist ears, but the communal reality of the Faith is plainly biblical. From the perspective of the New Testament, there simply is no such thing as a Christian without communion, who is outside the Church.
So, what does this say about the Church? When you go to your parish community or to any community of Christians, what do you see? Hopefully you will see a diverse group of people from all walks of life, groups and groupings of people you could describe historically, sociologically and economically. But that would not completely describe them. The fellowship of the Catholic Church is also the fellowship of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. There is a divine truth and depth to the communion of the Church. The Church is not just a club. If it were, then, honestly, there are much better clubs out there. The Church is different. The fellowship of the Church is a fellowship of human beings — saints and sinners both — but also the fellowship of God, a communion divine. That is, there is a difference to the Church that is mystical.
Which is why John dares to talk about joy. Because he is talking about a mystical fellowship that brings about genuine joy — “that our joy may be complete.” This is exactly the joy Jesus prayed for while praying to his Father (see Jn 17:13). When a disciple shares the Gospel with another person and that person enters the fellowship, joy increases — both the disciple’s joy and the new believer’s. And that joy is, in substance, the beginning of heaven.
But we can look at this even more deeply. Not only can we see the Church as an interpersonal phenomenon, we can also discover the beginnings of the Church at the personal level. Coming into the communion of the Church, by way of the apostles, is at its core a personal encounter with Jesus, an intimate kiss between you and the lover of your soul, an intimate conversion. That is what happens when someone shares the Faith with someone who comes to believe. There is a communal aspect to it — the Church of over a billion souls — but within that universal communion is always that individual union each person has with Christ.
We see this described in various ways throughout the New Testament. In the Letter to the Hebrews we hear how both Christ and believers “all have one origin.” Jesus, the “consecrator,” and believers, the “consecrated,” are united in glory, which is why Jesus calls believers “brothers” (Heb 2:11-12). Paul puts it even more strongly in his Letter to the Galatians. The believer’s union in Christ, he suggests, marks the very being of the believer. That is, some believers might be Republicans, others Democrats, but that just describes political agreement. Some might root for Notre Dame while others root for Stanford, but that just names school loyalty. These, no matter how passionately we claim them, are merely superficial modifiers. They do not say anything about who you are in your very being. Believing in Christ is different; it changes you. “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Paul is talking about something deeper than political or even philosophical unity, much less anything like school loyalty! Paul is not making a claim like, “I’m a Republican because I believe in limited government.” Rather, he is making a deep claim about the character of his soul. He is not even making a claim about intellectual agreement necessarily. He is making a claim about his very being. That is why elsewhere he described life in Christ in terms of a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). This, of course, will be discussed when we explore baptism. Now, simply, it suffices to point out that this is what happens personally and interpersonally within the communion of the Church. This is what we believe the Church is in its essence; this is how the Church grows and endures — it is a communion of believers, reborn in Christ, who have received the Gospel and the joy of Christ, and who dare to share that faith and joy in Christ with others. This is the faith Luke in Acts of the Apostles said began to spread like wildfire — a fire of faith still spreading.
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.