Focusing on the Church first not so much as an institution or historical entity, not so much in sociological terms, we must discover the Church is in its nature: that it’s the communion the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit opened up to believers in Christ. In John 17, Jesus prayed that his disciples would be perfectly one — in and for glory, joy and love — just as the Father and Son are one (see Jn 17:11, 21, 23). This is the essence of the Church, and it is what we must grasp before thinking of the Church in any of its other aspects — historical, cultural, bureaucratic or otherwise. That we first see the Church theologically is essential.
But if this is true, we should be able to discern the Church in its essence over time in the tradition. Jesus of Nazareth prayed that his disciples — from beginning to end — be one in a communion of glory, joy and love. Yet, how is that true of today’s Church? Karl Adam, the great German theologian, offered a famous image to help us think of both continuity and change as it pertains to the essence of the Church. He said the Catholic Church relates to both the Gospel and the early Church as a great oak tree relates to the acorn (The Spirit of Catholicism, 2). That is, the Church and the Gospel are in organic continuity, two ends of a vast natural process. Which is why the best thing to do, moving on from John 17, is to read the rest of Scripture and then the tradition in order to track that very continuity — that one communion we call the Church.
To begin, then, we should notice what I called earlier the mission for glory — the great trajectory of the evangelical movement beginning in the Trinity. That is, the Father sends the Son while the Son sends the disciples (as the Spirit is also sent by the Father and the Son), who in turn send their disciples, who in turn send theirs, and on and on. This mission for glory is discernible immediately after the Resurrection, first in Jesus’ words to Mary Magdalene to “go to my brothers and tell them” (Jn 20:17). Later that first Easter evening, Jesus speaks of the mission for glory again, echoing his prayer to the Father, saying to the disciples, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” just before giving them the Holy Spirit and the mission of reconciliation (Jn 20:21-23). The other Gospels describe this mission as well, most famously perhaps in Matthew — in the so-called Great Commission — where just before his Ascension, Jesus tells his disciples to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). Both Mark and Matthew’s version say that preaching, teaching and baptism are how disciples are to be made, and Mark even talks about accompanying charismatic signs (Mk 16:15-18). That is, how the Church is gathered into one is by means of preaching and sacraments. While more will be said later in this series, when we will explore Scripture, Tradition and the sacraments, at this point it suffices simply to point out that the mission for glory — beginning in the Trinity and which we learned about in John 17 — continues immediately after the resurrection of Jesus. That is, Jesus’ desire that his disciples be one does not end with John 17. Rather, it begins.
And it is important to note also that the mission for glory is also geographic. We see this right away in Acts of the Apostles, in Jesus’ instructions to the disciples to bear him witness “throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The command, basically, is to go north and beyond. Here the various traditions of apostolic missions begin — Peter and Paul to Rome, John to Ephesus, Thomas to India, and so on. Now, this is important because it shows us that the mission for glory involves a double movement. That is, as the apostolic mission extends outward, enveloping in time the entire globe, God, by that same mission, gathers everyone to him. To put it simply: As the Church spreads out, God gathers in. This belongs to the very mechanics of mission and evangelism. It is why the Church still seeks to bear witness to Christ in all things, from foreign missions to parish preaching to small acts of personal charity and testimony. It is how we share our faith in Christ, how the Church grows — the one communion of glory, joy and love that Jesus prayed for. This is how it happens.
Now Luke describes what this communion looked like, at least ideally at the start, in Acts of the Apostles. There he tells us the earliest Christians “devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42). This, Luke says, is what the first Christians were up to. First, they were committed to apostolic teaching and fellowship, that is, to the message that the Father sent the Son and that the Son, Jesus of Nazareth, died, rose again, ascended, and will return; and also that the risen Jesus calls us into communion, into oneness. Second, they were devoted to the “breaking of the bread,” that is the Eucharist — to be explored further later. And then, they were devoted to “the prayers,” again, something else to explore later. At this point we should remember the first Christians were also good Jews, so they would have been faithful in their daily prayers in the Temple, or at least in direction of the Temple.
Luke also says, “All who believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:44). Now what this exactly means is debated, which is an argument well beyond our discussion. Remember, though, what we are trying to discover — traces of the mission for glory and signs of the oneness Christ prayed for. How was that oneness lived out as Church at the beginning? They held “all things in common.” Now, again, we need not get sidetracked by questions as to what exactly this meant, for example, whether this was some form of early Christian communism (which it is not by the way, as we’ll discover later). The simple point here is that the early Church had a strong and tangible notion of what it meant to be one. They prayed together, celebrated the Eucharist together, and shared their material resources — it was a real tangible communion and not merely a construct of conceptual or ideological agreement. The Church at this point was lived more than it was conceived. And they lived it “every day,” Luke tells us, gathering in homes, for there were as yet no churches. Yet, increasing in numbers and in the Lord’s favor, the Church grew — because of what they believed and in whom they believed.
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.