When I was miraculously (yes, miraculously) brought back to the Church, I experienced a sense of what can only be described as true joy.
I know there are many who would be puzzled by this. We’re aware of so many flaws existing in the institutional church. How can one be happy (much less joyful) to be brought back to this historically flawed institution?
Amazing, right? This seems impossible, because we expect perfection in any organization that’s dedicated to the precious person of Christ. These perceptions reflect, I’ve discovered, a serious absence of understanding.
Take this Sunday’s Gospel of Mark (6:1-6a).
Jesus has come back to Nazareth, his native place, intending to teach in the Synagogue. The reaction to him is, in the vernacular, “Who does he think he is? He’s no better than us. He hasn’t had any special instruction, so how can he talk about wisdom? He comes from a common family whom we see every day, and his relatives aren’t that great either.”
Like so many of us, the Nazarenes looked at the messenger and ignored the message. Jesus had something remarkable to teach them, if they had only been open and non-judgmental. He had been given the assignment when he was baptized by John in the Jordan, participating with (let’s not forget) a bunch of sinners. What he heard as he emerged from the waters was the divine call to teach, which is what prophets do. This is my beloved Son; listen to him. Jesus cemented his resolve by spending 40 days in the desert, alone except for beasts and angels: one side against the other, leaving him to discern the message he was to teach: The kingdom of God is near. Indeed it was. It was especially present in this new Prophet from Nazareth.
Unfortunately, many of us have become jaded, unimpressed, empty of wonder at the message of God, delivered through this divine Prophet. Yes, the Church has a history of imperfect behaviors. But what is its message?
Through all its human failings, the Church has continued to deliver the message: God IS; Christ IS; the Gospel IS. There are no teachings that can surpass the one commandment that Jesus constantly repeated as the most important: Love one another. Love covers a multitude of sins.
And there’s St. Paul in this Sunday’s letter, begging God to take all sense of pride and elation from him. Of course Paul was elated to have been allowed to teach the gospel, to Evangelize.
But God knows how to keep us humble as he allows us to struggle against egotism so that we might rely totally on God’s strength and perfection. And so the Church has likewise struggled, and has still been enabled to bring the world that most important message.
The Prophet Ezekiel (first reading) has been sent to speak to a “rebellious house.” And “whether they heed or resist, they shall know that a prophet has been among them.” Again, not because of the prophet/messenger, but because of the message.
True discipleship is to cling to the message of the Gospel, not because the Church is made up of saints, but despite the fact that the Church is made up of imperfect sinners, which includes us along with all the rest.
Most astounding of all is that we imperfect ones are given the same assignment as Christ’s: Teach the Gospel in our native place and elsewhere. Teach it by living Christ’s message, by loving and accepting all the sinful others who share our need for God.