The Church’s Mission Statement

Monday in the 1st Week of Advent: Romans 10:9-18, Matthew 4:18-22.

What an interesting start to Advent! Yesterday, Christ admonished us, “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.” This should be a familiar refrain, a reminder that Advent is a time of waiting for both the Incarnation of Christ and the Final Judgment. This vigilance will be marked by prayer and anticipation until we celebrate the Birth of our Lord. But what do we get today, the second day of Advent and the Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle? We receive a concise exposition on eternal salvation being realized and the mission of the Church herself. This may seem incongruous with the initial message of waiting and vigil, but I think the Church, in her wisdom, places these readings and this feast at the beginning of Advent for a reason. Today, we acknowledge that the Christ Event has changed the world irrevocably and, although Advent commemorates and celebrates a time of waiting, we cannot “pretend” that the keys to the kingdom are not yet here. Christ has already brought the end times, and our active work as the Church is happening even as our liturgical calendar revolves in memorials and feasts.

Icon of Christ, King of Kings (Greece, c.1600) | Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s unpack today’s startlingly concise mission statement for the Church, brought to us by St. Paul. He writes to the early Christian Church in Rome: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” While this seems simple (almost too simple!), it belies a depth of personal commitment that we might not notice at first. I’d like to take a small detour here into the issue of a person’s good works and faith and how these impact one’s salvation. The second part of Paul’s sentence quoted above, that is, “faith provides salvation,” has been surgically taken out of St. Paul’s overall corpus of writings to justify misunderstandings and heresies since the Apostolic Age. The Gnostics (many different sects) spread beliefs along the lines that faith in Jesus and other spiritual gifts were separate and more important than acts of the world and the body. This separation is dangerous because it erodes the connection between faith in Christ and moral acts here in this world. This heresy was taken up by Martin Luther and John Calvin in the 1500s, and sadly the foundation of the Protestant churches is a misunderstanding of this passage, that if you have faith alone (“belief in your heart”) in the mystery of Christ’s death Resurrection, you will be saved.

This statement is taken out of the context of St. Paul’s full writings. We must understand that for St. Paul, “believing in your heart” the mysteries of the Christ event is a transformative thing – a person not only thinks differently, but a person also acts, speaks, and worships differently. He writes clearly to the Galatians: “the faith that finds its expression in love is all that matters” (Gal 5:6b, emphasis mine). He also tells the Corinthians: “I may have utter faith, so that I can move mountains; yet if I lack charity [do not have love], I count for nothing” (1 Cor 13:2b). Clearly, he is not telling the Romans that faith without works is salvation. For Paul, and for all Christians, faith is inextricably linked to charity, love, and good works. This is because the particular faith we have is in God who becomes man to show us that love, peace, and charity are more important than power and worldly knowledge. When we have faith in Him, we seek to embody His teachings and His example. His greatest commandment, to love God first with our whole being and then our neighbor as ourselves, unites this lesson that faith cannot be separated from moral actions here on earth.

But this post isn’t about Catholicism vs. Protestantism. St. Paul tells us in today’s first reading that two things, faith in the Resurrection and confessing that Jesus is Lord, bring us salvation. We’ve explored how “faith in the Resurrection” is a kernel of wisdom that means faith in all of the mysteries contained in the Christ event exploding upon human history, and allowing that faith to change us, to transform us in the image of our Lord. The second bit flows from this transformation: we Christians do not sit silently in our faith. We are not lamps hidden under the bushel basket. We are called to be evangelists in our work and in our mouths. We must proclaim to everyone who will hear.

And here we have, in a nutshell, what the Church is all about. We don’t hoard salvation to ourselves. We are not a secretive society of the select (again, Gnostic heresy). The Church is always “two or more gathered in my name” – always plural people, not a singular person. As we have faith in Christ and all that He revealed, we are transformed by God into something greater. This is grace, this is justification. And by the grace of God, we can begin to aspire to be like Christ, that is, to love everyone unconditionally, to see our Father in everyone and everything, and to ardently desire to save souls and bring them to our Father’s kingdom.

The Calling of Peter and Andrew (1308-1311), Duccio di Buoninsegna | Wikimedia Commons.

I, like many Catholics I know, am a little scarred by the televangelists of the 80s and 90s who co-opted many fine Biblical sayings, shouting the meaning out of them. It’s hard in some ways to read “confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord” without hearing a Jerry Fallwell-like voice and thinking of intolerant American fundamentalism. But we must recover what the Apostles and Christ bestowed on the Church in our sacred scriptures. Our great saints proclaimed with their mouths the Truth of Christ and Wisdom of God long before our contemporary cult-of-personality evangelical preachers twisted these words to suit their purposes. I’m not saying that evangelicals are all wrong, but they are not representatives of the one, true, universal Catholic Church. In particular, we must reverse the notion that Christian evangelization is linked to intolerance and that not everyone is welcomed by God. As the Second Vatican Council’s document on evangelization, Ad Gentes, states: “The members of the Church are impelled to carry on such missionary activity by reason of the love with which they love God and by which they desire to share with all men the spiritual goods of both its life and the life to come” (7). In other words, what drives us is not to perfect the world in the image we think is in God’s mind (much less drive out sin like zealous crusaders), but our driving force is the same love with which we love God. We are driven by a desire to share with everyone spiritual good. Love and sharing. This is a topic for another post, but evangelism for Christians must be an invitation to know God through Jesus Christ done out of love for our fellow humans.

The reason we have to return evangelization to its original dignity: it is the very first thing Christ promised His Apostles. Today’s gospel reading from St. Matthew tells us of the iconic calling of Peter, Andrew, John, and James. Christ says, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” This is the evangelical promise He gives them: they will catch men instead of fish; they will harvest humanity for God. Note that there is no hesitation: “At once they left their nets and followed him.” Again, with John and James: “He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.” The Voice of God speaks to them and they do not hesitate. But, no, more than the voice – the very Word of God in human form speaking corporally to them and beckoning them to be transformed into a new thing: a fisher of men. This irresistibility is an effect of the miracle of the Incarnation, which we anxiously await in Advent. With the gravity of a million suns, Christ walks the earth, pulling people to Him. That spiritual gravity cannot be overstated; it is God Himself taking His own incomprehensible, immeasurable being and distilling it into a baby. This tiny being will then draw humanity to himself, teach them in word and in deed what it means to love, and thereby give us the salvation that St. Paul speaks of.

This is the Christian mystery of salvation and let’s note that God intends for us to be active participants in this plan. The Church, through the Apostles, is created to put on full display and shout from the mountaintops the glory of Christ. This action is and has always been evangelical. Furthermore, is it a coincidence that “evangelist” contains the word “angel”? No – the Greek word used in the gospels, εὐαγγελιστοῦ (euaggelistés), means “bringer of good news,” and the Greek word for angel, ἄγγελος (aggelos), means “a messenger.” Being an evangelist means participating in the same action of the angels as messengers of God. We are participating in announcing the kingdom of God just as the angels do. (NB: In a very specific way, we meet the angels here on earth. The Mass and Eucharistic celebration is the moment when the kingdom of heaven meets the action of the faithful on the earth and we celebrate with the angels the mysteries of our faith and gift of Christ as food for us.) In other words, God has invited us to his heavenly feast here and now, recognizing and blessing our souls as holy like the angels, and inviting us to carry out the same work as the angels. 

Cutting from an Italian choir book (Lombardy) – Historiated initial ‘D’ of the Calling of Peter and Andrew (c. 1475-1500) | Image Courtesy the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

 

Let’s return to the opening thought: what a fascinating start to Advent. Advent brings together two events that historically seem very far apart: Christ’s birth to Mary and Christ’s return at the end of time. But today’s reading shows us that these two events are in fact united (in kairos time), that the inexpressible mystery of God coming to humanity cannot be contained in a historical figure. Christ will always be more than just the historical figure who the Apostles met on the shore of Galilee. As God, he transcends time and mortality – he existed before time and outside of history (hence the misguided attempts to “know” Jesus Christ simply through a historical lens). So when He is made incarnate, human history is ruptured and ripped from a linear trajectory. The center of the universe isn’t the sun or a terrestrial body but the Body of Christ, which rises and takes its rightful place in the heavenly realm. We now orbit this spiritual truth that carries us through our lives with a centrifugal force much different than the passing of the earth around the sun and the march of time. The liturgical calendar attempts to reflect this new ordering of our lives, and Advent is a season where we approach the unification with God from both sides: as those waiting for the babe and those waiting for the judgment and final unity. But the same reality is achieved in both events: God offers us real, corporeal salvation. In one, that salvation is the form of the Savior, in whom our faith and actions carry us through this life while we await the second, in the form of that same Savior, carrying out his same saving action.

This is how the Catechism can claim “To fulfill the Father’s will, Christ ushered in the Kingdom of heaven on earth. The Church ‘is the Reign of Christ already present in mystery'” (CCC, 763). At the same time, it teaches “Though already present in his Church, Christ’s reign is nevertheless yet to be fulfilled ‘with power and great glory’ by the King’s return to earth” (CCC, 671). The Church that Christ established is brought into clear focus, started the calling of the Apostles to become fishers of men and bringers of Good News, and continuing with us in prayer, action, and spirit.

Finally, we can look back at the first reading from St. Paul and understand the fullness of his words. When he writes, “one confesses with the mouth and so is saved,” we can see that this evangelical act is the sharing of love that the Church was established to accomplish. We can see that our confession of Jesus Christ as Lord – as an act meant to lovingly draw people to the truth – is what makes us part of the Church, “the Reign of Christ already present in mystery.” Of course we are saved in this moment! We are fully participating in God’s plan, in the universal Church, in the Reign of Christ.

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