06 May 2008

The person of Christ, the Church

7th Week of Easter (T): Acts 20.17-27 and John 17.1-11
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

This priestly prayer, prayed by the High Priest himself, Jesus Christ, marks for us, the Church, a transfer of authority, a transfer of mission and purpose from the person of Christ Jesus to his Church. Jesus goes to great lengths in the prayer to point up several truths about the relationships between and among the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and those chosen to form the earliest Body of Christ; principle among these is the relationship between the Father and the Son, and the Son and his Church born in the Spirit. Of this relationship Jesus says, “I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you them gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” There were those in the world who belonged to the Father whom the Father gave to the Son so that the Son might reveal the Father’s name to them, and in revealing the Father’s name to this elect, the Son showed them the means to their supernatural end: eternal life. But before the enlightened elect join the Father and Son in their glory in heaven, there’s work to be done down here, so Jesus says, “I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for the ones you have given me…I have been glorified in them. And now I will no longer be in the world, but they are in the world, while I am coming to you.” And so, we are in the world but not abandoned to the world because we are the Father’s children and everything of Christ’s is the Father’s and everything of the Father’s belongs as well to Christ.

Did you get all of that? Sometimes these passages from John sound a bit like an auctioneer: I in you, you in me, we in them, them in us, and we in thee and thee and me; so, it’s we and me? It’s almost like a pronoun/preposition smoothie whirling around in an incarnational blender! How easy is it to get completely lost in this apparently very tangled web of relationships. But, of course, Jesus is not just being strangely Greek here. He is, as I said earlier, pointing up some vital truths about who we are as the Church and what we are supposed to be doing down here. What we have in the priestly prayer of Christ for us is a description of how the Blessed Trinity operates in the world. That operation, that mechanism is the Body of Christ (the Church) and the Holy Spirit. Body and soul, if you will, the person of Christ in the world, us, all of us.

Christ prays, “And now I will no longer be in the world, but they are in the world, while I am coming to you.” We just celebrated the Ascension, Christ going, body and soul, to the Father’s right hand. But in leaving us, he sends the Holy Spirit at Pentecost; thus making us his presence in the world. So, though he has left us, he is with us always in the person of the Church. The Fathers of Vatican Two call the Church a sacrament, the sign of Christ presence for the world’s salvation. And so, we are the glory the Blessed Trinity, those elect who do what Christ did so that the promise of eternal life for all believers might be preached to the end of the age.

Luke reports in his Acts of the Apostles that Paul, before heading off to Jerusalem, says farewell to the priests of Ephesus, “I served the Lord with all humility…I earnestly bore witness for both Jews and Greeks to repentance before God and to the faith in our Lord Jesus.” Paul, fully aware of the dangers in returning to Jerusalem, continues, “…I consider life of no importance to me, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I have received…to bear witness to the Gospel of God’s grace.” Our task as the Church, the continuing presence of the person of Christ in the world, is no different. We serve the Lord with all humility. We earnestly bear witness to repentance and to the faith of Jesus Christ. And we must consider life itself of no importance if we are finish this course and the ministry we have been given.

Paul, like Christ, and we, like Paul and Christ, are “compelled by the Spirit” to go to Jerusalem and Rome and London and New York City and Dallas, to go where we are sent to bear witness, to bear up and under the gospel of God’s grace and to offer the weightless yoke of His salvation to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. As the psalmist sings, “Blessed day by day be the Lord, who bears our burdens; God who is our salvation.”

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