BOOK EXCERPT: The Church
Quick linguistics lesson: the word “catholic” does not only refer to a denomination of Christianity. “Catholic” means universal, diverse or all-encompassing. When the Apostle’s Creed affirms the existence of a holy catholic church, it isn’t saying that Protestants got it wrong. It’s saying something more controversial than that. It’s saying that every follower of Jesus from his day until ours has been part of one global, eternal, familial, heterarchical organization.
And that organization is responsible for saving the world.
The church is the collection of every follower of Jesus Christ, and this idea — the church’s mission — may be the most unbelievable thing about it.
John Eldredge writes,
It’s not the nature of God to limit his risks and cover his bases. Far from it. Most of the time, he actually lets the odds stack up against him. Against Goliath, a seasoned soldier and a trained killer, he sends … a freckle-faced shepherd kid with a slingshot. Most commanders going into battle want as many infantry as they can get. God cuts Gideon’s army from thirty-two thousand to three hundred. Then he equips the ragtag little band that’s left with torches and watering pots. It’s not just a battle or two that God takes his chances with, either. Have you thought about his handling of the gospel? God needs to get a message out to the human race, without which they will perish … forever. What’s the plan? First, he starts with the most unlikely group ever: a couple of prostitutes, a few fishermen with no better than a second-grade education, a tax-collector. Then, he passes the ball to us. Unbelievable.
Almighty God, who has the power to set right everything that went wrong in Eden, instead entrusts that rescue mission to people. Just before his ascension, Jesus stood on a hillside at Bethany and looked at a dozen scared, poor, uneducated peasants and said, “Hey, I’m leaving. Y’all finish saving the planet for me.” And then he disappeared.
Why do this? Why wouldn’t God just fix it himself? After all, that’s what everyone wants. He wants it. We want it. Everyone wants Eden back. Everyone wants a world with no hatred, no violence, no strife or poverty or suffering or death. We all want to get back to the idyllic setting where our story began. And if God is all-powerful, then he can snap his fingers and take us back to Eden.
Remember Eden? Let’s review: an almighty God created a perfect universe and declared that it was good. That’s Genesis 1 and the first line of the creed. "I believe in God the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth."
Eden is where humans enter the scene but it isn't the chronological beginning of this epic tale. Conflict entered the Christian story long before humans did. Conflict arose in heaven before there was an Earth. The angel Lucifer rebelled. His pride swelled, and he considered himself higher than God. So he was cast out of heaven, forced to live eternity separated from his kind and his Creator. But he didn't go quietly. He is a leader and an influencer. He caused a rift in the harmony of heaven and, when he left, he took a third of the angels with him to hell. Ever since that day, Lucifer has made war against God, against the goodness and beauty and harmony originally reflected in God's creation, and against humankind made in God's image.
Now, read that paragraph again. Doesn't it sound exactly like something from a high school class in Greek mythology? An angel rebels? He is banished from heaven? He makes war against God's people? Let's just acknowledge that this is well-worn material. This is mythic to the core.
The story begins with Lucifer’s fall, but the plot thickens when humans get involved. Or since this story is about an eternal God, it may not have a beginning at all. But Eden is the point where God chose to start telling because it's the best place to start; when a rescue is first needed. That is true of all great stories.
Our favorite starting point to learn about the Pivensees is not when Uncle Andrew brings a bit of evil into the new world of Narnia, but when the White Witch first seduces a son of Adam.
We don't pick up the story when Senator Palpatine first betrays the assembly to form his own empire, but when the survival of the last band of rebels against it lies in the hands of a teenaged orphan boy from Tatouine.
We don't start when the machines defeated the humans and enslaved them, but when Neo first wakes to the reality that he is the chosen one to lead his people out of captivity.
The Christian story is about a rescue. The hardest mission in the universe is rescuing a human heart; ask any parent, counselor, or lover. The plot of the Christian story is about a daring and heroic rescue, a behind-enemy-lines battle for human souls. And the rescue is needed because of the captivity that began in Eden in Genesis 3.
The third chapter of the Bible may be the most important for understanding the Christian story because it is in Genesis 3 where humans enter the conflict. Adam and Eve sin. They mistrust God and they take what isn't rightfully theirs. We can argue over whether there was one real man named Adam and one real woman named Eve, or whether the story is allegorical. But it doesn't matter. The story holds up either way. Christians perceive that humankind has been under the same curse since its earliest days. We are guilty of Lucifer's pride. We want a world that serves our own comforts and pleasures. We refuse humility and brotherhood. We ignore guilt. We mask regret. We pretend to be all we need. We want to be gods.
Like Lucifer, we are banished from the union with God for which we were created. We are given a curse and sent into the wide world to toil at meaningless, inconsequential labor. That's Genesis 3. That's when humans enter the conflict of the Christian story. And true to the script, the rest of the story — from Genesis to Revelation, from the first human to the consummation of the human story — is a grand and sweeping narrative about the quest to recover what was lost in Genesis 3. It's a story that spans millennia, through the rise of civilization, through wars and plagues, through medicine and science, through mankind's greatest achievements and darkest atrocities, through the worship of Pharaohs, through the rise of democracy, through the apex of Enlightenment, through industrial revolutions and information ages. The Christian story is about mankind's journey back to the harmony of Eden, a journey through a series of harrowing events, through darkness and deception, through trial and suffering, through failure and betrayal, through grandeur and virtue, toward restoration and resolution.
In the Christian story, God engages the long arc of history not by waving a magic wand and fast-forwarding to "happily ever after", but by calling one person to start his restoration campaign. He calls Abram and tells him, "Through you, your faith, and the efforts of your descendants, I will restore what has been lost. I will bring this story to climax and close not unilaterally but in cooperation with my creation — not with humans as my adversaries or my lackeys, but as my allies. Let's get to work."
And then, two thousand years after Abraham on that hillside in Bethany, we arrive at another big scene. It's the most risky scene. It's when humans are set loose on earth and trusted with free will and the very keys to the kingdom of God.
After Jesus rose from the dead, he gathered his disciples and said, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Then just before he rose into the clouds, Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
He gave people the task of saving the world and the authority to do so. And then he was gone. Two thousand years of prophets and kings, a visitation from God himself, miraculous healings and a resurrection, and now it’s all up to a dozen dirty dimwits.
God help us.