Summary: To fulfill Christ's intention for the Church, the Church treasures the unbreakable link between one faith and one community.
Thursday of 4th Week of Easter 2014
In these first weeks of the Easter season each year the Church gives us much of St. John’s Gospel writings on the Eucharist, the sacrament of nourishment and unity. The Eucharist brings us together: those who profess the same Catholic faith also share the same sacrificial meal of the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. In fact, from the beginning of the Church that was the rule–if someone didn’t share our faith, he didn’t partake of this holy communion.
The Church’s doctrine, though, has ever been developing. It grows organically as new questions arise from the faithful. The Church never has taught a doctrine in one age and repudiated it in the next. For instance, faithful to the teachings of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, the Church does not permit someone who is in a valid marriage to divorce, remarry, and continue to receive Holy Communion. That’s a hard teaching, but it is Christ’s, so we follow it. Here in both of today’s readings we can find examples of the price of Christian unity. John Mark is recorded as going back to Jerusalem during Paul’s first missionary journey. They didn’t get along, and the conflict was impeding their mission, so John Mark went home to get clarification on his vocation. Ultimately he became Peter’s assistant in Rome, and, tradition tells us, he wrote the second Gospel under Peter’s direction. He listened to the Holy Spirit speaking through the Church and did God’s will. The Church is richer for his obedience.
In Jesus’s immediate circle, there was a traitor. He broke bread with Jesus and then broke faith. But the upshot of his treason was and is the salvation of the world. The price Jesus paid for the unity of the Church was the loss of Judas. We each pay a price for the unity of the Church. If we see something going on that we don’t like, and then follow the command of Jesus to take it to the Church’s authorities, we risk rejection of our ideas. Sometimes we have to look forward to a lifelong rejection of what is obviously a useful fix of one of our problems, or a God-inspired improvement. The remedy is not to go off and start our own church. That’s laughable. That’s what has given us 40,000 different Christian denominations, all a result of what Luther and Calvin and Henry VIII believed was an improvement–five hundred years of dissension and scandal.
The popes understand the essential link between faith and Church unity: “The unity of the Church in time and space is linked to the unity of the faith: ‘there is one body and one Spirit… one faith’ (Eph 4:4-5). These days we can imagine a group of people being united in a common cause, in mutual affection, in sharing the same destiny and a single purpose. But we find it hard to conceive of a unity in one truth. We tend to think that a unity of this sort is incompatible with freedom of thought and personal autonomy. Yet the experience of love shows us that a common vision is possible, for through love we learn how to see reality through the eyes of others, not as something which impoverishes but instead enriches our vision. Genuine love, after the fashion of God’s love, ultimately requires truth, and the shared contemplation of the truth which is Jesus Christ enables love to become deep and enduring. This is also the great joy of faith: a unity of vision in one body and one spirit. Saint Leo the Great could say: “If faith is not one, then it is not faith.
“What is the secret of this unity? Faith is ‘one’, in the first place, because of the oneness of the God who is known and confessed. All the articles of faith speak of God; they are ways to know him and his works. Consequently, their unity is far superior to any possible construct of human reason. They possess a unity which enriches us because it is given to us and makes us one.
Faith is also one because it is directed to the one Lord, to the life of Jesus, to the concrete history which he shares with us. Saint Irenaeus of Lyons made this clear in his struggle against Gnosticism. The Gnostics held that there are two kinds of faith: a crude, imperfect faith suited to the masses, which remained at the level of Jesus’ flesh and the contemplation of his mysteries; and a deeper, perfect faith reserved to a small circle of initiates who were intellectually capable of rising above the flesh of Jesus towards the mysteries of the unknown divinity. In opposition to this claim, which even today exerts a certain attraction and has its followers, Saint Irenaeus insisted that there is but one faith, for it is grounded in the concrete event of the incarnation and can never transcend the flesh and history of Christ, inasmuch as God willed to reveal himself fully in that flesh.