Have you ever thought about the early church and what it looked like? Scripture tells us that the first Christians devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to loving one another, to prayer, and to the Eucharist. It says that they regularly met in the Temple, shared meals in each other’s homes, and cared for each other (Acts 2:42-47).
It’s important for us to know that the apostles didn’t just dream up these practices. At the Last Supper, Jesus told them: “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19). And throughout his ministry he told them to pray, to forgive each other, and to be mindful of the poor. In short, he told them to be holy as their heavenly Father was holy—and to do this together, as brothers and sisters. So after Pentecost, this is what they did. They began to put his words into practice, and as a result, the church grew and spread from city to city.
Of course, the church had its fair share of problems. Not only were there persecutions from without, there were problems from within: disagreements over the place of Gentiles in the church, arguments over who should be trusted as apostles, and fights over whether or not to hold to Jewish traditions. Some elders, like Paul, even made these differences very public, and some of these grudges were held onto for many years. And these are just the ones we know about!
Two thousand years later, while many things in the church have changed dramatically, the most important things remain the same. Our leaders continue to call us to pray, to receive the sacraments, and to be Jesus’ light in the world. As a people, we continue to defend human dignity and speak out for the poor and defenseless. At times the church has been attacked from without for its teachings. But there have also been times when it has been threatened from within: public disputes over doctrine, financial misdealings, even deception and sexual abuse. In many ways, the church has always been a great light to the world, but with a bit of its own tarnish.
A Mystery in Christ. But no matter what strengths or weaknesses we may see in the church, we need to be careful not to look at it only as a human institution. Yes, the church is a gathering of fallen, sinful people, but it is also the beloved bride of Christ. No matter how much sin we see in its members or its leaders, we need to remember Jesus’ promise that not even the gates of hell will prevail against it.
In this issue of The Word Among Us, we want to look at the church as something more than just a human invention. It is also a divine act of God, the sacrament of God’s presence in human history, the holy dwelling place for the people of God.
I hope you enjoy reading this issue. I hope it helps you look beyond the flaws of the church—including your own personal flaws—and to see the church as Jesus sees it: as an undeniably perfect gathering, whose members are being purified and prepared for the wedding feast.