The temptation in such moments for Catholics is to respond with a kind of sectarian surety — let us be, get our house in order and let the world take care of itself. We call out to our secularist friends, “Remember that you’re not without guilt. The #MeToo movement hit Hollywood first, not the Church.”
The Book of Revelation by St. John has little patience with such ecclesial apologetics. Yes, the world seems governed by the logic of empire, a politics of power and prestige inimical to the Gospel. But, the Church herself is betwixt and between the logic of the kingdom and the world. In other words, the Church can be as “worldly” as the world.
The Book of Revelation begins with a condemnation of the churches, not the world. Ephesus has endured in temptation but lost the love it once had. Smyrna needs hope. Pergamum demands that Israelite converts eat food consecrated to idols. Thyatira requires that all members of the assembly, inspired by the prophetess Jezebel, eat such food. Apathy is found once more in Sardis, as well as Philadelphia. The church of Laodicea is neither hot nor cold.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
|Fourth Sunday of Easter – May 12, 2019|
ACTS 13:14, 43-52
PS 100:1-2, 3, 5
REV 7:9, 14B-17
And yet despite the worldliness of the churches, there is more. In Revelation 7, we discover a profoundly different vision of the Church. Gathered around the Lamb once slain are representatives of all the nations of the earth. They hold palm branches, changing the meaning of Palm Sunday.
Yes, our Lord was greeted as king but crucified by the crowds. But now, at the heart of the Church, those who share in his crucifixion greet him in love. They know the gift of love unto the end.
They are the ones who neither hunger nor thirst. They are the ones who have given everything over to the Lamb, adoring not empire but the sacrificial love of the Word made flesh.
Such adoration is difficult, as we hear in the Acts of the Apostles. The resurrection of the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, means that the Gospel is destined not just for a particular group of people but all of humanity.
The Good News is that salvation is not dependent on our excellence in personal virtue, in political governance or the achievement of wisdom. Instead, it comes as pure gift from God, a gift not intended for the in-crowd alone but for all of humanity.
The Church has forgotten this, not just in this age but also in every age. The corruption of the present is not the first corruption in ecclesial history. Nor, sadly, will it be the last, unless our Lord returns imminently.
The Church, in every age, has forgotten that we are not a society of the self-determined righteous. We are those who were lost, rescued by a shepherd who loved us unto the end, to death itself.
Therefore, the renewal of the Church is not reducible to the introduction of a new bureaucracy that can check the power of the bishops or priests. That bureaucracy too can be rather “worldly.”
The renewal of the Church requires a new commitment to the reality of the Resurrection. A new commitment to the Church not as the society of the “in” but the first fruits of redemption.
Listen to the Apocalypse of John. For the prophecy is directed to the churches.
It is directed to us.
Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.