I was asked to go to a neighboring parish and address some fundamental questions related to the necessity of the Church. Many today question the need for a church or The Church and claim they can have Jesus without the Church. And thus the fundamental question “Who needs the Church?” ought to be addressed.
I propose here a rather more doctrinal answer to the question and hope tomorrow to offer a more personal answer. But, the fundamental answer I offer to “Who needs the Church?” is that everyone does, because the Church is the Body of Christ.
To the related questions “Why do I need to come to Church?” and “How can the Church possibly be relevant to me?” the fundamental answer is because it is in the Church that Jesus is first and foremost to be found.
I. To those who reject that anything special is to be found in the Church that cannot be found elsewhere Jesus says,
- Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Matt 18:20) And thus we see that Jesus is present in the gathering we call the Church in a more perfect way than he is in my private prayer, or on some mountaintop. He says, THERE am I in the MIDST of THEM.
- [Jesus said to the disciples] The one who hears you hears me Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me. (Luke 10:16) And thus Jesus speaks and teaches in and through his Church in a personal manner that he does not elsewhere, such that to hear his voice in the proclamation of the Church is to hear him in a more perfect way than “in my heart,” or in creation, or in any other person or place outside the Church
- Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life in you. (Jn 6:53) And thus the liturgy of the Church is an essential source of true life for us since apart from Holy Communion that Jesus offers in the Mass we “have no life” in us.
II. To those who say, “I can have Jesus without the Church,” I say “no can do.” For the Church is the body of Christ and it pertains to the head of a living Body to be found with his body, not apart from it. That the Church is the Body of Christ is clear in many Scriptures such as
- Jesus is the head of the body the Church (Col 1:8)
- Now you are the body of Christ, each one of you is a part of it. (1 Cor 12:27)
- For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Since we have gifts that differ (Rom 12:4-6)
Hence, Christ the Head cannot be had or found apart from his Body the Church.
III. To those who say, “I can read my Bible alone,” it must be said that there would be no Bible if it were not for the Church. Jesus didn’t write a book. He founded a community he called “My Church” (Matt 16) and sent them to “Teach all that I have commanded” (Matt 28:20).
Of course it would be silly to have things depend solely on a book in the ancient world when almost no one could read, and even those who could, could scarcely afford books, which all had to be hand-copied prior to the invention of the printing press.
Further, the Bible is a Church book and is meant to be read in the context of Church life. Scripture itself warns: Our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:16). In effect Peter goes on to warn them to read Scripture in conformity with the Church.
IV. To those who say “I can watch Church on TV,” I say “Yes, but you can’t get Holy Communion on TV!” which as we saw above is essential if we are to have life in us.
Neither can we be in that place “wherever two or three are gathered” and thus be there where Jesus says he is, by sitting at home in front of a TV.
Neither can we have real fellowship, as Scripture admonishes us to do, by watching at home. And let us consider how to spur one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
Nor can we fulfill most of the vision of the life of the early Christians, who, as Scripture says, devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers (Acts 2:42)
V. To those who say, “I like Jesus but I can’t stand the Church, with all those hypocrites,” but Jesus was found in strange places, among sinners. So much so that he scandalized the Pharisees. Jesus ate with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners and unsavory characters. Even his best followers, the apostles, had great character defects.
The fact is, if you reject the company of sinners you’re going to have a hard time finding Jesus who is found among sinners, sinners that he loves and calls his brethren, As Scripture says, For both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one Father; for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, “I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters; in the assembly I will sing your praises.” (Heb 2:11-12)
So Jesus is found in the assembly of sinners and loves them. It is a strange disconnect to say to Jesus, “I love you but I hate the people you love and call your brethren; I just refuse to consort with them.”
Considering too that sinners are joined to Christ as members of his body, think of the strange logic in going to someone and saying, “I love and respect you, but I can’t stand your body. It is ugly and awful. I want to be with you, but I hate your body, I just can’t endure it. I will relate to you, but not your body.” This sort of talk is absurd and disrespectful.
VI. To those who say “It’s the institution of the Church I object to, not the Body of Christ,” sorry, but bodies are not abstractions. They have parts and functions. They require a head with executive functions as well as other parts and members with other functions. Neither is the Body of Christ an abstraction. It must have headship and governance along with other members and parts having various roles and functions.
Further, the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Epistles all talk a LOT about “institutional aspects” such as offices and structures:
1. There are offices like apostles, bishops, priests, deacons, catechists, administrators, etc.
2. There are Councils that issue binding documents and interpretations considered authoritative (e.g., the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15).
3. There is an insistence by the apostles as to their authority on numerous occasions.
4. Each local Church is overseen by a priest or bishop (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5).
5. There are disciplinary functions such as excommunication, disciplining of the clergy and faithful, etc. (1 Cor 5; Matt 18:17).
6. There are sacraments being celebrated and certain norms associated with them (e.g., 1 Cor 11).
7. There are liturgical norms being promulgated (e.g., 1 Cor 14).
All of these “institutional” aspects are necessary and biblical. They are not some medieval addition, or “tradition of men.” They are right there at the beginning as the Scriptures attest.
VI. To those who say that the Church is irrelevant, outdated, and arrogant because it does not reflect the modern age or most of its members, it must be pointed out that the Church does not exist to reflect the views of its members, but to articulate the views and truths of her head and founder, Jesus Christ. Her mandate from Jesus is to make disciples from all the nations teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Mat 28:20).
And the Holy Spirit admonishes every Bishop through St. Paul: I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. (2 Tim 4:1-5)
Therefore the Catholic Church is the enduring, visible presence of Jesus Christ in the World. It is the Body of Christ who still walks this earth preaching, teaching, healing, forgiving, feeding, admonishing sinners, consoling the repentant, being loved but also hated, being appreciated but also persecuted. The Church is not an institution; it is the Body of Christ, and also his Beautiful Bride; for in marriage the two become one. You cannot have Christ without the Church. You cannot have the groom without his Bride. You cannot have the head without his Body. You cannot love the one and despise or be indifferent to the other. Jesus is first and foremost to be found with his Body, the Church.
Yes, the Church is the enduring, visible yet spiritual, structured yet Spirit-led, human yet divine presence of Jesus Christ in the World today. To the scoffers who set up false dichotomies Jesus says, “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?!”
Who needs the Church? You might as well ask, “Who needs Jesus?”