Jesus gives a concise summary of the work and experience of the Church in His discourse with Nicodemus, which we read at Tuesday’s daily Mass:
Amen, amen I say to you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but you people do not accept our testimony (Jn 3:11).
I. Plural – Note that when Jesus speaks to Nicodemus He does not say, “I speak to you.” He says, “We speak to you.” The use of the first-person plural is common in Johannine literature. For example, at the beginning of the First Letter of John it is said, That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life (1 John 1:1).
Who is the “we” referred to here? As with most things in Scripture, there are layers of meaning. First, it certainly means the apostolic college. On a wider level it refers to the first eyewitnesses, the disciples who heard and saw Jesus and were able to report what He said and did. Even more widely the “we” is the Church down through the centuries. The Church here is more than an institution; it is the Body of Christ, the living, active presence of Jesus Christ in the world.
II. Proclamation – “We speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen.” Just after the resurrection, the common expression of apostles and disciples is this: “I have seen the Lord” (e.g., John 20:18, 20:25). If the Church could no longer say this, she would no longer be the Church! If she could no longer say, “Jesus is Lord. We know this; we experience this; and we see it with our eyes,” then she would no longer be the Church.
Note that in the biblical sense, the word “know” does not simply refer to intellectual knowing, as if the Church were merely reciting words written centuries ago. Biblical knowing emphasizes experience; something known means something actually seen and experienced, not just learned in the abstract. The Church does not simply know Jesus is Lord and speak of it as if regurgitating reciting ancient formulas, precious though they are. Rather, she speaks of her experience with the Lord Jesus Christ in the sacred liturgy and of His powerful ministry to all her members throughout time.
The proclamation of the Church is that we speak to the world of what we know, what we have experienced. To emphasize this, Jesus adds that the proclamation of the Church is not simply what we know but what we have “seen.” Here, too, a tangible experience is referenced. This is the proclamation of ancient truths, presently experienced—seen. In other words, the Church can raise her right hand and swear to the truth of all that Jesus has said and done because she knows it; she experiences it; she has seen it—she has witnessed it occurring.
Indeed, souls are healed and set free, and human beings are gloriously transformed by the celebration of her sacred liturgy with her Blessed Groom and Lord, Jesus Christ.
The Church announces her experience with Jesus Christ, with the ability of His Word and truth to transform her and her members. The Church proclaims to the world, “We testify to what we have known and what we have seen.”
III. Persecution – Then Jesus says to Nicodemus, and by extension to the world, “You do not accept our testimony.”
It is often the lot of the Church to be scorned, ridiculed, and mocked—even hated and persecuted—because of our proclamation. There are many who demand that the Church conform to the world and its ideas and values.
Yet, as Pope Paul VI noted in Humanae Vitae, one of the Church’s most rejected encyclicals,
There is too much clamorous outcry against the voice of the Church, and this is intensified by modern means of communication. But it comes as no surprise to the Church that she, no less than her divine Founder, is destined to be a “sign of contradiction.” She does not, because of this, evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical (#18).
The Church is to be this sign of contradiction. Yes, we must often stand up before a worldly consensus and say no, regardless of how many around us who say yes. It is the lot of the Church to experience rejection and to have to say, “You do not accept our testimony.”
Yet this is judgment, for Jesus says, Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light (John 3:19-20). St. Paul adds, 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 (2 Tim 4:3). Simeon, as he held the infant Jesus and thereby the infant Church, is recorded as saying this: This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (Lk 2:34).
Yes, this is our place—among the persecuted, scorned, and derided. The Church must be willing to say to the world, “You do not accept our testimony.” We must not “cave.” Too many people today, wanting the Church to be “relevant,” and “acceptable,” insist that we alter our doctrines so that the world will accept our testimony. God forbid the Church ever do this, for we would no longer be the Church!
Here, then, is Jesus’ charter—His mandate—for the Church: that we should say to the world, “We speak to you of what we know and of what we have seen, but you do not accept our testimony.”
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Charter and Mandate of the Church
4 Replies to “The Charter and Mandate of the Church”
Thank you again Msgr. for another great exegesis. The ironic play on “seen and unseen” in John’s Gospel is a literary masterpiece. One can see in the 1st chapter alone the contrast between themes of “light and darkness”, “seeing and not seeing, and believing”, “life and death”, and “the world against the Word.” It has been suggested by scholars that John sets up these themes in chap. 1, both as an inclusio, and to reveal the themes he will use throughout the whole Gospel. This reveals his literary genius! This pattern comes to a climax in the Resurrection appearances of Jesus in chaps. 20 and 21. Most poignant is the loving correction of St. Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe” (20:29). The play against empirical evidence is beautiful, because, even though there is no true opposition between true faith and science, we, living in an age of agnostic materialism, must, in a way, come to believe in this very way. And it is this that puts the “Word against the world!” Sancte Johanne, ora pro nobis!
“Too many people today, wanting the Church to be “relevant,” and “acceptable,” insist that we alter our doctrines so that the world will accept our testimony. God forbid the Church ever do this, for we would no longer be the Church!”
Hasn’t this just happened in China?
Your observation that the Church must always be a sign of contradiction is a very salient point. It means that the most difficult, demanding, rigorous, uncomfortable and often costly (in temporal terms) thing to do is to be faithful to Christ and His Church.
There is some advantage to this. When confronted with some issue of doctrine, morals or practice, the alternative that best meets the characteristics above is likely the truth.
When Jesus uses the plural “we” and “our”, I don’t think that He is referring to any earthly witnesses, either the apostles or later members of His bride. The passage reads as follows;
11. “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear
witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.
12. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
13. No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”
imo, Jesus’ use of the plural is referring to His Father and to the Holy Spirit, ie. the Trinity. This is supported by His subsequent statement that no-one, other than Himself, has come from,
seen and experienced heaven.
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