This past week I started yet another debate on facebook. I like to post links to various articles and things that I am reading, and inevitably someone makes a comment, and then someone comments on that, and next thing you know, you have a conversation thread with over 100 entries of people arguing back and forth on a given issue. And sometimes the comments can be quite enlightening…
In this particular debate, for example, one of the contributors defined a church as a “clubhouse of the ineffable.” And I thought of this definition when I read the readings for Mass this weekend.
Because our readings this weekend demonstrate that this idea of a church as a clubhouse is entirely opposed to a Judeo-Christian understanding of who we are and what defines us as men and women of faith, and more specifically as followers of Christ.
Naaman is a Syrian, he is not a member of the club. And the leper who returns to glorify God after he is healed is a Samaritan, a foreigner, not a member of the club. Yet Christ says “Stand up and go, your faith has saved you.”
And it is not as if these are the only two examples in the scriptures.
The Old Testament is full of prophetic visions that speak of all people from every nation, from the north, south, east and west, streaming into Jerusalem. The Jewish people understood that the covenant entrusted to them was meant to extend one day to all people – that their covenant with the Lord did not form a clubhouse for a few chosen, but a sanctuary for all people.
Jesus not only underlines this idea, but he just hammers it again and again. Need we think of the parable of the Good Samaritan? His scandalous conversations with the Samaritan woman at the well, his declaring that the pagan centurion had more faith than all of Israel?
Clubhouse? No, no, no… Christ despised the idea of the church being a clubhouse. He went after those who acted as if they were the leaders of a club, calling them hypocrites and turning over their tables.
And the Church, from its earliest years, took note. St. Paul immediately saw that Christians need not be members of the Jewish community. And the first bishops viciously fought Gnostic attempts to make the Church into some kind of esoteric secret society for the chosen few.
The Church is Catholic, they declared – it is universal. Christ’s life, his salvation, true Christian religion must be Catholic, must extend to all people. To be Christian is to be Catholic – the Church cannot be a club, because Christ clearly taught that the person refused membership, who is left outside the gate - is him.
Yet the perception that churches are clubhouses of the ineffable – this is a common perception today, isn’t it? I think of all the people who say “Well, I’m not a religious person.” Isn’t what they often mean “I’m not the type to belong to a religious club.”? I worship God without the rules and dues and politics. Clubs are so often characterized by politics, by egos, by who can do what and who can’t do what, who has power and who doesn’t. Especially younger people today - they can’t stand clubs – they don’t join them. And they shun organized religion as if it were another club.
So let’s look at the New Evangelization. How many times it seems that the question those promoting the New Evangelization are asking is “How can we get more people to come and be a member of our club? “The Evangelicals are getting everyone to be a part of their club – look at how cool it is: they are doing all these great things for their members. What are we doing for our members?”
So many of our protestant friends understand church in this way. They call those who go to their churches ‘members’ and if they switch churches, they change ‘membership.’ And we sometimes see these huge mega-churches and all of the neat activities that they provide to their members. So is that what the New Evangelization is about, figuring out what we can do to provide a competitive religious experience in our churches and get people to switch membership to our Catholic club?
No, no, no! I don’t know how to be more emphatic about this! That is a dead end! It is not Catholic, it is not even Christian. Christianity is universal, it is Catholic, it is for everyone – there are no members, there are no insiders and outsiders, it is the furthest thing from a club!
And this is because what makes us the Church is not us! We are made into the Church by Christ, who gathers us into one and makes us members of his body. It is not we who choose him, but he who chooses us. He gives us faith – and as we see in the readings today, his gift of faith transcends the boundaries of any earthly clubhouse. Our identity is in Christ, we are HIS people, members of HIS flock, the flock that HE shepherds and gathers from among all the nations. Our Psalm response today proclaims loudly “The Lord has revealed to the nations his saving power.”
So if a church, if St. Joseph’s is not a clubhouse, what is it? Ahhh! Now we are getting somewhere! What would we call this place? A place of encounter? A visible sign and tangible expression of Christ’s saving work in our community? A precious refuge and sanctuary freely offered to all people? We could go on. The second Vatican council calls the church a building of living stones, a sheepfold, a boat on the seas of life. Pope Francis recently called local churches field hospitals.
But how many of our neighbors see this church that way? I’m afraid not too many. How do we show them the truth? How do you and I witness to the Catholicity of our faith?
The first is that we must live a communion of life with Christ outside of these walls. If we walk with Christ throughout the week, then it will be more clear to our community that this place is not a club, but instead a place where we come to celebrate and deepen and offer back to God the life that we live with him all week long. When we live with Christ in daily life, the walls of our church become transparent to our community and it becomes clear that this cannot be a clubhouse, since there are no walls keeping Christ in or keeping them out – Christ walks freely with us wherever we are – he is not trapped in a clubhouse.
Secondly: the places that we build and the way we act in our churches is important in communicating our Catholicity. There is a problematic trend in recent decades - we have been building our churches out in the suburbs, and have set them up in a way that increasingly resembles a country club. The enthusiastic greeters at the door smile and say “Welcome to OUR church!” which sounds an awful lot like “Welcome to OUR club!” to those who visit.
Maybe what we should really be saying is “Welcome to your Church! You didn’t even know it, but you have one! We’ve been keeping it open for you and waiting for you to arrive!”
That’s one of the things that I loved about churches in Europe. There, the churches are in the center of town and the door is always open. There is no sense of membership – anyone wandering down the street, sometimes even a stray cat or dog, can wander in and find a place of prayer and refreshment.
Does this community see our church as their church? That this is a building that we keep open for them? Our churches must communicate catholicity: they must be understood to exist for all people in the community, regardless of their spiritual or religious background or leanings. Everyone who lives in this town is a parishioner, either actually or potentially, because everyone who lives in this town is called to be a saint in Christ. The membership requirement for Christ is that we be human. Every single person who lives in this town meets that criteria, not just those who receive envelopes.
In our readings this weekend we hear the stories about how two foreigners, two outsiders, a Syrian and a Samaritan, are led by the Holy Spirit and are amazed and profoundly grateful to find healing and redemption in an encounter with the true God. What about the outsiders of our day: our pagan and protestant friends and neighbors? Are we trying to entice them to join our religious club? Or are we trying to live in the Holy Spirit so that they will find Christ in us and be amazed and profoundly grateful for an encounter with the true God alive in the members of Christ’s body, the Catholic Church?