G. K. Chesterton remarked once that the Catholic Church is larger on the inside than it appears from the outside. Saints come from all walks of life, and pursue their sainthood in multifarious ways. They include such diverse personalities as the gentle, innocent Thérèse of Lisieux, the acid-tongued scholar Jerome, the mirthful mystic Teresa of Ávila and the hard-headed, combative Wilfrid. It includes people who were saintly their whole lives (Philip Neri), people who found sainthood after years of sin (Ignatius Loyola, Camillus de Lellis), at least one who was martyred before his hair was dry from his baptism (Genesius of Rome), and one who was promised heaven while he hung on a cross for thievery (Dismas). They come in both sexes and from all around the world in ethnicity.
They also come from “inside the walls” and “outside the walls”. That’s to say, the Church recognizes as saints not only clergy and members of religious orders but also laymen, people who lived their lives radically separated from the world (Antony the Great) and people who fully participated in the world (Thomas More), and many others in between these extremes.
Because we can encounter Jesus in so many different ways, often when we least expect it, I get suspicious when anyone seems to propound a Best Way to Encounter God. I get even more suspicious when, to sell that Best Way, the proponent seems to diss going to church. Such carelessness is hard to excuse in a time when people are making a false dichotomy between Christianity and “churchianity”, rejecting church membership altogether as if religion were a do-it-yourself project.
The “inside/outside the walls” dichotomy comes from an essay in The Huffington Post’s religion blog, “Why You Ought to Leave the Church (John 4:5-42)”, by Matthew Skinner, an associate professor of New Testament (studies?) at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul. Skinner’s piece is an exposition on the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, and has some interesting things to say.
For example, he makes the point that, in showing he knows about her five marriages and her current cohabitation, “Jesus makes no attempt to shame or judge her. Rather, he expresses intimate knowledge of her pain — the rejection, loss, vulnerability, and impermanence she has had to endure. He sees her, all of her, and he knows her. As a result, she recognizes something special about him.” He also tells us that the Greek behind Jesus’ affirmation, “I who speak to you am he” — egō eimi — is the same as in John 8:58, “Before Abraham was, I AM.”
Numerous English translations render Jesus’ line as “I am he,” but there is no “he” in the Gospel’s original Greek text [should there have been?]. As far as the Gospel of John is concerned, Jesus essentially utters the name of God: “I am.” It’s a name first revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:13-14. Jesus’ point is this: “If you want to know how and where God can be authentically known … well, I’m right here. Not limited to a temple, but here, dwelling with you, beside this well.”
Skinner’s interpretation is more romantic than scholarly. In any event, the assertion of Sonship in egō eimi isn’t crucial in itself but in where Skinner wants to take the passage. For the Samaritan woman raises the difference between Samaritan worship and Judean worship, and Jesus responds that “the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. … [T]he hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him” (vv. 21, 23).
In cutting through the debate between Jews and Samaritans about where to worship, Jesus punctures traditions and expectations about the right way to be religious. In Jesus, God shows a commitment to know and to dwell among people. Not only is God present outside the walls; God promises also to be found there.
This scene asserts that God is not confined to churches — neither to architectural structures topped with steeples, to set-apart “sacred” sites, nor to communities of Christians. Therefore, not only is God served or honored by our activity “out in the world,” God is encountered there, in our interactions with friends and strangers.
And, therefore, “People of faith ought to leave their churches every now and then — not to abandon their communities or religious institutions, but to venture out in expectation that God will appear in a different setting. This passage in John 4 … speaks against any community that shields itself from the mysteries of a God who operates freely in all sorts of places, not exclusively on this particular mountain or in that specific temple.”
Now, I’m not aware of any church that “shields itself from the mysteries” of such a God. Regardless, the reasoning is defective. Given that God is transcendent, and therefore radically present in all places and all times, it doesn’t follow that He isn’t specially present in certain places and certain times. Otherwise, why bother with the communities and institutions, when God is no more specially present in the church’s tabernacle than in the corner tavern?
On the contrary, I answer that in other passages Jesus promised his special presence in the communion of his disciples: “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). To his apostles he promised not only his everlasting presence (Matthew 28:20) but also the guidance of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26, 16:13). Saint Irenaeus of Lyon reminds us that the Church has means through which the Spirit works (i.e., the sacraments), and that those who don’t join the Church “are not partakers … but defraud themselves of life through their perverse opinions and infamous behaviour” (Against Heresies, 3:24:1).
Most especially, we have the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It’s hard to get a closer encounter with Christ than this side of Heaven. Nor can it be reduced to mere symbolism without depriving that same symbol of its power.
The point is not that you can’t encounter Christ “outside the walls”. Of course you can. As the ancient hymn tells us, ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est: “Wherever there is charity and love, there is God.” But we encounter the Trinity in special ways through the sacraments of the Church, as well as through our participation as members of the mystical Body of Christ (Romans 12:4-5; 1 Corinthians 12:20-27; Ephesians 5:30). Moreover, in the ordinary course of things, it’s the Church which prepares us for our encounter with Christ in the world, through catechesis and the sacraments. And when we gather in community to worship God, Christ is among us.
Skinner’s HuffPo piece is well-intentioned but wrong-headed. It’s bad ecclesiology, the sort you usually get when you take one Scripture passage out of context of the whole. The Church is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), the carrier and conservator of the gospel message, and not just a “gathering of like-minded individuals”. We go outside her physical walls to bring others inside her spiritual bounds.
© 2014. Anthony S. Layne. All rights reserved.