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The Way Is the Church
Fifth Sunday of Easter
We received an email the night before the bike race I competed in last month alerting us that the organizers were altering the route due to 50+ mile per hour winds forecasted for the late-afternoon. The course, which was supposed to be 110 miles long, was being reduced to 82. We were told that we would be rerouted at mile 65, and so when we reached that point, my teammate and I turned our GPS navigation off figuring the programmed route was now obsolete. We expected from there to be people, or at least signs, to direct us back to the campground; however, as we got to the end of a long road without seeing any indication of where to turn, we began to admit to ourselves we had made a mistake. We doubled back and discovered that only a middle section of the route had been cut out, but the rest of the original course still applied. We found the turn, rebooted our GPS, and carried on with the race. When we finally crossed the finish line, it was a relief to learn that we weren't the only team that had gotten lost; but even still, our detour cost us an hour and seriously deflated our spirits for the final and hardest part of the ride.
In today's Gospel, Christ calls himself the way. He is the way — the course — that leads from the darkness of our earthly existence to the wonderful light of his Father's house. Christ does not point out the way, as a friend might clue us in on a shortcut we should take. Nor does he tell us about the way, as the same friend might alert us to an accident or construction. No, Christ himself is the way. He has taken our humanity with him from this world to the Father, so that where he, the Head, has gone before we, his Body, might follow. And as he alone has bridged the chasm that separates humanity from God and God from humanity, he can rightly say: No one comes to the Father except through me.
As Christians, followers of the way as the early Church was called, this point should be obvious, but perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to presume we all accept it lock, stock, and barrel. Because circumstances in our world, in our Church, and in our lives can cause us to question even the most fundamental truths of faith, there is a chance that, knowing Christ to be the way we are to follow, we have, as it were, turned off our GPS, and have become convinced we are following Christ, when in reality we are following only ourselves. We follow Christ on our terms and not his, but if we are honest, we know this is folly, for we cannot take ourselves from this world of darkness to God's wonderful light. Perhaps, then, our faith — that precious navigation instrument infused within us at baptism meant to guide us toward our final destiny of eternal life — needs recalibration. We believe that Christ is the way, but what does staying on this way entail?
A pandemic in our world, scandals in our Church, and hardships in our own lives have tended to internalize and personalize our being on the way. Our basic assumption becomes that, while Christ is the way, my following of him is a matter of my own determination. I do not need anyone else, much less an organization made up of less than Christ-like people, to make my relationship with Christ possible. And there is sure, theological ground to support this way of thinking: God is closer to us than we are to ourselves and, certainly, could draw us into relationship with him that, effectively, cuts out the middleman. But, for whatever sense this may make, these are not the terms on which God has chosen to operate. He has, instead, constructed a path from this world to the Father's house that runs through other people; and this collection of people, also on the way, is what we call the Church.
In the chapter of John's Gospel previous to the passage we heard this morning, we find a north star to point us in the right direction. Here, Christ instructs his disciples: Amen, amen I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me (Jn. 13:20). Whoever receives the one Christ sends receives Christ, and in receiving Christ receives the Father. There are three levels of meaning to this teaching. First, Christ sends the Holy Spirit, so that those who receive the Spirit receive also the Father and the Son. Second, Christ sends his apostles, so that those who teach, sanctify, and guide the Church do so in the name and person of Christ and for the sake of drawing the Church into relationship with the Father. Third, we as Christians bear within us Christ himself, so that when people encounter us they are (supposed) to encounter him and, thus, also come to know the Father.
There is no way to the Father outside of Jesus, and there is no being on the way outside of the Church. If Christ is the Way, then the Church is the way to the Way, or the way in which the Way takes flesh and becomes possible for us. There was a controversy in the 5th century that led St. Augustine to teach that, even for ministers of the Church who fall away, when they act in the name of the Church, they act in the name and person of Christ. Augustine wrote: We prefer not Judas to John [the Baptist]; but the baptism of Christ, even when given by the hand of Judas, we prefer to the baptism of John.No matter the condition of the Church's minister, the reality that the Church teaches and hands on remains pure and undefiled, for it comes from Christ himself. Thus, when the Church teaches the truth and not opinions of human creation, it is Christ the truth who teaches us. When the Church sanctifies with authentic holiness and not the ego of its ministers, it is Christ the life who sanctifies us. When the Church guides with sacrificial charity and not for personal gain, it is Christ the way who guides us.
The Church is divine and human, called by God to be holy yet made up of sinners who rely upon God's mercy. But the Church does not need to be only the messy, seemingly uninhabitable sleeper car of the only train that runs from this world to heaven. It can also be something quite beautiful and precious. I often say that the only thing that's important in my life is the Church. Someone might counter: Well, you like your bikes enough for them to be a close rival. But even my biking friends are only people I know because of and through the Church. And these aren't just priests. In fact, my day-to-day experience with the Church is with those in all states of life who have committed themselves to the way that is Jesus. And it is through these living stones that I find myself standing more securely upon Christ, the cornerstone rejected by the world but chosen by the Father to be the foundation of our entire lives.
May Mary, the holy apostles, the blessed martyrs, and all the saints who have walked this way before us, pray for us, that we would as faithful members of the Church, we may walk in security the path Christ has laid out for us from this world to the Father's house. Amen.
Homily preached May 7, 2023 at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen
Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 5:18.