When the bishops of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s liberated us from the notion that the Church is constructed in the shape of a pyramid -- hierarchy on top, laity below -- they were simply taking one more step in the Church's constant quest to return to the concept of community found in the Christian Scriptures.

Not only is there no mention of a clergy/lay configuration in those writings; there actually are passages in which the authors argue against any such divisions with the Church. In Sunday's readings from Paul and Matthew, for instance, we hear words which were originally intended to unify communities in the ministry which the risen Jesus shares with everyone.

Divisions

When I returned to my diocese as a newly ordained priest during the summer of 1965, I was amazed at the attitude of some of my brother priests toward the laity. They felt superior to anyone who didn't have the benefit of their theological education and social position.

That frame of mind especially surfaced when I began teaching Scripture a few years later. These priests told me I was crazy to teach the laity. "They aren't going to understand what you're teaching," they warned. "And even if a few do, what are they going to do with what they learn?"

Those privileged individuals seem never to have understood Jesus' words to His disciples in the Gospel (Mt 5: 13-16). Remember, "disciple" is the biblical way of referring to any follower of Jesus -- any Christian. "You are the salt of the earth,...the lights of the world,...a city set on a mountain,...a lamp giving light to all in the house." Jesus believes everyone who dares to die and rise with Him exercises those important ministries.

Twenty years before Matthew, Paul addressed the "heretics" in Corinth: those in the community who were uncomfortable ministering in a completely unified church (I Cor 2: 1-5). They presumed certain individuals were more important than others, no matter whether this importance came from their gifts, their social status or their own opinion of themselves. Paul's words only make sense against the background of such unchristian attempts to create layers within the community.

The Apostle reminds his readers that he originally came to them proclaiming just the mystery of Jesus crucified: "in weakness and fear and much trembling,...not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a demonstration of Spirit and power."

For Paul, the "mystery of Jesus crucified" includes not just the fact that Jesus died, but that all who follow Jesus are to die with Him. In this specific situation, Paul believes the most appropriate way for the Corinthians to die is to eradicate all divisions in their community.

Movement

Such a passion for unity only makes sense when we remember that Jesus' first followers never thought of themselves as members of an institution. They, like He, believed they were part of a movement, a band of disciples who would eventually change the way the world looked at reality.

As such, they could go back 500 years and find meaning in the words of third-Isaiah: "Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless, clothe the naked,...and do not turn your back on your own. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn" (Is 58: 7-10).

Paul and Matthew both believed that those who give themselves over to Jesus create light for all the world. This movement forms an atmosphere which the prophet and Jesus believed would bring salt and light into our lives.

Institutions have a knack for losing their saltiness, of being smothered by structures and brought low by divisions. Today, we realize that many of the strictures and divisions we created in the Church are against the plan of the historical Jesus. Knowing this, do we have enough courage to die with Him every day -- to become so one with those around us that we actually restart the movement which He thought could change the world?

(02-07-02)