Not long ago I was asked the simple question, “What is the role of the Church?” It is a deceptively simple question with a host of answers.
The simplest answer is that it is commanded, prayed, and longed by the Holy Trinity into existence. The Church has existed before the dawn of humanity — from the foundation of the world. As the Trinity’s mutuality emerged, the Church came into existence, because that interplay of Love is the very heart of the Church. The Church exists at that most fundamental level of cosmic ordering.
Yet, what is the role of the visible Church today?
First, and foremost, she is the vessel of salvation. This sounds like an authoritarian and needlessly authoritative claim in an era of interfaith dialogue and multi-faith communities. Yet, the simple notion holds within it the essence of the Church’s multi-layered role.
Whether it is in making known the decisive saving action of Christ laid bare on the Cross or as a sign of a still better way, the Church exists to proclaim the salvation of humanity. That salvation can be understood in manifold ways — yet Jesus is the Way. We can differ on the precise nature of this saving action but we cannot debate that we are given the clear word that, by Love, Christ has come that all might be free.
This proclamation has been the source of endless turmoil and even abuse — that abuse is not of the Way. By word and example we are to be the light that shines in the life of the many, many who fear that their only companion is darkness.
This is not about right thinking about God but about right relationship between us and God. That right relationship is modeled within the Church’s adoration for God and for the world. The Church’s primary function is first and foremost the adoration of God who loves us. Out of that adoration for our Creator flows an adoration for that which He loves — our fellow men and women.
Springing forth from God’s own generosity is the welcome to holy living that is Baptism. Out of God’s own self-offering comes the Feast of the Eucharist. From God’s own forgiveness comes the work of Reconciliation. Out of God’s own love comes the commitment of Marriage. With God’s gift of reason comes our response to God’s welcome in Confirmation. From God’s own call to holy community and service comes Ordination. From remembering God’s own promise of eternal life come Healing and Last Rites.
Before the shape of our doctrine came a command to take and eat as the first Eucharists were offered in Remembrance before the books of the Bible were chosen and the Nicene Creed was written. In that Feast is offered the form, function, and hope of the Church. The Church, existing before humanity even realized it, offers the hope of partaking in the more that is God. So we pray for more.
We exist to pray. This is the role of the Church (and why we have liturgy).
We adore God and we pray. We pray for the living. We pray for the dead. We pray for the lost and the lonely. We pray for the aching and those who despair. We pray for the strength to labor and the courage to forfeit control. We pray for guidance and for the wisdom to lead. We pray with thanks and with trembling. We pray for forgiveness and for the courage to forgive. We pray.
We pray as martyrs and as cowards. As those who carry crosses and as those who shout “Crucify.” As sheep and shepherds. As those who mourn and those who weep for joy. We pray with one voice and with many dreams. We pray for justice and for mercy. We pray.
We pray with voices that have cracked at hospital beds. We pray with hands that have held tiny fingers as new life came to be. We pray with hearts that swell, brows that sweat, and ears that ache for loving kindness. We pray.
We pray that we can be evangelists, priests, prophets, stewards, and heralds. We pray that we can be sign, symbol, and living Sacrament. We pray that we can be the Church.