One of my favourite comments on the church is found in Eminence, a novel by Australian author Morris West, which tells the story of Luca Rossini, a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church. Luca who now serves in the Vatican, lives in the shadow of a terrible experience he suffered as a young priest in Argentina. It was the 1970′s, a time when the military junta that ruled Argentina acted with terrible violence. Luca was brutalised in front of the villagers. Lucky to escape with his life, he was spirited out of Argentina. Yet the scars across his back are an outward symbol of the scars he bears within. By the time we find him in West’s novel Luca is 50 years old, a confidant of a rigidly conservative Pope. He has had to deal not only with his suffering, but his sense of betrayal at the silence of many Church leaders during the “dirty war” in Argentina.
At one point in the novel Luca is interviewed by journalist Steffi Guillerman. They sit opposite each other, and Guillerman launches straight into it. “Let’s deal with the big questions first. What’s wrong with the Church?”
Luca replies, “The same things that have been wrong with it for two thousand years – people! Men and women and children, too, who make up the family of believers. This isn’t a community of the pure and the perfect. They’re good, bad and indifferent. They’re ambitious, greedy, fearful, lustful, a rabble of pilgrims held together by faith and hope – and the difficult experience of love.”
This answer reminds me of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. It’s difficult to imagine a more problem riddled church – conflict, sexual immorality, pride, members suing each other, heresy, drunkenness at the Lord’s Supper. And Paul takes them to task repeatedly through the letter. It’s a painful read.
Yet in spite of all this Paul recognises the grace and work of God among them:
I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1:4-9)
It seems to me that if you look closely enough at any church you’ll find very fractured and flawed people, people who can do some pretty awful things. But look even closer and you’ll find those same fractured and flawed people also manage to image God, to perform acts of amazing love, generosity and grace, to courageously stare down life’s challenges. And somehow, their commitment to grace, hope and love, is helping them become more of the people they want to be.
I guess it’s one of the things that keeps me devoted to the church…our rough, raw and glorious humanity. I have seen and experienced the people of God at their worst, and I have seen and experienced the people of God at their best…and at their best they are truly magnificent.
It seems to me the very nature of community is that we get to experience each other at our best, our worst and everything inbetween. A community where I only experience people’s best is not a real community, but a facade. Depth is found in learning to love, accept and forgive ourselves and each other at our worst and to relish those moments when we’re at our best. That’s why I want to journey with this “rabble of pilgrims” among whom I am at home, both at my best and my worst.