The scholar E. P. Sanders has the most quotable quote on this matter in his book Jesus and Judaism: “Jesus proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God, but it was the church that arrived.” To some folks’ reckoning, that’s a bit of a letdown. Although kingdom coming is a realm where every tear is wiped away, the concrete manifestation of the church at any point in history might just as often give you reason to cry. We’re reminded that the church is made up of people who maintain the freedom to behave as saints or sinners—not perfected souls saved and freeze-dried on the spot.
So when we say that Jesus established the church, we don’t mean Jesus laid down the blueprint for Vatican City. Some of us were taught that Jesus instituted the sacraments—complete with gospel references where each ritual was literally installed. It’s more accurate to say that the church, which practiced as many as 22 sacraments and as few as three at various moments in its history, finds theological grounding for its present seven sacraments in the ministry of Jesus.Trying to draw straight lines from Jesus to contemporary church practice sometimes makes us crooked. Few of our present practices fell from heaven as is.
My theology professors used to point out that Jesus commissioned the disciples to go and proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth. But he never told them how to do that organizationally, much less across 20 centuries and counting. Institutions develop as the best vehicles for stability and continuity for something that is meant to last. Leaders must be found, formed, and empowered. Teachings must be agreed upon for universal availability. Practices must be set, membership identified, rules defined. Institutions are great for holding things and people together.
Institutions do have their downside: They tend toward inflexibility and self-preservation and are notoriously resistant to change. Which is why the original “people of the Way” identified in the Acts of the Apostles sometimes have to get out of the way to let the Spirit blow on through.
Matthew 10:1-10; 16:13-19; 28:16-20
John 13:1-17, 31-35; 15:1-17; 17:1-26; 21:15-17
The Second Vatican Council’s document on the church (Lumen Gentium)
A Short History of Christianity by Stephen Tomkins (Eerdmans, 2006)
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