Select Sunday > Sunday Web Site Home > Spiritual Reflections > In Exile
In Exile
21st Sunday of Ordinary Time
Year A
August 27, 2023
Ron Rolheiser

And so I say to you, you are Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my church,
and the gates of the netherworld
shall not prevail against it
(Mt 16:18)

The Width of Our Ecclesial Embrace

Nikos Kazantsakis once said “the bosom of God is not a ghetto, but our hearts often are.” So too, sadly, are our ecclesiologies.

In church circles today, both liberal and conservative, our ecclesiologies are often anything but inclusive and catholic (“catholic” meaning wide and universal). We are pretty selective as to whom we consent to worship with and to whom we will accord the grace and wisdom of God. We tend to pick our fellow-worshippers along ideological lines rather than along the lines that Jesus suggests; and we are getting ever more fastidious. More and more within our churches, sincere are divided from sincere and the old tensions that used to exist between denominations now also exist within each denomination.

Can we hold the differences among ourselves in patience, charity, and respect?

Given all of this, it can be helpful to reground ourselves in a critical truth that Jesus revealed.

One of his most stunning revelations is that God does not discriminate: “God lets his sun shine on the good as well as the bad.” God, like the sun, shines on every kind of soil equally, fertile and barren alike. And if God showers love equally on the good and bad, then surely God showers love equally on liberals and conservatives, on the rigid and the fanciful, on those who are joyous and those who are bitter, on the politically-correct and on those less inclined to that kind of sensitivity, and on those who belong to our ecclesial set and on those who would prefer us dead. That’s a disconcerting thought, but such, it would seem, is the scope of God’s embrace.

Jesus says as much: “In my father’s house there are many rooms.” This is a statement about the width of God’s embrace, not about the architecture of a heavenly mansion. God’s heart, as revealed by Jesus, is a wide one, capable of embracing immense differences and carrying unbearable tensions.

That, I submit, is one of the major challenges to our churches today, to stretch our hearts, our theologies, our ecclesiologies, and our pastoral practices so as to be more in tune with the great truth of our founder’s revelation that in God’s house there are many rooms. Can we hold the differences among ourselves in patience, charity, and respect? Can we hold and carry more tension rather than always looking for resolutions that result in some being included and others excluded?

Raymond Brown, in his wonderful book on The Community of the Beloved Disciple, traces out how the early church, immediately after Jesus’ departure, already struggled with many of the tensions we have today. The communities of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and Paul emphasized very different things than did the communities that followed John.

However, in the end, the church chose to canonize both of them, chose to accept different Christologies and different Ecclesiologies, and to carry the tension and truth of both. It chose to put these differences into paradox rather than opposition.

Brown’s words at the end of this fine book are ones that we, within every denomination and within every ideology within a denomination, might well take to heart:

He tells us the church’s decision to place the Gospel of John in the same canon as the writings of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and Paul was a decision to live with tension, to imitate God’s wide embrace.

As Brown puts it, by choosing to keep both, the church

has not chosen a Jesus who is either God or man but both; has chosen not a Jesus who is either virginally conceived as God’s son or pre-existent as God’s son but both; not either a Spirit who is given to an authoritative teaching magisterium or the Paraclete-teacher who is given to each Christian but both; not a Peter or a Beloved Disciple but both. …

This means that a church such as my own, the Roman Catholic, with its stress on authority and structure, has in the Johannine writings an in-built conscience against the abuses of authoritarianism. So also the “free” churches have in the Pastorals an in-built warning against abuses of the Spirit and in 1 John a warning against the divisions to which a lack of structured authority leads.

Like one branch of the Johannine community, we Roman Catholics have to come to appreciate that Peter’s pastoral role is truly intended by the risen Lord, but the presence in our Scriptures of a disciple whom Jesus loved more than he loved Peter is an eloquent commentary on the relative value of the church’s office. The authoritative office is necessary because a task is to be done and unity is to be preserved, but the scale of power in various offices is not necessarily the scale of Jesus’ esteem and love. (Brown, p. 163)

In a time of much ecclesial quarrelling, especially over authority, Raymond Brown reminds us that “the greatest dignity to be striven for is neither papal, episcopal, nor priestly; the greatest dignity is that of belonging to the community of the beloved disciples of Jesus Christ.”

Our ecclesiologies should echo that.

Ron Rolheiser


Used with permission of the author, Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser. Currently, Father Rolheiser is serving as President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio Texas. He can be contacted through his web site, www.ronrolheiser.com.

Art by Martin Erspamer, OSB
from Religious Clip Art for the Liturgical Year (A, B, and C). This art may be reproduced only by parishes who purchase the collection in book or CD-ROM form. For more information go http://www.ltp.org