There are whole courses on this topic and many ways to approach the question. There are the usual meanings about the ontological and existential nature of the Church that discuss allusions to the Body (1 Cor. 12), the Bride (Rev. 19) and the Vineyard (John 15). But recently we received a more business-oriented, less symbolical “job description” of the Church from our earthly shepherd, Papa Francesco.
In his recently released Evangelii Gaudium, which is simply the Holy Father sharing what is most particularly on his heart and mind right now for all his spiritual children, Pope Francis tells us what the Church is and what she goes forth as (especially the Church as a reality here on Earth):
The Church… is a community of missionary disciples (#24)
That’s what we are: disciples who share, first, our lives with one another as adopted children of God and, secondly, our mission of bringing the love of Jesus to others.
We are a community. We share our lives together; joyously and determinedly walking side-by-side in seeking the outcast and yearning toward our “inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled and unfading” (1Peter 1:4). We are a fellowship that “goes forth” and a family of brothers and sisters living in union together with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This means we ought to “devote [ourselves] to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers”, even day by day “attending temple together and breaking bread in [our] homes, partaking of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people” (Acts 2:42,46). We need one another and we need to live our lives in a way that substantiates this fact.
We are missionary. As members of the Church we, “who were dead through our trespasses,” have been made “alive together with Christ.” Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are now in the Son. If so, we now share in their mission. We are on the great “co-mission” with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to “go make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). What did Jesus come to do? “To save and seek the lost” (Lk 19:10); to “save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). For this reason, “mere administration can no longer be enough”, but we must be “permanently in a state of mission” (Evangelii Gaudium #25). We have to have a constant, pulsing missionary spirit that is ever ready to witness to the love of Christ and sees everything in the light of bearing fruit for the Kingdom.
We are disciples. We are ‘learners’ who sit at the feet of the Master. We are warriors who have pledged our total, unreserved allegiance to a King. We have been “crucified in Christ” so that we no longer live, but it is Christ who lives in us; and the life we now live in the flesh we live by faith in the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us (Galatians 2:20). And so, our lives are over, in a sense. He is our Lord and we must give ourselves totally to him. This is what it means to be His disciple.
This community of missionary disciples can be summed up in a line from John Mark McMillan’s song “Heart Bleeds”:
Like fools in love, we’re bound to make a scene.
This is what the Church is. And, as part of the larger body, this is what i.d.916 is as well. Whatever contribution we make can only be centered on our identity as a community of missionary disciples. Let us get on our knees before the Lord that this might be a reality.
(Click here for Part 2)