It has been proposed from time to time that Jesus never really intended to establish a church.
Some argue that Jesus came simply to offer moral guidance, astute insights, and a good example to mankind — somewhat akin to the pattern left by Buddha and Confucius. Jesus’ praiseworthy advice was then institutionalized, they say, by later generations of priests, preachers and prelates who feared that the Gospel without a church would be too permissive, too relaxed, too accommodating. Some argue that the institutional church is the by-product of clerical control.
Distinct from a spiritualized notion of the early Christian community are the vibrant church-founding experiences that occur during the 40 days between Christ’s resurrection and his ascension, when Jesus remained to reassure his apostles. Remember that the post-resurrection Jesus is quite different from the Jesus met during his public life. After the resurrection, Jesus preaches no more sermons to the multitudes; he works no more miracles for the masses; he argues no more with the scribes and Pharisees. Rather, Jesus focuses his 40 days ‘attention on the Twelve Apostles: empowering them, authorizing them, reminding them and charging them. During these 40 days, a primitive outline of the later church takes shape.
The post-resurrection Jesus meets frequently with the Twelve in Jerusalem’s upper room and at the Galilean seashore. He explains the Messianic Scriptures to them and breaks bread with them, a ritual that would eventually develop into the Mass. Christ shares with the Twelve his newly-won ministry of reconciliation: “Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven.” Later centuries would see this ministry take shape in the sacrament of penance. He singles out Simon Peter for a special ministry among the Twelve, “Strengthen your brothers…” Today Pope Benedict XVI stands in this same tradition of exercising the primacy for the benefit of his fellow bishops and the faithful. Jesus would of course charge the Twelve explicitly to preach, teach and baptize the entire world.
In these 40 days of post-resurrection appearances, Jesus solidified the groundwork that he had laid during his public life. It would be an overstatement to insist that Jesus institutionalized the church before returning to the Father, but he did institute it. The Twelve grasped that Jesus had made his express will known to them regarding the fundamentals of church life. The Twelve appreciated that Jesus had entrusted to them procedures and practices that had not been revealed to Jesus’ beloved masses or even to some other disciples.
For example, the first responsibility that the apostolic band assumed when Christ departed was to replenish their number after the defection of Judas. The Twelve understood that their affiliation was no accident; their twelve-man membership and the ministry attached to it were the will of Christ and they felt obliged to restore it as soon as possible. This was not the decision of a free-wheeling, amorphous group, armed only with good intentions and lofty ideals. No, these were founding fathers who comprehended their Master’s precise intentions and were resolute to carry them out.
Jesus Christ never saw a confessional or a tabernacle or an alb and stole. He never hired an organist or air-conditioned a church or conferred scapulars on a first Communion class. Obviously, the church of the 21st century has little visible continuity with the apostolic church of the first century. Jesus will not recognize much of church life when he returns. But he will recognize a church that is apostolic, sacramental, scriptural, hierarchical, and otherworldly. He will feel at home in a church that baptizes, breaks bread, anoints and reconciles. He will appreciate a church that treasures God’s written word and preaches sacred tradition. He will be comforted by a church that still honors the office of Peter and that respects the bishops, priests and deacons in communion with that pontiff. Jesus will be honored to find a church that still seeks “the things that are above” in the eternal kingdom to come. Jesus will be thrilled with a church that is faithful to its roots, roots made firm by the resurrected Christ who lingered with his apostles for 40 days making his will for them clear so that it might be effectively handed on to each succeeding generation.