We who spend our days in the ecclesial world feel a grave temptation to think of the church in idyllic terms. We often speak of The Early Church (and precisely this way, all caps) with hushed solemnity as if it were some perfected version of Christian life that we must scratch and claw to recreate. As if these little bands of would-be disciples did not have grumpy parishioners and troubled kids, as if their marriages weren’t on the skids and their fervor didn’t wear thin. As if they did not have their share of wild sex scandals. As if the apostles didn’t shake their heads at times in frustration for all the folks who were not “on mission” (whatever that happens to mean in a moment).
I wonder if our fascination with The Early Church exists because we are so disappointed with the real church. If we can lionize a community that doesn’t actually exist, then we can save ourselves from having to live in the grind of the one that does. The longer I pastor, the more I believe that we are to live in the church we have, with the people we have. This is the only church that exists right now, for me.
Wendell Berry’s Port William community exists in multiple ways as a midrash on our refusal to live well in the places where we are, with people as they are, welcoming all their grime and glory. Wendell describes Port William:
It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership…
A membership. A community that is bound together in a time and in a place. A membership that exists not because of its grandeur or vision or ability to accomplish things – but a membership that exists because, well, it simply is…
My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.
Image by Michael Costa