“There is no such thing as Church.” What would we make of a statement like that? You don’t need a degree in political science to realise that I am referring to the controversial words of the late Baroness Thatcher, which she never herself denied saying, that “there is no such thing as society.” Perhaps an unfortunate turn of phrase, but to be fair, she did say it in the attempt to urge us to recognise that society is made up of real, individual people, so that we cannot use it as a scapegoat for human failure. I suppose there are times when it might be a helpful corrective to apply the idea to the Church: for example, if I got home and realised that I’d left the church heating on for the night, but didn’t bother to go back and turn it off again because ‘the Church’ would pay – forgetting that it’s you, the indivuals in the pews, who put your money into the collection plate to keep the place going. Or, maybe, if the wider Church did or taught something I thought was wrong (surely not?), but I shrugged it off as the ‘Church’s fault,’ forgetting that I am a part of that Church and have my role to play in it. There are times when I’ve had to explain to a gay couple that the institution that I represent does indeed teach that their relationship is sinful, while I smile and shrug apologetically, and try to get myself off the hook by blaming it on ‘the Church.’ But that’s not good enough. The Church is made up of its members, and we as individuals have to take our responsibility, whether it is fiscal, moral or any other kind. In that very limited context, the context of responsibilities, then, we could say ‘there is no such thing as Church’ per se: it exists only as a collection of real, individual people.
But it still exists. To say that there is no such thing as Church or society might, as I say, be a useful corrective against our tendencies to defer responsibility for our own actions, but it overstates the case. Try extending the logic to any other corporate organisation, and you’ll see what I mean. The bridge club, the trade union, the regiment, even the nation – none of these ‘exists’ apart from the existence of its members. But it would be very strange to suggest that because of that, your club or organisation does not ‘exist’ at all. Even though it exists as a collection of its members, it still exists.
And so, back to my first question. What would we make of the idea that ‘there is no such thing as Church’? Well, some Protestant thinkers do maintain that the Church is no more than a holy society made up of individual believers; one that exists by our individual consent, our individual decision to share the faith. But this has never been the understanding of the ancient Church. As we so often say at Mass, “although we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread.” And not just any body, not just any bread – otherwise, we would be nothing but a rather oddball dining club. The body that we are a part of and the bread that we share are none other than the Body of Christ Himself, the body of our God, not just on earth but in heaven, like our Lord both human and divine. The Church is a fundamental part of God’s creation, foreshadowed in the people of Israel, founded by the words and actions of Jesus, fulfilled by His redeeming Cross and Resurrection, manifested in the world by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Yes, it is a gathering of individuals, but it is a gathering in to the unity of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, whose existence does not depend on ours. Unlike merely human society or societies, the Church’s whole is logically prior to the sum of its parts.
You don’t have to take my word for all this, because it’s all there in today’s Gospel. St John is harking back to that pre-Resurrection miracle where Jesus met the disciples, disappointed with their catch, and had them haul a vast number of fish into their boat. This time, after the Resurrection, Jesus goes further: they haul in an even vaster number of fish, and yet the net used to haul them in does not strain or break. Not a single fish is lost, and they all make it right to the shore where Jesus is waiting. John uses the same word for ‘hauling in’ as he used when Jesus made the disciples fishers of men, now so long ago. The Church is that net, made by God to haul people in to the shore of His Kingdom.
What’s more, no matter how many fish it catches, the net will not break, and none need slip away. The number of fish supposedly caught, 153, makes this point, albeit rather obliquely. First, at the time when John wrote, it was widely supposed (thanks to Aristotle) that there was a total of 153 different species of fish – so, there’s a theme of universality here. But more important is the strange phenomenon of ‘numerology.’ You may have heard of this: the Hebrews did not have numerals like we do, which are a much later invention of the Arabs. Instead, they used letters of the alphabet to represent certain numbers. And so, in the Bible, you find certain numbers used as codes for words. It so happens that the number 153 is related to the place names ‘En Gedi’ and ‘En-Eglaim,’ mentioned in Ezekiel’s vision of the river of life flowing from the restored temple in the heavenly Jerusalem. “Wherever the river goes,” Ezekiel writes, “every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there … People will stand fishing beside the sea from En-gedi to En-eglaim; it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea.” So, the Church is more than just a boat that we can choose to jump into to sail together to the heavenly shore; it is a net which by the grace of God will drag us there, and not just us, but every kind of being.
Jesus leaves His disciples with the gift of broken bread, and this is when they realise who He is. And even now, He offers us His living body under the form of bread and wine, as our connection to God, the interface between the Church on earth and the Church in heaven. It is to each of us, individually, that Christ gives Himself in bread today, and we must be aware of our individual responsibilities and individual debt to Him, and be grateful. But there is also such a thing as the Church, regardless of our responsibilities, regardless of our gratitude. Through the Church, Jesus raises us back up to the unity of the Godhead from which He and all things came. The Church is not just some accident of history, a collection of like-minded individuals, but an essential part of God’s pre-existent plan to restore creation to the glory of its divine image.