You were Chosen
We give thanks to God always for all of you . . . .
knowing, brothers and sisters loved by God,
how you were chosen.
For our gospel did not come to you in word alone,
but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.
I Thessalonians 1:1–5
The words ‘common’ and ‘community’ have unexpectedly complicated etymologies. By derivation a community would be persons building together or sharing common beliefs, so that a community is in a broad sense always a political work, something done in the world by people who share a common project. As it happens the Church is a community only in a secondary sense, for it is not a human work. Speaking strictly no one ever ‘joins’ the Catholic Church; one is sent for. One of the most important turning points in the life of the Church was the vindication of Saint Augustine’s reading of Saint Paul according to which the salvation of every soul, beginning and end, is the work of God, an opinion successfully defended at the Second Council of Orange in 529, which then made its way into the decrees of the Council of Trent in 1564. Our salvation is a work done within us by the outpouring of love of God into our hearts, “not without us,” as Augustine sometimes said. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, God has “chosen us out, in Christ, before the foundations of the world, to be saints, to be blameless in His sight, for love of Him, marking us out beforehand (so His will decreed) to be His adopted children through Jesus Christ” (1:4). God has written our names in the book of life. He has marked out the path of the good life for us; “He who has begun a good work in us will perfect it unto the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). “And again it is God who worketh within you both to will and to accomplish according to His good will” (Philippians 2:13). This does not mean that God has run rough-shod over any one’s freedom but that His grace has conformed our will to His, bringing us from slavery to sin into the freedom that belongs to his sons and daughters. If you are at the banquet, it is because you were commanded to come by the King who sent His messengers into the highways and byways and hedges to find you (Matthew 22:1–14). And if you are so blessed as to show up properly dressed, your robe white because it has been washed in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14), this will be because of gifts He has given you. And you will not have been called to any human institution but to the banquet of eternal life with Christ.
One may reasonably wonder why Peter and Paul, looking out over the vast Mediterranean world, did not despair. Believers in their astonishing message were few, and among that few many were not able to stay the course. The apostles did not lose heart because they knew that those, few or many, whom God called would answer. The abstract fate of millions of Persians and barbarians did not enter into their considerations, for they knew that they were the heralds of a mystery. They had been called to go into all the world and to preach in the knowledge that their preaching would be an invitation which those called by God would answer. The apostles understood that they were commissioned not to complete a project the dimensions of which were unknown but to witness, to be obedient to the heavenly calling. When Saint Paul says that Christians were chosen not by words but by the calling of the Holy Spirit, he probably has in mind the numerous sects that surrounded the Church, all having this commonality, that while Peter and Paul preached the incorporation of believers into Christ, the gnostics, or knowledgeable ones, preached salvation by knowledge of their system. The discovery in 1945 at Nag Hammadi, the ancient Chenoboskion in upper Egypt, of a library of sixty texts all in one way or another teaching salvation by knowledge, salvation by words, not incorporation into the mystery of Christ, but knowledge of a world-system, illustrates the popularity of the ‘spiritual’ idea.
The seemingly harmless and friendly custom of calling the Church a community, encouraging as it does the belief that the Church is formed by the assembling of those with right opinions, is subtly dangerous. The Greek word is ekklesia, ek meaning “out” and klesia being derived from the verb kaleo, to call. The Romance languages, with eglise and eglesia, which are cognate with the Greek, do a better job than the German-derived Church, whose cognates are Kirche and Kirk. But at the heart of the linguistic matter is the fact that Christians are called out of something, out of the world that is dominated by Satan, and into something, namely His glorious light, into the company of innumerable angels in festal garments, of the first-born enrolled in heaven, and of God the just judge of all. (Hebrews 12:18–24). Community is a word much like congregation, a company of people who got themselves together. One of the trenchant issues in the translation of the Bible into English in the period 1575–1616, when both the Authorized Version and the Douai-Reims were made, was the Protestant preference for the translation of the Greek word ekklesia as ‘congregation,’ a word which properly describes a crowd brought together. The ‘con’ is cum, meaning “together with,” and the body of the word is from grex, meaning herd or crowd. The Catholic Douai-Rheims (of course) preferred the word Church, which was commonly understood to refer to the old Church, as did the translators of the King James or Authorized Version. And that is because they knew the Church was not something gotten up by the will of man but by God, an elect body, a commuion in Christ, but not of human making. Once the Church is conceived as a human work, whosever it is, those who believe they have rightly chosen to constitute the Church in the sense of congregation will lose such supernatural faith as they have, believing that for a Church that is the result of human will one must discover faith. These well-intentioned seekers will be laboring to establish the truth that they wish to assert, thinking that if they could establish right doctrine they would have Christ, when in fact to have Christ is to put one on the road to right doctrine. Divine faith, theological faith, as it is called, is a work of the Holy Spirit that inspires submission of the will to truth. It lives in the human heart before it lives in sacred literature. But if the Christian mind is a work of creativity and insight, the labor of a community of shared ideas, it will be the project of human desire, no matter how well conceived.
The belief that the Church is chosen ought not conjure the belief that to be called into the Church is to be chosen for citizenship in the kingdom of heaven, for Our Lord said plainly that many are called, few chosen (Matthew 20:16). And there was the unfortunate who was compelled to come to the banquet only to be sent into outer darkness because he lacked a wedding garment, the fullness of loving holiness that a person called must bring into the Kingdom. The matter of our being called and chosen lies at the heart of a mystery that will, as it were, be solved on a case by case basis. For modern mankind, to be reminded that the saints are chosen or elected is to raise the scandal of particularity that violates the egalitarian principles of Lockean philsoophy and the French Revolution, of which Scripture and Tradition know nothing. But this concern that election violates the principles of equality presupposes the wrong question. Better to ask why of His mercy God calls anyone into the ark that is the Church after we chose the serpent’s lie in preference to God’s promise of His friendship in Eden.