Friday, June 19, 2009

No Final Conflict

Last night I concluded teaching a class at our Diocesan Institute on Saint Paul's Letter to the Ephesians.  One challenge I always face (and try to extend to my hearers) is understanding Scripture through some of the particular insights I've gained from my Evangelical background, yet as I've come to understand them within the broader context of Catholicism.

I am quite aware that Jesus started His good work of salvation in me within the Evangelical tradition, and I had good, strong years of development and transformation there.  I am also very aware that some of the "best" Christians I know are still Evangelicals.

At the same time, I am even more acutely aware of the things which brought me to the place of seeing that, even with all the good things in my Christian life up to that point, there was an incompleteness which could only be fulfilled in the Catholic Church.  Many of my dear Evangelical friends struggle to understand this, and some remain distressed over my path (as if my decision is a rejection of the Christian identity I once shared with them).  I have in no way repudiated my faith in Jesus Christ as I understood it when I was an Evangelical pastor; I have just "added" to my faith in ways that help my relationship with Jesus to grow.

As the class ended last evening, one of the students asked me what Catholics could learn from Evangelicals.  I answered that by also offering the other side of the question:  what Evangelicals need to learn from Catholics.

I only offered one answer from each perspective (although whole books can be, and have been, written which address quite a few issues).  I think many Catholic people could benefit from the emphasis on personal commitment and crisis spiritual experience which is so common in Evangelicalism.  I also believe that Evangelicals would do well to understand better the importance of corporate identity and, especially, the Sacraments.

As a starting point to that end, I wish people in both traditions could grasp the idea that crisis experience and sacramentalism are not mutually exclusive (so that the most critical in each camp would quit trying to prove the other "wrong"), but are dimensions of a common Faith. It's not "either-or," but instead "both-and."  There is no final conflict.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Sobering Words

A selection from St. Ignatius In the Office of Readings (a letter to the Romans) has a sentence that should have more prominence in a time when "evangelism" is attempted by marketing techniques and other cultural accommodations: "Our task is not one of producing persuasive propaganda; Christianity shows its greatness when it is hated by the world."

Sunday, June 7, 2009


Today is Trinity Sunday. Many Christians confess this orthodox dogma but give almost no thought to any practical implications. Fewer still think about the process that established the doctrine of the Trinity as essential to Christian Faith (but it speaks volumes about the authority of the Church).

“Bible Christians” will quote Matthew 28 where Jesus gave the Great Commission and the “baptistic formula” of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. This, they think, fits the mantra, The Bible says it and I believe it. But the Gospels were written later than most of the letters of the NT, and even granting the conservative conviction that this is a preserved and exact quote from Jesus, there is still no denying that the doctrine of the Trinity was a process in the Church and not as simple as “Jesus said it and that settles it.”

There are good articles and books written in recent years that focus on the Trinity. They not only speak to the dogma itself but also to practical implications for Christians in such ways as relationship and the essence of love. To say it quite simply, God has created us and calls us to be like him. The relational love of the Trinity, which is the essence of God’s being, is the context for understanding human nature and purpose.

Trinity Sunday is a day set aside to focus in our corporate worship on something of what it means to confess the Trinity as core truth. Every Sunday, of course, is rooted in the Trinity; we always worship the Triune God –– the mystery of Three in One –– but it is good to go beyond foundations and abstractions.

One way to do that is to delve into the Scriptures assigned for this day. This year they are Deuteronomy 4:32-34, 39-40; Romans 8:14-17; and Matthew 28:16-20.

Matthew’s Gospel has little to say about the forty days between the resurrection and ascension. Left only with Matthew’s account one might think Jesus rose from the dead and told some women to tell His disciples to meet him in Galilee. He then meets them there, gives them the Great Commission and (implicitly) disappears into heaven even as He promises to be with them “to the close of the age.”

As I read this passage today I noticed two things in a fresh way. First, Matthew says that when the disciples saw Jesus they worshiped, but they doubted. And I thought, how like us today! Even though we believe (somewhat) and worship, it is easy to doubt. There is an ongoing conflict with the seen and unseen world. The world of WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) has little respect for the spiritual and the invisible. The world will accommodate to the “spiritual” to a degree (especially if such a thing can be worked to the world’s advantage), but the world is always demanding that the greater accommodation be made to it. The disciples had to face the very struggles we ourselves fight.

Then I noticed something else, and at first it could seem to imply there should be no doubt. Jesus said, All power in heaven and in earth has been given to me. So the age-old question comes again into focus: If Jesus has the power to make everything right, then why is there still so much wrong in this world?

This takes us to a practical understanding of the Trinity. Even as the Godhead is in such a perfect loving relationship that the three persons are One God, God created us to love Him and to love each other. The nature of love is that it cannot be coerced; “forced” love is not love at all. God wants us to love Him and that means not overpowering us.

Sometimes God shows His power –– just enough to show us there is something beyond what we consider the Natural Order. There is something more powerful than “power.” There is a reason to hope when everything in the world says “hopeless.” That is the point of the Deuteronomy reading where Moses recounts some of the incredible things God did for His people in the Exodus. God can move in ways the world understands as power, but He is quite selective. (Consider how many years the subjected Israelites in Egypt waited.)

Each week we proclaim the Mystery of Faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. That is a testimony to the ultimate meaning of what Jesus said to his disciples: All power in heaven and in earth has been given to me, and so I am with you always, until the end of the age.

How do these things come together? The short answer is the Trinity. The God who did mighty things in the Exodus is the God who did a mighty thing in the ultimate death and resurrection of Jesus, and the God who was at work in these great acts of redemption is the God who comes to live in His people through the Holy Spirit. And so we have the second reading from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans (8:14-17):

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Where is the power that Jesus claimed? How can we be assured of His presence? It is found in the change that comes in the person in whom the Spirit lives. If Jesus used His power to make life comfortable and convenient, everyone would “love” God, only it would not be love of God but self-absorption. It would be God “bribing” us to Himself though our addiction to self-serving.

What God offers is a power –– a love –– that is proven in suffering. This is a head-on confrontation with the reality of sin. This is a salvation that calls us to the purity of the relational love of the Trinity. And so Paul says, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

The disciples went into the world in the power of the Spirit. It was the same power of God that did the signs and wonders in the Exodus. It was the same power of God that raised Jesus from the dead. It was the power of God that so changed the disciples that they would follow their Lord in suffering in order to love. And it was the love of Christ –– the Triune Love of God –– that turned the Roman world upside down.

That is the love of God’s salvation. That is the love that calls us today. It is the love of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is the love that burns in all who belong to Jesus Christ.

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