Faith and Truth

Today’s Gospel from Mark (6: 1-6) tells us the familiar tale of Jesus’ attempt to teach in his hometown of Nazareth. He is met with lukewarm response.

While his neighbors acknowledge his wisdom, they are stymied by his ordinary background. After all, he is but “the carpenter, son of Mary”.

This gives pause to those who are listening.

Should it?

If you are inclined to think them parochial for their lack of faith, think of your own neighborhood, and imagine what you might think of the neighbor’s son or daughter up the block suddenly holding court on their front porch, preaching about God and explaining the bible in a new and extraordinary way. You might too be skeptical.

Which brings us to the dilemma–when can we be sure that we are receiving the “word of God”?

Being Roman Catholic, it is easy to answer simplistically–simply adhere to whatever the Magisterium announces as “truth” and one can safely go about one’s business.

One could make similar arguments regarding any number of Christian denominations no doubt–adhere to whatever are the general teachings of your church–be they Presbyterian, Methodist, Jehovah’s Witness and on and on through the 30,000 plus divisions among us.

As you can readily see, we don’t agree about what scripture means. Catholics and Protestants don’t even agree on what books should belong to the canon of sacred text. That’s a pretty big difference of opinion I’d say, since the “word of God” arguably resides within that canon and no where else, by some definitions at least.

And once we transcend that mountain, we get into the inter-denominational disputes of what scripture means. Catholics write books by the tens of hundreds every year about various books of the bible, offering their expertise of analysis. Years of study in universities across the world give them  the tools to view text in a way that the ordinary person lacks.

Protestants are no different in that regard. There is an ongoing dispute about what Paul’s remarks in Romans regarding faith mean. Gays and straights  argue what a line or two from Leviticus, and a few lines in pseudo-Pauline books might mean as regards homosexuality. We dispute, both within our own faith traditions and among those traditions, exactly what are the rules of marriage and so forth.

We can, as I said, take the easy way–simply accept the “rules” of our tradition.

But I do not think that is acceptable. While I hazard to speak for God, I submit, that we are each responsible in the final analysis to think for ourselves. Why else this marvelous brain, and this seemingly inborn sense of conscious?

I think Mark (and the parallel versions in Luke and Matthew) should point us to the question–how do we decide?

And the answer is obvious in a sense: faith.

If we continue in the passage, we discover that those who relied on faith opened themselves up to the answer: healing.

Jesus could work no wonders of healing among the unbelievers, or those who doubted. Healing is a two-fold process we learn requiring the offering of the healing and the acceptance in faith by the recipient.

We must approach our questions of “truth” in faith that with an honest heart, and a willing mind to see truth, God will guide us aright. What that means practically to me at least is this: When I am in conflict over what my heart tells me “should” be, and my Church tells me “is”, then I have a responsibility to do the following:

  • Thoroughly understand the position of the Church. This requires some serious work to determine when, why and how the Church has come to the conclusion it now claims is truth. No small deference must be given to thousands of years of development involving learned individuals, who would ask for and receive the  benefit of the Holy Spirit–whether interpreted correctly or not.
  • A conscious “listening” to the “small still voice” within that nags at the self, advising that this proposition or that is “just right” or “just wrong”.
  • A long-going period of taking the issue to prayer–asking always not to be “found right” but to be led to truth. One must also, so it seems to me, recognize that truth grows over time. We are given only that which we can absorb. As we grow more knowledgeable and adept, greater and more full truth may come. Prayer thus becomes a constant in our lives.
  • Stand up and proclaim the truth as you honestly see it after this process, even when it is at odds with most or many. Maintain the willingness to listen to opposition, reflect, re-examine, and pray for further guidance.

If we do these things, I trust that a loving God forgives us our honest errors. We live in faith.

Amen.

God Invites

One of many great lessons I learned in the Episcopal Church has to do with the table of the Lord. Again and again, the priest intoned, “it is the Lord who calls us to the table, not the church.” My own church would do well to heed this advice.

Sadly of course, we know that so far it has not. It continues to pick and choose, based on often flimsy biblical evidence, who may approach the communion table. And the scriptures today, do point to this fallacy it seems to me.

In Ezekiel 17: 22-24, God speaks through the prophet:

I, too, will take from the crest of the cedar,
from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot,
and plant it on a high and lofty mountain;
on the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it.
It shall put forth branches and bear fruit,
and become a majestic cedar.
Birds of every kind shall dwell beneath it,
every winged thing in the shade of its boughs.

Now I would be the first to tell you that exegetically speaking, this passage probably has nothing at all to do with Jesus. Just as assuredly, all Christians look to the Hebrew Scriptures as speaking to the coming of Christ. So in the passage above, the tender shoot is Jesus, who will put forth his Church, bearing branches and fruit. Note that it further says, “birds of every kind shall dwell beneath it, . . .” Now this may in fact be stretching a point, but I don’t think it unfair to suggest that the passage doesn’t limit those who will find a home there to only some chosen group or groups.

While there is no direct statement in Ezekiel, we are further advised in 2 Corinthians, that we, as believers, “walk by faith, not by sight.” In other words, we as followers in Jesus must do our best to understand his teachings and then live by them, trusting in faith that God, through the great Spirit of Wisdom will guide us aright.

Of even more importance, we must recognize that as members of the body, we are all individually responsible for living up to our baptismal promises. We cannot, much as we might like, rely on the Church to advise us on what is good and proper. Paul tells us:

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ,
so that each may receive recompense,
according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Cor. 5: 6-10)

Surely we must always give due respect to the official teaching of the Church, and we must do everything in our power to understand and reconcile our own beliefs with those of the Church. But in the end, it is our own conscience which must lead us forth, and we cannot stand behind the curtain of the Church on judgment day, however you might define that for yourself. We are each solely responsible for our living up to our promises to do good.

It is always a bit amusing to me how the more conservative members of the Christian community tend to rely most heavily on Saint Paul to the exclusion often times of Jesus himself.

Jesus was noted, throughout his entire ministry for inclusion rather than exclusion. He went out of his way to point this out, in the people he ate with and in the people he healed. Many of his “friends” were scandalous. They were non-Jews, gentiles and Samaritans, unclean persons, tax collectors, and all manner of reprobates. And he treated them all with the same welcome. He healed, he broke bread, he spoke with them.

He at no time ever advised his followers to reject anyone as unworthy.

Yet the Church does.

Is our Lord powerful enough to deny his presence to any of us if he deems us unworthy to meet him at the table?

If so, then it would seem prudent to allow him to make his own choices. The Church should in every way, welcome, soothe, and minister to the all God’s people.

But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants
and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.” (Mk 4:26-34)

Amen.

I Myself Am Also a Human Being

Having settled all the immediate issues of moving to a new state, I decided that it was time to get to Mass. Here in Las Cruces, which is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, I figured I wouldn’t have much trouble finding an appropriate parish church. I settled on the Cathedral known as the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

But this is not about that, it merely sets the stage for the operation of the Holy Spirit. My experience with the Spirit, is that it usually surprises me. It pops up when I least expect it. I read the readings yesterday and was fairly certain that I would speak about Jesus’ radical statements in Jn 15: 9-17. In it Jesus sets a shocking standard–love others as GOD loves you. Since God loves with pure and complete unconditionality, it is far beyond the standard of loving others as we love ourselves.

But as I heard the first reading from Acts read this morning, I was struck by it in a way that had not been clear upon the first reading. It perhaps speaks to my ongoing tension with Mother Church–its determination to make decisions about who is and who is not welcome at the table of Christ.

In Acts 10: 25-26, 34-35, 44-48:

When Peter entered, Cornelius met him
and, falling at his feet, paid him homage.
Peter, however, raised him up, saying,
“Get up. I myself am also a human being.”

Then Peter proceeded to speak and said,
“In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.
Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly
is acceptable to him.”

While Peter was still speaking these things,
the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word.
The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter
were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit
should have been poured out on the Gentiles also,
for they could hear them speaking in tongues and glorifying God.
Then Peter responded,
“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people,
who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?”
He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Most Christians would agree that Peter was given “custody” of the religious movement that Jesus instituted. He was the Lord’s most trusted disciple, the one, presumably that he shared the most with and taught in the fullest. Certainly the other disciples were privy to most of all this knowledge as well. The Gospels report, individually and collectively, those issues and teachings that they thought were the most important, those things Jesus stressed the most.

While the Gospel today reminds us that Jesus said that our love for each other must be radical and extreme–as God’s love for us is, still we learn that the disciples were often surprised and found themselves in disagreement on many issues as the fledgling church gathered itself and became a church in fact.

Peter of course, reminds the pagan centurion, Cornelius, that he, Peter is a mortal and not to be bowed to. Peter hears Cornelius’s story about how an angel told him to locate Peter and listen to him. When he has finished describing this vision, Peter realizes that God must speak to all nations, not just the Jewish one.

And when the Holy Spirit descends indiscriminately upon the Jewish followers and the Gentiles, he realizes and proclaims:

“Can anyone without the water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?”

This is something apparently that had not occurred to Peter beforehand, and this is confirmed when we recall the arguments held between himself and the Jewish community and Paul and his new community of Gentiles. The question was, to what extent these Gentiles were required to take on the Jewish faith in order to be these new Christians.

So what is my point?

Peter and the other disciples, male and female had spent three years with the Lord. They had lived with him almost day and night. They had been privy to his every thought, his every expression. He explained the parables to them, he taught them as carefully and fully as he deemed necessary. No one could claim to know more than they.

And yet, they almost to a man and woman were not prepared to understand the breadth and depth of what Jesus taught. The fullest and deepest meaning still escaped them.

Are we to assume any more ability than they? Are we as Church, able to discern without error who is welcome at the Lord’s table?

As we are instructed to accept this or that teaching as “given”, as we are instructed not to discuss this or that rule, as we are instructed who is in sin and who is not, and how to be “reconciled”, should we not  question these limitations? For Jesus placed no limitations–love others in the radical unconditional way that God loves you. Make no distinctions, make no judgement–love period.

Peter, the disciple we trust without question to be the titular head of the Church, thereby living in perfect understanding of Jesus’ teachings, proved to not have that perfect understanding. Are our bishops and priests to be given more faith in truth than him?

Truly the Spirit seems to teach the lesson that every time you think you have loved enough, double, and triple it. Every time you think you have reached the goal, look toward the horizon and see Me beckoning you further.

God’s love is all-encompassing. Can we turn anyone away from the table except at our peril? I think not.

Amen. 

Come Down Out of Your Tree

We are, as believers, quite familiar with Zacchaeus and his story. We are most familiar with the meaning of the story.

We know that Zacchaeus was well-known in his town. He was probably not liked, for he was a senior tax collector, meaning presumably that he been a tax man for a long time, and more importantly, that he had done exceedingly well at his job.

There is nothing to suggest that he had any intention to meet Jesus, rather, he seemed to want to take a “measure of the man,” this man who people were talking about in the surrounding countryside.

There is nothing to suggest that Zacchaeus had any desire to be “saved” or that he saw himself as a sinner. He was merely sizing up the man whom he had heard of, perhaps wanting to see if there was anything about him that suggested he was any of the things people were whispering about.

Jesus arrives at the tree that Zacchaeus has climbed and looks up. He orders him down. And he tells Zacchaeus that he intends to supper with him. This must have shocked Zacchaeus, since he full knew the opinion of the Pharisees about him. And it was true, they complained, loudly passing the word that Jesus was intent on eating with a sinner! But eye to eye with Jesus, something happened.

This man, who must have been hard-hearted in order to do his job, had a transformation. He immediately told Jesus he would give half of his wealth to the poor, and return four times over any money he had acquired by unfairness. What a transformation indeed.

I recall, as I proceeded through the catechumenate, learning about all the Catholic dogma about social issues, sexual to be exact. Certainly most of these were touched on quite lightly, they were trying to convince us to join the Church not run from it. I was troubled indeed about birth control, celibacy issues, homosexuality, abortion, and divorce. These rules basically went against my natural inclination. None of them touched me personally at that time, and perhaps I could have simply ignored them.

Instead, I tried mightily to understand why my Church taught these things. I struggled with them in my heart. I prayed about them. In the end, I conformed for one singular reason: my conversion had arisen from the sudden conclusion that I was not wise enough to overcome the depth and breath of intellect that, before me, believed. Here now too, I came to the same conclusion. I must assume the Church to be wiser than me–at least until I had spent time looking deeply into these issues.

I trusted in the general logic of Catholicism, the fact that there were no places of which I was aware where there were logical dead ends, or places of deep conflict. All inexorably fit together, and so I accepted what I was taught, albeit with a heavy heart.

Over time, I was to learn a good deal more, read a good deal more, have the benefit of learned teachers who had studied these matters thoroughly and come up with different ideas. Slowly, I came back to where I had been, and came to believe that the Church’s dogma was flawed, and understandable from its own history.

My point is simply, that I think excluding people as “sinners” for violating innumerable sexual prohibitions should lead anyone to feel exceedingly sad. We are, after all, desirous of having everyone partake of the Eucharist I presume. We want all to be saved do we not? To conclude that some folks must be denied is painful. It was to me at that time, and I would think it would be to all faithful orthodox Catholics.

Yet, this is not what I find. Instead, I find that old bugaboo, arrogance come to play. All too many “orthodox” Catholics are eager, almost joyous in their condemnation of those who aren’t being “orthodox” as they see it. They are eager to label people–“you Cafeteria Catholic,”  they sneer. They tell me that “Catholicism is hard” and why don’t I “go to some feel-good Protestant church where they cater to what you want to hear”. When I protest that Jesus told us not to judge, they drag out plenty of ammo from Paul, about how they are they are not judging, but “admonishing the sinner” as they are “called to do.”

Some of them are quite ugly in their rhetoric. They clearly take great pride in “doing what is hard,” though I’m not sure what is hard about chastising others for not living up to their interpretation of things.

It all leaves me with a bad taste. Zacchaeus may have climbed a tree to see better, but some of our orthodox brethren are also up trees, just not to see. They are up there to pick out from the crowd those they believe must be culled from the congregation. They are there to spot the sinners and whisper loudly and complain–“these people have no right to be in God’s house!”

Perhaps, they will hear Jesus calling for them to come down, and eye to eye, they too might be transformed, as I ultimately was. Perhaps they will see that following Jesus was never about pointing out the sinner, so much as it was and is about ministering without judgment to all God’s creation. For we also learned today:

Yes, you love everything that exists, and nothing that has been made disgusts you, since if you had hated something, you would not have made it. And how could a thing subsist, had you not willed it? Or how be preserved, if not called forth by you? No, you spare all, since all is yours, Lord, lover of life! (Wis 11:24-26)

Perhaps, we might leave all this other stuff up to God to decide. After all, it’s His kingdom.

Will There Be Any Faith On Earth?

“But when the Son of man comes, will he find any faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8)

Indeed, what a question. It asks the seminal question to all of us, and for me synthesized a number of things I read, making me wonder, just what is faith?

What does it mean to be faithful?

NCR in an article entitled, The Had-it Catholicssuggests that once you account for immigrants, the American Roman Catholic Church is bleeding followers at the same rate that all the mainline Protestant denominations are. And the reasons have surprisingly little to do with child abuse and contraception. They have more to do with marriage and divorce rules, homosexuality teachings, and ordination of women. We can discuss any of those issues, but what caught my eye was a fairly common comment that is made against “dissenters.”

It basically goes like this: If we have no settled doctrine to rely on, then we have nothing but what is the fashion of the day. I can as easily reject your “preferential option for the poor” as you reject church teaching on homosexuality. Where does it stop? To be Catholic is the accept this repository of faith as your foundation. No one is keeping you here.

This presupposes I would argue, that there is such a repository of faith that is sacrosanct as it were. Untouched in its basics since the resurrection at least, only added to as we come into a “fuller” understanding of truth. And many believe this is correct–they argue that there is perfect truth, unalterable, and knowable as such by everyone.

I daresay that every generation has thought it had the truth. Yet, civilization progresses over the eons and what was normative in 1350 C.E. is not necessarily so today in terms of moral behavior.

It denies as well, it seems to me, that the Holy Spirit works ever in the human race to help it, individually and collectively to understand who and what they are and what their life is to be. To suggest that even when majorities of faithful Catholics disagree with the Magisterium they are wrong by definition, is to deny that the Holy Spirit is active in the hearts and minds of each of us.

It is to deny, moreover, the value of the gift of intellect, or reason also gifted to us. Are we not to learn from the our pasts and to extrapolate anew, more inclusive morals for our future? Are we not to draw into sanctity all life as a higher level of love? All because such things were not contemplated in the past?

A few days ago, Enlightened Catholicism posted a report of a letter sent out  by Archbishop Vigneron, to the Archdiocese of Detroit. It warned that all clergy and laity were prohibited from attending a meeting of The American Catholic Council scheduled to be held next year in Detroit. The Archbishop claims the groups beliefs are contrary to Catholic “Faith” and are contrary to the “spirit of Vatican II.”  He said we should “shun efforts which threaten unity.”

Again we get the presumed “never-changing faith” claim. Does not the Archbishop know that this is not true? Moreover has he learned no lessons from the past?

Father Frederick J. Cwiekowski, in his book, The Beginnings of the Church, explained how modernism was condemned by the Inquisition, turned Holy Office in 1908. Modernism, meaning the use of modern methods of biblical exegesis such as form, text, redaction, and other forms of criticism. The determinations made by such methods were condemned.

Some of the claims of this new methodology were:

  • The Gospels were not historical but teaching testimonials, interpretations by the evangelist of what Jesus said and taught.
  • None of the evangelists were eye-witnesses, (Matthew and John) had been so taught)
  • It questioned Christ’s anticipation of the emergent church.
  • It questioned whether the apostles in fact knew of Christ’s deity before the resurrection.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission in the years 1905-1915 declared all these things in error and heretical. Such conclusions were bolstered by the encyclical On the Doctrines of the Modernists by Pius X, and again in Spiritus Paraclitus by Benedict XV in 1920.

Slowly things turned around after that, however, More openness was allowed and it was declared that such prohibitions only applied to faith and morals issues, in 1955. At the beginning of Vatican II, a working document, “On the Sources of Revelation” was issued to the bishops. Fully 60% rejected it, and although not the 2/3 required, John XXIII, sent it back for further work. When it was issued with Pius VI’s approval, the PBC, Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Bible,  contained the following:

  • The evangelists were witnesses not historians
  • There is evidence they did not understand that Jesus was divine until after his resurrection. The apostles passed down what Jesus truly said and did, but it was later interpreted to the needs  of the listeners of the Gospels.
  • None of the evangelists were apostles and they adapted and synthesized the information at hand to the situation of the emergent church.

These became incorporated into the final document, the 1965, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, (art. 19).

There is no truth to the claim that once dogma always dogma.

So what is faith?

It seems to me, that faith, and being faithful is to be a constant student of what is taught by the Church and constantly to study what is being learned about the bible and its theological underpinnings. It is constant searching for truth, always following heart and mind, with careful and deep reflection.

 It seems to me that we are all called to this work. It is simply not faithful to simply rely on an institution, no matter how revered as the sole determiner of all things moral and right. We, as Catholics, as Christians are obligated to seek truth ourselves.

Indeed, I do  think there will be faith on Earth, Lord, as long as good people of strong believe ever seek to apply the issues of the day to the tenor of your teaching.

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