The Church is community

So, I am in the process of writing a book about what we can learn today from the community life of the first century Church. I will be posting some excerpts from my draft here on the blog. The point of the book is, in fact, the very topic I have promised to address in this blog. Namely, to inspire readers to face the challenges of the Church today by reflecting on the earliest and most fragile period in the history of the Church. That time when the Church was a faint blaze. That time when, though it was small, the Church burned intensely with Christ’s love.

To start, for many of us, the most powerful encounters with Christ are alone in quiet contemplation (quite probably before the Blessed Sacrament) or even while hearing a powerful homily or from a talk at a conference. I have no doubt this is true. It is certainly true for me! We must remember, however, that from her outset the Church was a community. That is, the Church existed at the intersection of human relationships. These human relationships found purpose in following the actions and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. From the time of Jesus, Christianity has only existed within the network of relationships. It is not a building that makes the Church. In fact, the earliest Christians used their very own living spaces for worship gatherings. No, it is not a building; rather, it is the people who make the Church. She (Holy Mother Church/ ecclesia is feminine in Greek) consists of people who have a shared experience of God as he was revealed in Jesus Christ. Indeed, the Church is built by individual members being united into the very Body of Christ.

Interestingly, Jesus’ first task was not to proclaim that salvation was imminent. Rather his first work of salvation was to gather people who would be with him and observe his life and public ministry. Jesus’ first work of salvation was to gather a community. Jesus called his first disciples to leave their old life and follow him in a new life. Those who responded and became immersed in this new way of life were changed for the rest of lives. This is the point of the Church: to change hearts so that people are disposed to encounter Jesus Christ in their inmost being. This is our first challenge if we want to make a difference in today’s difficult climate: are we doing what is necessary to encounter Jesus in our inmost being? Secondly, are we making an attempt to be in genuine relationships with others who are seeking to do the same?

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Can We Actually Believe the Church?

The Catholic Church claims that it is constantly being lead toward “the fullness of truth” (CCC 2625). Moreover, the Church claims that all of its dogmas and doctrines are to be believed and held by the faithful everywhere (CCC 834). Notice that it does not say some or most, but it says that ALL of the dogma and doctrine must be believed or held definitively by those who consider themselves Catholic. We cannot hold some and disregard the ones we do not like. If we are Catholic, we must hold them all; this is simply what it means to be a member of the Church…

But why does the Church dictate so much? Why can’t I just accept those things I agree with in the Church and then be free to love God in my own way? And how come explanations of things are never quite good enough?

While it’s great that the Church explains many of its teachings using reason, faith is primarily what is needed to accept the truth. Without belief in God and belief that God is capable of sufficiently guiding the human race to the truth, it will be hard to accept the teachings of the Church. Notice: I am not saying reason is unimportant or that it should be done away with; I am simply saying that we can know the Church is right on all the issues of our age if we simply see what Christ and the apostles said about the Church and believe it. We can then use reason to see the inherent rationality of the faith. But, in the end, we should not primarily believe what the Church says because we proudly think we have the perfect rational explanation. Rater, we should believe because the Church said it and the Church was established by Christ and is always guided by the Holy Spirit.

The idea that the Church is established by Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit is found in the Bible. Therefore, we will let two quotations from the Bible be the center piece of this conversation. Jesus said in Matthew 16:18-19, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death (hades) shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” My first point: it is not Peter’s Church. Explanation: The Church is not run by humans. Jesus made it clear to Peter that it was not the Church of Peter. Rather, Jesus is giving Peter special authority in the Church of Jesus Christ. Thus, Jesus told Peter that it was “my church.” It is interesting to note that no other apostle is singled out in the giving of this authority. Secondly, it must be understood that language of binding and loosing is contemporaneous rabbinic terminology having to do with moral codes. In other words, Jesus is saying that Peter will be the representative of God to humanity and Peter will guide humanity to proper moral living. Jesus is giving Peter, and later in Matthew 18:18, he gives all of the apostles the authority to be teachers of the proper moral life. And this, I believe, we must accept with faith. To accept it, we must believe that Jesus knew what he was doing, that he had a plan that would last until he comes again, and that he is capable of firmly securing this plan.

After Jesus was gone, there is evidence from the Bible that the apostles actually accepted this point. Paul writing to Timothy (1 Tim 3:15) says that “the Church is from the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” Again the Scriptures affirm that the Church is not run by humans, but rather the Church is from God. Moreover, the use of the term “living God” means that God is continually involved in the Church. God did not simply send Jesus to start the Church only to leave to mere human hands. God still guides the Church today through the Holy Spirit. God is still the living God. The Church, being the pillar and bulwark of truth, is unable to teach anything that is contrary to the truth. This then must be an article of faith: the Church is inerrant in its teaching and this is to be held on the authority of God not on the authority of mere humans.

Are there rational arguments to be made of why the Church takes the stances it does on the moral issues of our time? Of course there are. Are these sound arguments that are convincing to an open mind? They are. Will people believe based on arguments alone? Perhaps. But why should people believe the Church? Because God became man to show us how to get to Him and the vehicle of truth and goodness that He left behind was the Church. That’s enough for me to believe because it’s not the human organization that I put my faith but in God, the Creator and Master of all things.

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Why So Serious?

I’ve been asked before, “Why do people get so passionate about religion?” For starters, if you like us getting “passionate,” that is a great question to ask. Simply put, we get passionate about it because we think it is true. Living as a Christian today is analogous to your neighbor telling you that your wife does not actually love you, while it seems to you that you have every reason to believe she does. Worse yet, your neighbor writes for the New York Times where he and others publish weekly articles about how silly it is that you keep loving your wife with such fervor, while to them its clear she obviously does not love you. If you really think it is true that she loves you and you have every reason to believe it is true and no reason to doubt, will you not “passionately” defend her?! And yourself? Worse yet, people who read the articles come up to you later and ask, “Hey there little guy, what’s up with you being so passionate about your wife?” For many of us, this would traverse the boundaries of simple annoyance, and would leave us feeling the vexation of social torment!

Still don’t get it? C.S. Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else” (“Is Theology Poetry?,” 1945). We get passionate about our faith not simply because, for example, we hold it is true in the way we think there is an apple in the basket on the table in front of us. But rather because we, the apple, the basket, and table are all true because of it. And when it seems others deny the very reason for our existence, the very thing we depend on not only for life, but for love, happiness, and all the pleasures that come with life, it may provoke us a dollop.┬áTo suggest that we are ignorant and stupid for believing in such things by asking, “Why do you get so passionate about it?” may get us to respond with a little passion.

Maybe others are unaware, but it is only good and natural for humans to be passionate about important things. In the end, we are passionate about it because we think religion is an important truth. It leads us to the Truth, the Infinite One, Who caused all that is, and continues to hold us in existence by causing us in every moment. Who loves us and wants us to be with him, as C.S. Lewis said elsewhere, “There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “All right, then, have it your way.”

Christians, hold fast to the seriousness of the Gospel, it is your salvation. And, at times, be unashamedly passionate, if necessary.

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As the blaze burns…faintly

There are many avenues someone can take this time of the year to speak of a blazing light. Today, as we are in the week following Epiphany, I’d like to provide a few light meditations about celebrating Epiphany. During Epiphany, we remember the bright star that guided the kings to the newborn Light – the Author of all things who became one of us. Kings of this world came from afar to offer fine gifts to a babe born in a stable. This brings three things to my mind.

The first thing to take from the image of the Epiphany is the beautiful image the Magi provide of how to think about our gifts and earthly possessions. God has given us everything we have for a reason. We should be thankful for what we have. But we should also be anxious to find out why we have the things we do. If he wants us to use what he has given us, we should also be anxious to use it as an offering to him. If Christians began to creatively and committedly use their gifts as the Magi did, the world may truly be ablaze with the love of Christ.

Secondly, the kings are great rulers in this world. This has political implications to it. As Christians, we must be aware that our trust is not in any political system but in the Lord who goes to great lengths to save us. In fact, the Magi represent the proper disposition that even the greatest of rulers in this world should have, namely, all the world should bow down in homage to this king. For this reason he is called Lord of lords and King of kings. Even though we may not completely comprehend the Incarnation of God – surely the Magi did not, God made man deserves our humble worship. We should let the Magi be a reminder to us that sooner or later the whole world bows down to Christ and confesses him as Lord.

Lastly, as the Church’s faint blaze is modeled after Christ, we see our Exemplar demonstrating a kind of deafening quietude, being a born in stable. Hundreds of years prior to Christ, Isaiah (7:14) said, “Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” This is interpreted in Matthew 1:23 and it means “God with us.” The curious thing about this is that it was the opposite of what so many of the pagan rulers claimed about themselves. Many rulers even used the word to “Epiphany” describe themselves. Even though the Greek literally means “to light up” or “bring light upon,” it was commonly understood to mean “a manifestation of God.” The true Light and the true manifestation of God happened at Christmas, but happened in a humble and quiet way.

What should we as Christians take from Our Lord coming in such a manner? For one, we are not to simply model our lives after the ebb and flow of modern day life. We should constantly be looking to break free from becoming completely secular. We should take time to pray often, spend time in conversation with others about the things of God, and even practice self-denial to become selfless and strengthen self-control (self mastery). Beyond separating ourselves from secular ways, Christ’s humble coming reminds us to be humble. Even though we are surrounded and bombarded by opportunities for attention and glory, we must remember that Christ came not to be served but to serve. Jesus’ humble beginning reminds us that in everything we do in the Christian life must begin with a commitment to humility. Following Christ is not about glory and satisfaction in this world, it is about the kingdom that Christ came to establish. This is a kingdom marked by self-giving love. The quickest way to achieving a disposition to self-giving love is to follow the humility of the infant Jesus. Even though he was God, he found it fitting to be born in an animal stable. What entitlements will you find fitting to deny yourself for the sake of the kingdom of self-giving love?

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A Faint Blaze

As the New Year begins, I have decided to start a blog on a topic which has long been dear to my heart. My inspiration and motivation for this blog lies in the realization that this year I once again stand at an impasse in life. Since it seems that the one consistency in life proves to be that it is ever-changing, I am convinced that I need to think more about those things which do not and will not change. That is to say, those eternal and foundational principles upon which the whole world was created, of which the Author of Life directly revealed to us, and to which all things are directed until the end of time. That being so, I wish to now put aside technical jargon, talk of “foundational principles,” and dense speech. This blog is not an attempt to put forward a philosophical system based only on natural reason. This blog is not an academic exercise, nor will it attempt to be over-polished to the point of political correctness. Rather, I want to speak simply, from the heart, and hopefully to the heart of all who read it. This blog is based on a conviction that Christianity is true, or rather, that Christ is true. It is not my hope to argue to this truth, but to start from it.

Christianity has been around a while now, and this is no surprise to a Christian born in the 20th century (Anno Domini!) because the Christian simply knows that Christianity will remain. The Church of Christ will remain and nothing will prevail over it; it will never be snuffed out. What comes as a surprise to the 20th and 21st century Christian is the lack of enthusiasm for following Christ. Today we see a Church which is unfortunately marked by mediocrity and even infidelity. This is no surprise for those of us who have taken a critical look at history. I am convinced that this is because people forget the eternal and unchanging truths. I have for a long time now felt a call to kindle and rekindle enthusiasm in myself and others for this simple, saving truth that transforms us and the world.

Throughout history, Christianity has faced trouble and John Henry Newman insisted that “there is no preferred time in the Church.” Rather, each age has its struggles, trials, successes, and failures. In the early rise and growth of Christianity, the Church of Christ was able to thrive (though perhaps it was very small) during 300 years of violent persecution. This is a feat which, to my knowledge, no other religion can claim. In this way, Christianity rose by being a faint blaze, a tiny burning spark fueled by the truth that God had come to save those who seek Him. In the same way, God inflames those of us who are docile to his Spirit today. This blog aims to encourage us to understand and accept the breadth, length, height, and depth of the love of Christ and the power of his mercy for those who seek him.

In the end, A Faint Blaze is a meditation on being contemporary disciples of Christ. It will draw on biblical, historical, and cultural sources and aim to inspire living lives of heroic love modeled after the life of Jesus. Though it may seem like a hard time to live an authentically Christian life in the world, God desires nothing less from those of us who claim represent his Son to the world today by bearing the name Christian.

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