Category Archives: Christian Unity

“It’s Not A Religion, It’s A Relationship:” Actually, It’s Both

You can follow a religion without knowing Christ, but you can’t know Christ without following a religion. Jesus said, “Follow me,” and “Keep my commandments.” This involves taking certain steps. In other words, following Christ’s religion as taught by him and his apostles.

The teaching that says, “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion” is itself a novel religious tradition not taught by Jesus, his apostles, the Church or Scripture. They never condemned religion, only hypocritical or false religion. Never did they teach believers to dump religion and only have a relationship with Jesus. Never did they teach that “it doesn’t matter what church you belong to as long as you love Jesus” (Jesus only established one Church, which, by the way, was visible because believers could go to it to have disputes settled). On the contrary, Jesus and his apostles provided very specific dos and don’ts for believers to follow.

Religion is a human universal. It is found in every culture of every age because God built that desire into our hearts. Embracing the religion of Jesus (the fullness of the Faith) is the best way to know Jesus. It’s how we learn his terms for the relationship and how to come to the Father through him. It’s not a way to “earn salvation by following rules.” It’s a participation in salvation “through him, with him and in him.” One Lord, one Faith, one baptism. One holy, catholic, apostolic Church.

No Need To Pretend.

If you have children, you probably enjoy watching them play pretend. They can pretend to be or do all sorts of things. It’s likely that you also have occasionally had to step in and say, “That’s not nice, even to pretend.” There are some things that are inappropriate enough that even to pretend to do them is not acceptable.

The same holds true for adults. I suspect that, in general, most married people would not like the idea of their spouses taking another partner out on the dance floor and dancing in a way that simulates having sex. The idea of adultery is so abhorrent that even to pretend to do it is unacceptable, particularly in public.

There are certain movies, songs, and other forms of entertainment that are worth avoiding because what they portray is not good to take into one’s heart and mind. “It’s just pretend” doesn’t always justify indulging in something.

Catholics are often criticized for their belief that they are actually eating the flesh of Jesus and drinking the blood of Jesus. “How abominable! How gross! How blasphemous! It’s cannibalism! How can you believe such a horrible thing?” Many of these objections come from non-Catholic Christians. They believe that the Lord’s Supper is symbolic.

Now, if eating the flesh of Jesus and drinking the blood of Jesus is such an abomination, why would it be okay to even “pretend” to do it? Why does it suddenly become acceptable to pretend to be a cannibal? Is that what Jesus has commanded us to do? Jesus wants us to pretend that we are doing something abhorrent simply to remember him? That doesn’t make sense. Jesus only commands us to do good.

If Jesus only commands us to do good things, then eating his flesh and drinking his blood must be a good thing. There is no reason to “pretend” in order to escape committing an abomination because it isn’t an abomination to begin with. If you actually eat his flesh and drink his blood you are doing a good thing.

“How can this be?” That’s exactly what Mary asked the angel Gabriel when he told her she was going to be pregnant with the Messiah. Her response was “I believe you, but I’m curious as to how this is going to happen since I’m a consecrated virgin (“I know not man”). Gabriel told her the Holy Spirit would do it.

When we ask, “How can this be” we are echoing many of Jesus’ disciples who asked, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus never told them that it was only symbolic, or a metaphor. He told them it would be accomplished by the Spirit (my words are spirit and life). “Spirit” does not mean “symbolic.” Just as Mary actually, literally conceived Jesus in her womb by the power of the Spirit, Jesus gives us himself to physically consume by the power of the Spirit.

When many of his disciples left him, Jesus turned to the twelve and asked if they were going to leave him too. Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” This is much like Mary saying, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your will.” We don’t need to understand it in order to accept it.

When Jesus said, “The flesh is of no avail,” he was referring to people who try to figure it all out “in the flesh” or, without faith. He echoes the scripture which says “You are not in the spirit, but in the flesh.” Only God has the ability to raise the dead, control nature with a word, make the blind see and the deaf hear, etc. Only God can make a virgin conceive a child without involving a man. Only God can raise himself from the dead and make himself physically consumable to us without it being cannibalism or some kind of abomination.

There is no need to pretend to physically consume Jesus. He wants you to do it for real because he wants you and him to be that close to each other. The best way to remember someone is to actually be in their presence. Jesus commanded us to “Do this in remembrance of me.”

Catholics don’t “bite off a piece of Jesus.” We physically consume him in his entirety, body, blood, soul and divinity. There is no pretending. Only real faith in the Jesus. Come join us.

I’m A Christian, So Why Can’t I Receive Catholic Communion?

Sometimes I hear people complain that non-Catholic Christians are not allowed to take communion (the Eucharist) at Catholic Mass. After all, the word “catholic” means “universal,” and Catholicism considers all properly baptized people to be Christian. So, why exclude some Christians? Isn’t that kind of mean or uppity?

In Protestant circles, it is more common that Christians from other denominations are permitted to take communion “as long as they believe in Jesus.” So, what’s up with the Catholics? It doesn’t seem very welcoming, inclusive or universal.

The Church is indeed “universal.” The Church is for all peoples of all times in all places. However, “universal” does not apply to all principles and beliefs of all peoples. There are more things that unite Christians than divide us. Nevertheless, those things that divide us cannot be ignored. There is not perfect, universal unity in doctrine or practice. Jesus prayed that all of His followers would be one as He and the Father are one. The Church cannot accept every belief and doctrine in the name of inclusion. This is especially true where the Holy Eucharist is concerned.

With some exceptions, non-Catholic Christians generally believe that the communion service is a symbolic memorial intended to help us remember what Christ did for us. So, the bread and wine are about Christ. Catholics believe in transubstantiation. The bread and wine actually become Christ. The bread miraculously transforms into His literal flesh. The wine miraculously transforms into His literal blood (Jesus said, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.” John Chapter six). The elements retain their outward appearance of bread and wine, but the substance has changed. This is an important distinction of beliefs that cannot be ignored. The Eucharist isn’t just about Christ, it is Christ. It’s not just a metaphor for Catholics.

“Communion” is an expression of unity among those who partake. Unless you believe that the bread and wine actually is Christ, it would be a false sign of unity for you to partake of the Eucharist. In other words, it would be a lie for both of us. One of us would be saying, “This is Jesus,” and the other would be saying, “This is not Jesus, it’s only about Jesus.” We would both be claiming a perfect unity that was not really genuine.

The other reason that non-Catholic Christians (or any non-Catholics) are typically not permitted to take communion is for your protection. In 1Corinthians chapter 11, The Apostle Paul warns against eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper without properly discerning it. Doing so can result in sickness, weakness or even damnation. Consequently, the Catholic Church doesn’t want you to take communion unless you properly understand and discern what you are doing. It’s for your own good for the Church to say, “Don’t take communion.”

It’s not about “exclusion” or “being mean” or “thinking we’re better Christians than you.” Anyone is welcome to come and participate in a Catholic Mass. Please, come join us. However, if you want to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, you must first enter into full unity with the Church. Otherwise, it becomes something less than an expression of genuine unity of faith (it’s not a real “communion”). It also places your soul in jeopardy. We don’t want that for you. We want only the best for you. We want you to have the fullness of the Universal Faith and the spiritual healing of the Eucharist, Jesus Himself.

Where Did The Authority Go?

There are two ideas that I encounter over and over again in my conversations with non-Catholic Christians.  The first idea is that, for whatever reason, the Catholic Church does not possess apostolic authority.  The second is that Christians should only believe what can be explicitly found in scripture, because the Bible is the final authority.  I would like to reflect on these two ideas that I myself once held.

If apostolic authority died with the last Apostle, then no one has apostolic authority.  No Catholic, no Protestant, no Evangelical or Fundamentalist has apostolic authority.  Hence, no one since the Apostles has had the authority to tell anyone what to believe or what not to believe about the Bible, including its contents.

The early Christians had to believe what the Apostles told them.  But, the Apostles died.  So, what happened to their authority?  How could they continue to “tell” Christians what to believe?  How would the Holy Spirit guide and unify the Church without the Apostles?  Here are a few options:  1) Apostolic authority was transferred to the successors of the Apostles.  2) Apostolic authority was transferred to the Bible.  3) A combination of the two.

If authority was transferred only to the Apostles’ successors, then there would be little point in writing things down (like the Gospels, for example).  So there must be at least some apostolic authority contained within the writings of the Apostles.  After all, if the Apostle has authority, his writings will, too.

If authority was transferred only to the writings of the Apostles, then it would make sense to include that information in the writings.  For example, the apostles should have written down something that says, “When we are all dead, our authority will reside only in these written documents” or, “Only believe what is explicitly written in this future collection of writings and nothing else,” or “The Bible is now your final authority.”  The problem is that the Bible makes no claim that it is the final authority for the Christian upon the death of the last apostle or at any other point in time.  Although the Bible claims to be “profitable” it does not claim to have “the final say” or to be entirely “sufficient.”  Plus, the Church went 400 years without an officially assembled Bible.

Non-Catholic Christians (with few exceptions) have largely rejected the idea that the authority of the Apostles was transferred to successors.  Therefore, unlike the early Christians, there are no men that these Christians are ultimately accountable to.  They are essentially free to discern the Bible on their own and believe what they wish.  If they disagree with one church, they can find a different one.  While many of them claim submission to their respective church leadership, there is really no reason for them to do so in matters of faith and morals.  Why submit to leadership when each Christian can decide what to believe?  “Leadership” therefore becomes limited to the logistical and administrative needs of each church.  In this scenario, apostolic authority on faith and morals (limited now to only the Bible) takes a back seat to the beliefs of individual Christians.  Christians now tend to submit to leadership that aligns with what they believe.  This is the opposite of the early Church where individual Christians were expected to line up with the unified teaching of the Apostles.

Catholics, believing that the Apostles transferred their Christ-given authority to successors, are expected to behave as the early Christians did.  They are expected to fall in line with God’s written Word as well as the teachings delivered by men with apostolic authority.  In this scenario, apostolic authority is still in the driver’s seat.  Individual Christians are expected to remain in the back seat and submit to the teachings of Church leadership, just like when the apostles were alive.  In other words, the apostles “live on” in their successors who are able to clarify their writings and apply them to the present day life of the Church.  This has continued for 2000 years.

The authentic Catholic Christian, like the early Christian does not search for a church that aligns with his or her individual conclusions about the Bible.  Rather, like the early Christians, the authentic Catholic is obedient to Christ through obedience to Christ’s Church (which includes the Bible).  The Bible is not the “container” which holds all things Christian.  The Church is the “container” which holds all things Christian, and the Bible is inside that container (aka the Deposit of Faith).  The Bible points the Christian back to the Church as the “pillar and ground of the truth.” (1Tim 3:15)  The Bible never places itself over and above the Church’s authority, or demands that the Christian reject the Church and submit only to the authority of Bible.  The Bible and the Church together are a coordinated, apostolic authority.  It is not either/or, it is both/and.

The Catholic Church must possess apostolic authority in order to have assembled and affirmed the contents of the Bible 400 years after the Apostles died.  The Catholic Church declared which writings were inspired and which were not.  It makes no sense to reject the apostolic authority of the Catholic Church and then claim that the Bible contains apostolic authority for the Christian.  It is inconsistent to say, “I only believe what is in the Bible, but I don’t believe that the Church that assembled that Bible has apostolic authority.”  That is akin to saying, “I believe the Gospel of John, but I don’t believe John had apostolic authority.”

Assembling the Bible was as important as writing the Bible.  Without the Church’s apostolic authority, we could all pick and choose whether or not we think the book of James or the Gospel of Thomas belongs in the New Testament.  Why not rely only on the words spoken by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel?  Why not accept Peter’s writings but reject Paul’s?  When you dump the Catholic Church’s apostolic authority, everything else is up for grabs, including the Table of Contents of your Bible.

Apostolic authority was promised by Christ to the Church.  It is not transient, it is permanent.  It is not something that can be “lost” and then “picked up” by another church, for Jesus established only one Church and promised to remain with that Church.  Bad people in the Church cannot cause apostolic authority to “go away.”  It is the authority of Christ, given by Christ.  Jesus never said that the authority given to the Apostles would someday go away or be confined to a book.  The Apostles never taught that, either.  They appointed new men to fill vacant offices (Acts 1:20-26).

If the Catholic Church does not have apostolic authority, then no one has apostolic authority.  That authority died with the Apostles, and the Bible doesn’t have it, either.  It’s just a collection of old writings that may or may not have been inspired by God, put together by a false religion that calls itself Christian.  If that’s the case, it really doesn’t make sense to believe what is in the Bible.  On the other hand, if the Catholic Church does have apostolic authority, then it is reasonable to believe the things that are explicitly stated in the Bible as well as all of the other official teachings of the Catholic Church.  It’s all apostolic teaching.

Ultimately, for the Catholic, it comes down to trusting Christ to hold it all together in spite of our imperfections.  “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.” (2Cor 4:7)  Jesus, I trust in thee.

Once Christ’s Church, Always Christ’s Church (OCCACC)

During my years spent in “once-saved-always-saved” churches, there was something lurking below the surface of the doctrine that I could not quite put my finger on.  This morning it hit me.  Although it is not intentional, there is a double standard.  I certainly don’t mean to accuse anyone of malice or ill intent.  It is simply a double standard that folks overlook.  Most people that hold to “once-saved-always-saved” (OSAS) genuinely believe the doctrine and are well-intentioned in spreading it. They want to go to Heaven and take as many people with them as they can.  That’s not a bad thing.  They mean well.  They sincerely love Jesus.

When King David committed adultery and murder, he was not “dethroned.”  He remained King, not because of his good behavior, but because he was God’s anointed.  When Moses was disobedient, he was punished but not “removed from office.”  He remained the leader of Israel until he died because he was chosen by God to be the leader.  When the Pharisees became hypocrites and made the Word of God of no effect Jesus did not say, “You have been bad, so you no longer have any authority.”  Instead, Jesus told the people, “Do what the Pharisees tell you because they sit on the seat of Moses.  Just don’t be hypocrites like they are.”  Peter said the “wrong thing” prompting Jesus to refer to him as “Satan.”  Then Peter denied Jesus three times during his trial.  Despite this bad behavior Peter was still chosen by God to infallibly write letters that would become part of the inerrant, God-breathed, Holy Bible.

Regarding their own salvation, OSAS folks will say, “It doesn’t matter what I do, I can’t lose my salvation because nothing can separate me from the love of God.  I am sealed unto the day of redemption.  I am justified (meaning, it is “just as if” I had never sinned).  Once God decides to save me it’s a done deal.  I may lose rewards in Heaven for bad behavior, but I’ll never lose my salvation.  God has the power to preserve my soul!”

However, that same, steadfast, preservative power of God is never seen as applied to the Catholic Church.  To the OSAS folks (and Protestantism in general), the Catholic Church cannot be the one true Church established by Jesus Christ due to “bad behavior.”  Whether it is the Crusades, the Inquisition, the selling of indulgences, the Galileo ordeal or the more recent priest abuse scandals, people insist that such behavior disqualifies Catholicism from being Christ’s Church.  In other words, God can keep King David and even individual Christians intact, but not his own Church.  The Church had to be scrapped and “started over” because it just wasn’t working out.  So, the Old Covenant was replaced by the New Covenant Church, and the New Covenant Church was replaced by the “New” New Covenant Church in the 1500s.  God’s grace and the Holy Spirit just couldn’t handle the behavior of Catholics.

Nevertheless, OSAS Christians (and Protestantism in general) accept the Catholic Church’s formation of the New Testament canon.  The New Testament, as compiled and authorized by the Catholic Church, is accepted as the God-breathed, inspired, inerrant Word of God.  But, because of the bad behavior of some Catholics, the Catholic Church was “dethroned” as God’s anointed and replaced by lots of different “churches” with various doctrines and practices.  The office of the papacy, which once oversaw and authorized the compilation of Holy Scripture, no longer has authority.  This is the double standard.  It seems that the Holy Spirit and God’s grace are able to work with everybody’s bad behavior except for the Catholic Church.

The Holy Spirit-led Catholic Church allegedly gave us the New Testament and then suddenly turned into “The Whore of Babylon” at worst, or an “outdated, out of touch denomination” at best.  Personally, I believe God is more powerful and more gracious than that.  He is powerful enough to establish a Church with offices of leadership, and then preserve that Church until the end of time, just as he preserves the Scriptures compiled by that Church.

We need not apply the words of Christ, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” only to individual Christians.  Those words also apply to the Church Jesus established, the Catholic Church.  Jesus has not left the Church, but many of us have.  Some of us have met Christ’s Church, but we have not met Christ.  Some of us have met Christ, but we have not genuinely met his Church.  Many people have only been introduced to a caricature of the Church propagated by anti-Catholic teachings, poor catechesis or simple misunderstandings.

Christ and his Church go together.  We are incomplete with one but not the other.  Where there are human beings there will always be sin.  Nevertheless, “Once-Christ’s-Church-always-Christ’s-Church” holds true because of Jesus, not because of us.

The Religion Of Personal Preference

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone say, “I’m looking for a good church,” or, “We’re church shopping.”  I’ve said these things myself in the past.  There is much “between the lines” of such statements.  Overall, I believe those words often reveal a “religion of personal preference.”  That is, we seek God under the condition that God will make us comfortable and happy.

People “shop” for churches that appeal to them.  I can’t recall ever hearing someone say, “I chose this church because it made me feel so uncomfortable.”  The ironic thing is that, although God calls us to peace and joy, he doesn’t call us to “comfort,” at least not in the sense that most people perceive comfort.  The Holy Spirit is “the Comforter,” but that doesn’t mean he provides padded pews and nice feelings all around.  It means we can have spiritual peace and guidance even in the midst of our greatest trials.  Many trials are a direct result of following God.  In fact, Jesus told his followers to expect suffering.

The thing we tend to forget is that  Jesus calls us.  We’re not supposed to “shop around” until we find our preferred selection on a spiritual menu.  How arrogant and self-centered we can be!  Think about famous people in the Bible that were called by God.  Abraham, Moses, Jonah, all the prophets, the Virgin Mary and Joseph, the Apostles, are just a few examples.  None of them were “comfortable” being called.  They were afraid, reluctant, confused, angered, blinded, knocked to the ground, swallowed by fish, etc.  None of them said, “Wow, this just feels right.  What a warm welcome!”  On the contrary, the calling was not what they were “shopping for.”  It did not suit their preferences.

Why, then, do we insist on shopping for a church that suits our preferences?  We’re not supposed to search for a church that we “like” or create a church that we “like.”   We’re supposed to answer the call of the Church established by Jesus, like it or not.  The Church is Christ on Earth.  It is through his Church that Jesus calls us.  It is “right” even if it doesn’t always “feel right” because it is truth.  Truth does not change with our whims and our feelings.  Truth unifies.  Feelings tend to divide and confuse.  Jesus calls us to unity through truth.  The Church is not a product to be marketed.  It is the truth to be lived and shared.

Pope Francis has captured the attention of the world, not by creative marketing, but by being a disciple of Christ.  He is, as he says, “A child of the Church.”  This is what we are all called to be.  This is what Catholics are supposed to be like.  He is leading by example.  He is the pastor of the entire Christian Church.  He is our shepherd.  He takes his orders from The Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit.  Like it or not, there is no other “church” to shop for.

Let’s stop shopping for churches.  Let’s quit trying to turn the Church into a “product” that competes for the attention of fickle consumers.  Let’s dump the “religion” of personal preferences.  Instead, let’s answer the call of the Church.  Let’s allow Jesus to step into our boats and rock them.  That’s what disciples do.  Disciples follow their leader, not their own preferences.  Let’s show the world Jesus Christ.  He is what they long for.