Category Archives: Theology

Hey, Let’s Go To Church. Ok, Where Is It?

I’ve been pondering the word “church” today and considering the various ways it is used.  Here are a few examples:  a church building; a denomination; a personal adjective, as in “church lady;” the entire body of Christian believers; an assembly of believers; an event, as in the expression, “Let’s have church.”  The word “church” is used a bit like the word “love.”  So many meanings derived from one single word.  When Jesus said, “I will build my church” what did he mean?

People generally think Jesus meant that he would create a body of Christian believers.  That is true.  The Church is a body of believers.  This is where many folks stop, however.  Ask them to point to the Church that Jesus built and things begin to get murky.  They may respond that the Church built by Jesus can’t be pointed to because it is invisible.  Since only God can see the heart, only God knows who is saved and who is lost.  Therefore, it would be presumptuous to point to any person or any group and say, “There is the Church.”  Or, they may respond that all of the Christian denominations are the Church.  They simply disagree on non-essential issues.  They all believe in Jesus, so, they are all the Church that Christ founded.

I used to hold to an opinion that combined the two views.  I decided that no one knows who is lost or saved, and every church was a mixture of saved and lost people (the wheat and the tares).  There is some truth to that, but if someone were to ask me to point to the Church that Jesus Christ built I would essentially have to say, “Take your pick.”  Eventually, I ran into some problems with my perspective.

First of all, if the Church is completely invisible, how can anyone find it?  How can an invisible Church be a light for the world?  The “invisible Church” idea sounds more like a Church “hidden under a bushel.”  It is true that only God knows the heart, but it is also true that Jesus started a visible organization and placed men in specific offices within that organization.  The apostles were left in charge of the organization, and they passed their offices on to their successors (i.e. the bishops).  What Jesus started was an organized religion.

Furthermore, Jesus said he would always be with the Church and that the gates of Hell would not prevail against it.  The Church would remain an organized religion with Jesus at the head and the successors of the apostles in charge until the end of time.  Modern day Christendom with its thousands of denominations and conflicting doctrines does not fit the model of what Jesus said he would build.  Jesus prayed for his believers, “That they all would be one as you and I, Father, are one.” (John 17:21)  Can Jesus and the Father have conflicting doctrines?  No.  The Church was to be a visible, organized religion with a hierarchy of leadership and unity of doctrine.

Another problem I ran into was the take-it-to-the-Church concept.  Believers are told that if there is a conflict that can’t be worked out in private, “…take it to the Church.”  If the offending party won’t listen even to the Church, then they are to be treated as a heathen (Matt 18:17).  This simply cannot operate in the modern, multi-denomination world we have today.  One can find YouTube videos galore of different denominations debating various essential topics of Christian doctrine.  For instance, when a Church of Christ believer says that baptism is necessary for salvation, and a non-denominational believer disagrees, how can they resolve their dispute?  Which “church” do they take it to?  All they can do is debate each other endlessly.  They have no final authority to call the shots.  They are both appealing to the Bible as the final authority, yet the Bible is telling them to take their dispute to the Church, something they cannot do.  In other words, the Bible points to the Church as the final authority and the “pillar of truth.” (1Tim 3:15)  But, which church?

Jesus built a Church that is a visible body of believers, has offices with a hierarchy of apostolic successors and functions as the final authority in disputes between believers.  There’s really only one Church that fits that model consistently since the time of Christ.  That’s one of the main reasons I went back to Catholicism.  Submission to the Church built by Christ is submission to Christ.  The two are inseparable.  The final authority for faith and morals is no longer my personal opinion or even my pastor’s opinion.  The authority rests squarely where Christ placed it 2000 years ago, even before there was a Bible.  Like it or not, the authority rests within the Catholic Church.  This is not arrogance.  It doesn’t mean all the people in the Church are perfect.  Far from it.  If not for the Holy Spirit, the Church would have imploded centuries ago.  It’s still here because it’s Christ’s Church.  He started it and he holds it together even when we try to tear it apart.

My Toddlers Remind Me…

If you are a parent, or have been around children, you have probably had the experience of stooping down to talk face-to-face with a little one.  The giant size of an adult can be intimidating to a child.  Even if not intimidated, the child’s neck might be less strained if the adult is at eye level.  When the adult stoops down, or lifts the child to eye level the message is, “I’m with you.  You have my attention.  I care.”  Consider how hard it is for small children to jump or climb to the adult’s eye level.

Have you ever gazed into the vastness of space on a clear, starlit night and wondered just how gigantic it is?  Personally, I feel very small when I do that.  It reminds me that I’ll never comprehend how big and powerful God is.  How could any of us ever jump that high or climb to the farthest reaches of a never-ending spaciousness?  The closest stars are beyond our reach.  We can’t reach an eternal God.  God knows this.  So, like a loving parent, God stoops down to us.

Children can’t understand everything an adult tells them.  Yet, even small children can sense when an adult stoops to their level.  We can’t intellectually understand everything Jesus taught us.  Much of it we have to take on faith, like children.  But, we can sense that Jesus is a loving God stooping to our level (i.e. becoming human) in order to meet us face-to-face.  He cared so much for us that he even endured the pain of our sins and transgressions and gave us a way out.  Jesus is more than a good teacher.  Jesus is God saying, “I’m with you.  You have my attention.  I care.”  Not only does God stoop down to us through Jesus, he ultimately lifts us up to himself.  We only need to let him have us, and not run away.

Next time you gaze at the vastness of the universe, the power of the oceans or any awe inspiring sight that makes God seem gigantic and unreachable, remember that Jesus is Immanuel (“God with us”).  Don’t let the unanswerable, intellectual questions about God deter you.  Become a child and realize that Jesus not only came to us 2000 years ago, he promised to remain with us until the end of time.  He is still here, reaching out to us through the Holy Spirit, the Eucharist and the Church.  He remains spiritually and physically present with us, and that is an encouraging thought.

The Spirit Is Willing But The Flesh Is Weak: The Flesh Is Of No Avail

If you’re a Christian, you know you’re supposed to walk by faith, not by sight (2Cor 5:7).  Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Heb 11:1).  Blessed are those who have not seen, yet still believe (Jn 20:29).  What we see is bread and wine.  What is there (the actual substance) is Christ’s body and blood.  This is so because Jesus, The Eternal Word, said it is so.  And what faithful Christian doesn’t believe the Word of God?  The following is an article by Catholic apologist Tim Staples.  It is an excellent, concise explanation of why the Eucharist is not just a symbol, and why Christians were called by Jesus to believe so by faith, not by sight.

What Catholics Believe About John 6

by Tim Staples

For millions of non-Catholic Christians, Jesus was using pure symbolism in John 6:53 when he declared to his followers, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” The reasons non-Catholics give can usually be boiled down to these: First, a literal interpretation would make Christians into cannibals. Second, Jesus claims to be a “door” in John 10:9 and a “vine” in John 15:5. Do Catholics believe they must pluck a leaf from Jesus the vine or oil the hinges on Jesus the door to get into heaven? So the non-Catholic claims Jesus is using metaphor in John 6, just as he does elsewhere in the Gospels.

Catholic Cannibals?

The charge of cannibalism does not hold water for at least three reasons. First, Catholics do not receive our Lord in a cannibalistic form. Catholics receive him in the form of bread and wine. The cannibal kills his victim; Jesus does not die when he is consumed in Communion. Indeed, he is not changed in the slightest; the communicant is the only person who is changed. The cannibal eats part of his victim, whereas in Communion the entire Christ is consumed—body, blood, soul, and divinity. The cannibal sheds the blood of his victim; in Communion our Lord gives himself to us in a non-bloody way.

Second, if it were truly immoral in any sense for Christ to give us his flesh and blood to eat, it would be contrary to his holiness to command anyone to eat his body and blood—even symbolically. Symbolically performing an immoral act would be of its nature immoral.

Moreover, the expressions to eat flesh and to drink blood already carried symbolic meaning both in the Hebrew Old Testament and in the Greek New Testament, which was heavily influenced by Hebrew. In Psalm 27:1-2, Isaiah 9:18-20, Isaiah 49:26, Micah 3:3, and Revelation 17:6-16, we find these words (eating flesh and drinking blood) understood as symbolic for persecuting or assaulting someone. Jesus’ Jewish audience would never have thought he was saying, “Unless you persecute and assault me, you shall not have life in you.” Jesus never encouraged sin. This may well be another reason why the Jews took Christ at his word.

Not Metaphorically Speaking

If Jesus was speaking in purely symbolic terms, his competence as a teacher would have to be called into question. No one listening to him understood him to be speaking metaphorically. Contrast his listeners’ reaction when Jesus said he was a “door” or a “vine.” Nowhere do we find anyone asking, “How can this man be a door made out of wood?” Or, “How can this man claim to be a plant?” When Jesus spoke in metaphor, his audience seems to have been fully aware of it.

When we examine the surrounding context of John 6:53, Jesus’ words could hardly have been clearer. In verse 51, he plainly claims to be “the living bread” that his followers must eat. And he says in no uncertain terms that “the bread which I shall give . . . is my flesh.” Then, when the Jews were found “disput[ing] among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” in verse 52, he reiterates even more emphatically, “Truly, truly, I say unto you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

Compare this with other examples in Scripture when followers of the Lord are confused about his teaching. In John 4:32, Jesus says: “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” The disciples thought Jesus was speaking about physical food. Our Lord quickly clears up the point using concise, unmistakable language in verse 34: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work” (see also Matthew 16:5-12).

Moreover, when we consider the language used by John, a literal interpretation—however disturbing—becomes even more obvious. In John 6:50-53 we encounter various forms of the Greek verb phago, “eating.” However, after the Jews begin to express incredulity at the idea of eating Christ’s flesh, the language begins to intensify. In verse 54, John begins to use trogo instead of phago. Trogo is a decidedly more graphic term, meaning “to chew on” or to “gnaw on”—as when an animal is ripping apart its prey.

Then, in verse 61, it is no longer the Jewish multitudes, but the disciples themselves who are having difficulty with these radical statements of our Lord. Surely, if he were speaking symbolically, he would clear up the difficulty now among his disciples. Instead, what does Jesus do? He reiterates the fact that he meant just what he said: “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before?” (61-62). Would anyone think him to have meant, “What if you were to see me symbolically ascend?” Hardly! The apostles, in fact, did see Jesus literally ascend to where he was before (see Acts 1:9-10).

Finally, our Lord turns to the twelve. What he does not say to them is perhaps more important than what he does say. He doesn’t say, “Hey guys, I was misleading the Jewish multitudes, the disciples, and everyone else, but now I am going to tell you alone the simple truth: I was speaking symbolically.” Rather, he says to them, “Will you also go away?” (v. 67). This most profound question from our Lord echoes down through the centuries, calling all followers of Christ in a similar fashion. With St. Peter, those who hear the voice of the Shepherd respond: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (v. 68).

Spirit vs. Flesh

John 6:63 is the one verse singled out by Protestant apologists to counter much of what we have asserted thus far. After seeing the Jews and the disciples struggling with the radical nature of his words, our Lord says to the disciples and to us all: “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Protestants claim Jesus here lets us know he was speaking symbolically or “spiritually” when he said “the spirit gives life, the flesh is of no avail.” See? He is not giving us his flesh to eat because he says “the flesh is of no avail.” How do we respond? We can in several ways.

1) If Jesus was clearing up the point, he would have to be considered a poor teacher: Many of the disciples left him immediately thereafter because they still believed the words of our Lord to mean what they said.

2) Most importantly, Jesus did not say, “My flesh is of no avail.” He said, “The flesh is of no avail.” There is a rather large difference between the two. No one, it is safe to say, would have believed he meant my flesh avails nothing because he just spent a good portion of this same discourse telling us that his flesh would be “given for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51, cf. 50-58). So to what was he referring? The flesh is a New Testament term often used to describe human nature apart from God’s grace.

For example, Christ said to the apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mk 14:38). According to Paul, if we are in “the flesh,” we are “hostile to God” and “cannot please God” (cf. Rom 8:1-14). In First Corinthians 2:14, he tells us, “The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” In First Corinthians 3:1, Paul goes on, “But I, brethren, could not address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ.” It requires supernatural grace in the life of the believer to believe the radical declaration of Christ concerning the Eucharist. As Jesus himself said both before and after this “hard saying”: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn 6:44, cf. 6:65). Belief in the Eucharist is a gift of grace. The natural mind—or the one who is in “the flesh”—will never be able to understand this great Christian truth.

3) On another level very closely related to our last point, Christ said, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail,” because he wills to eliminate any possibility of a sort of crass literalism that would reduce his words to a cannibalistic understanding. It is the Holy Spirit that will accomplish the miracle of Christ being able to ascend into heaven bodily while being able simultaneously to distribute his body and blood in the Eucharist for the life of the world. A human body, even a perfect one, apart from the power of the Spirit could not accomplish this.

4) That which is spiritual does not necessarily equate to that which has no material substance. It often means that which is dominated or controlled by the Spirit.

One thing we do not want to do as Christians is to fall into the trap of believing that because Christ says his words are “spirit and life,” or “spiritual,” they cannot involve the material. When speaking of the resurrection of the body, Paul wrote: “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:44). Does this mean we will not have a physical body in the resurrection? Of course not. In Luke 24:39, Jesus made that clear after his own Resurrection: “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

The resurrected body is spiritual, and indeed we can be called spiritual as Christians inasmuch as we are controlled by the Spirit of God. Spiritual in no way means void of the material. That interpretation is more gnostic than Christian. The confusion here is most often based upon confusion between spirit—a noun—and the adjective spiritual. When spirit is used, e.g., “God is spirit” in John 4:24, it is then referring to that which is not material. However, the adjective spiritual is not necessarily referring to the absence of the material; rather, it is referring to the material controlled by the Spirit.

Thus, we could conclude that Jesus’ words, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail” have essentially a twofold meaning. Only the Spirit can accomplish the miracle of the Eucharist, and only the Spirit can empower us to believe the miracle.

“F” Words

There is no better way to learn something than to live it.  That’s what we call experience.  Vicarious learning is good, but can have certain limitations.  “I have experience” actually means, “I have had some troubles.”

For example, if I hire someone with experience, I hire a person that has personal exposure to failure.  That person has messed things up in the past and has learned not to repeat those mistakes.  Much of that person’s knowledge is probably learned vicariously (i.e. other people’s mistakes), but it is the personal failures that have provided the experiential learning.  This is why people like to see an airline pilot with “a little gray around the temples.”  It is assumed that such a pilot will have already used up any rookie mistakes and is experienced as possible.  It is also why veteran combat soldiers look upon new recruits with apprehension.  “Don’t do anything to get us killed.”

The first “F” word is failure.  Failure is how we learn.  None of us exit the womb, stand up, and begin walking.  We all have to learn to flail our limbs about, then roll over, then scoot, then crawl or roll around before we can even begin to stand.  Once we stand, we can then experience the falling down required for learning to walk.  And fall we do, time and time again.  It is very endearing to watch a child fall down over and over, because we instinctively know why they are doing it.  We smile and laugh at each failure and then celebrate the success of the first steps.

At some stage, we stop appreciating failure and behave as if it is something to be avoided at all cost.  Some folks develop an overarching fear of failure.  Fear is the second “F” word.  Certainly, as we get older and more responsible, some failures carry more weight.  Some failures do need to be avoided at all cost.  Airline pilots and soldiers know this.  Nevertheless, we cannot continue to learn and grow without failure.  Actually, it is failure that helps us realize our full potential.

God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.  In our hearts and in our actions, we don’t keep the Ten Commandments very well.  We fail.  The law was given as a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24).  Actually, we don’t break the law so much as it breaks us.  If we are honest, our lack of perfection compels us to seek out true perfection.  Enter Jesus Christ, our Redeemer.  “O happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer” (The Felix Culpa).

So, let not your heart be troubled.  Fear not.  Your failures taught you how to walk and then to run.  Let them lead you to everlasting life and peace as well.  Let them heal your relationships.  Let them show you your full potential in Jesus Christ.  We are all called to be saints.  There are no saints in Heaven without a past.  There are no sinners on earth without a future.  The Church is a spiritual hospital for sinners.  That’s what God’s Word is for.  That’s what the Sacrament of Reconciliation is for.  That’s what the Bread of Life is for.  We all fail.  We all can be redeemed.

On Drumming And Holiness: Getting Out Of The Way

I remember Neil Peart (the famous drummer of RUSH) talking about what he learned by taking drum lessons from the old master teacher Freddie Gruber.  Neil had already achieved great fame many times over for his drumming, but he was willing to learn more.  So he took some lessons.  He learned a new approach to playing that involved more circular, fluid movements and less aggressive “striking down” on the drum for every beat.  As a result, his playing gained a more natural feel.  Neil described it as “me getting out of the way of what the sticks were naturally trying to do.”  I liked that description because it put words to something I had experienced in my own playing.  There are times when I feel I am working for every beat. Then there are times when the rhythm flows naturally.  In those natural moments, it is almost as if the sticks know where to go and I am following them.  My grip is relaxed enough to allow the sticks to rebound as they want to, yet firm enough not to drop them.  I, the drummer, am not “in the way” of the sticks.

Tonight, I was listening to Fr. Larry Richards being interviewed on EWTN about his new book on surrender.  There were a couple things he mentioned that resonated with me as he commented on the meaning of holiness and surrender.

Surrender is not “giving up.” Surrender is laying down one’s life for others.  It involves placing oneself third on a list of priorities.  God comes first, then others, then me.  Surrender is spiritual strength.

About holiness he said that deciding to be holy and then setting about to accomplish the task of holiness is heresy.  Such an approach is self-centered as it becomes all about me and my holiness.  Holiness is not something I can accomplish.  Next, he said something that immediately called to mind the drum lessons of Neil Peart.  “Holiness is me getting out of the way so that Christ within me can work.”  As a drummer, if I get in the way of the sticks, my playing suffers.  As a Christian, if I get in the way of Christ, my holiness suffers.  As a drummer, I have to relinquish just enough control so as to not interfere with the natural flow of the rhythm.  As a Christian, I must surrender all control in order for the holiness of Christ to work through me.

Then Fr. Larry mentioned the following verse:

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.  I do not frustrate the grace of God; for if righteousness comes from the law, then Christ is dead in vain.  (Galatians 2:20-21)

Lord, help me to get out of your way, so your natural holiness can flow.

God’s Mud Room: Or, Why I Believed In Purgatory Even When I Didn’t Believe In Purgatory

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, if you’re a Christian, you probably believe that things will be much better in Heaven than they are in this life.  I, for one, certainly hope we’re not going to spend eternity with more of…this.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of love and joy to be found down here.  Even so, Heaven must have a lot more going for it.

I don’t expect to get to Heaven and find any arguments or disagreements.  I don’t expect anyone to take advantage of each other or mislead each other.  No more war.  No more tears.  No more pain or suffering of any kind.  No more looking across the pews in church and asking, “Lord, please help me tolerate that person.”  No more cursing or swearing.  I don’t expect that I, or anyone else, will want to sin or be inclined to sin or experience sin anymore.  I expect that we who are in Heaven will be very different from the people we are in this life.  We will be perfect people.  But we are Christians right now.  Why are things not perfect right now?

Things are not perfect right now because, even though we have been saved, we still have concupiscence, which is the tendency to sin.  If we are honest Christians, we all know that we still have some bugs in our software.  However, we also know that nothing unclean can enter Heaven (Rev 21:27).  So, now what?

Well, if we’re going to be different in Heaven than we are right now, “something” must happen to us between our death and our entrance into Heaven.  Scripture tells us that we shall be changed, for we shall see him as he is (1John 3:2).  It also tells us that our works will be tried by fire and all the weak stuff will be burned away, although we will still be saved (1Cor 3:12-15).  Sounds like a purging, doesn’t it?  Obviously, God has to do “something” or else we’re all going to be walking through the door of Heaven dragging our tendency to sin right along with us.  And surely God doesn’t want to give our resurrected, glorified bodies to our cantankerous, imperfectly-behaving souls, now, does he?

I don’t know how long it takes, what it feels like or exactly when it happens.  Some of this purging may even happen before we die as God works on our souls to perfect them for entrance into Heaven.  The point is, we are cleaned up, washed up, disinfected, purged of all the gunk, whatever you want to call it.  Otherwise, we’d be left standing at the door of Heaven with nowhere to go.  There we would stand, a bunch of saved Christians, with our tendencies toward sin hanging out of our pockets and sticking to our imperfect hair.  What a mess we would make of Heaven if we got in like that!

You might not call it Purgatory.  Maybe you never even thought about it before.  But if you believe you will likely be different in Heaven than you are on the day you die, then you believe in some kind of purging or “cleaning up” process.  Catholics simply decided to call it Purgatory.

In Martin Luther’s day, there were lots of people abusing the idea of Purgatory.  Consequently, some folks abandoned the idea completely.  As with other Catholic doctrines, they threw the baby out with the bath water.  However, the abuse of a doctrine does not make the doctrine untrue.  Truth is truth.  In the case of Purgatory, the truth simply went “underground” for many Christians, and they believe it without even realizing they believe it.  We can’t escape the truth.  If we’re going to get into Heaven, God’s not finished with us yet.  We ourselves shall be saved, “yet so as by fire.”  Some people might say, “God has a mud room, and Catholics call it Purgatory.”