Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Jesus saves!

It was the storm of the century. Hurricane winds pounded the coast as the torrential rains fell. The waters crested their banks and began their march toward the houses. An old Evangelical sat on his porch watching the approaching waters. Soon his house was surrounded and the muddy waters kept rising. A rescue boat came by and beckoned for the man to climb onboard.

“God provides. Jesus is my salvation.” He calmly said and refused to board the rescue boat.

As the flood waters got higher the man was forced to retreat to the second story of the house. Looking out his bedroom window another rescue boat tried to get the man to leave.

“God provides. Jesus is my salvation.” He again stated defiantly.

The waters did not stop and the man had to climb upon his roof to keep from being swept away. This time a helicopter descended and a billowing voice called to him over a loud speaker. “Climb on board. We’re here to save you.”

“Only Jesus saves!” The man screamed back as he shook his fist at the helicopter.

And with that his house buckled and was washed away by the enraged waters. The man was lost amid the destruction. In the blink of an eye the man stood before Jesus in heaven. The man was dumbfounded. “Lord, I had unshakable faith. Why didn’t you save me?”

Jesus looked at the man a bit bewildered. “I sent two boats and a helicopter. What more should I have done?”

This is a popular anti-Catholic meme that is floating around Face Book that demonstrates this same kind of thought. It is a great illustration on how something can be 100% factually correct and completely wrong at the same time. It is 100% factually correct that only Jesus can save us. Where it goes wrong is how Jesus goes about doing this.

Jesus was a tekton, a trade craftsman. English commonly translates tekton as carpenter. As a craftsman Jesus used many tools to do his job. He used hammers, saws, canons, and many other tools to build what he built. When he goes about the job of saving man he also uses tools to accomplish this. Jesus gave us things to make it easier to live a holy life. Let’s examine each claim of this meme.

Only Jesus saves, not a priest.

Correctly stated, Jesus saves through a priest. Jesus lived with and taught the twelve for three years. At the last supper he taught them how to offer sacrifice in his name. Between the resurrection and Pentecost he continued their instruction and passed on to them his divine authority to do things like forgive sins, consecrate the Holy Eucharist, and cast out demons. A priest cannot do any of these things on his own authority or through his own name any more than I can come to your house and demand that you let me in, in the name of the FBI. The FBI has not given me that authority and therefore I cannot not act with their power. The twelve were deputized and given a badge to act in the name and authority of Jesus by Jesus. Jesus acts through a priest to provide the things that will assist us in living a holy life.

Only Jesus saves, not Mary.

Once again, 100% correct. Mary is not God. She is the mother of God and the best example of what a human person can be. She was the first Christian, conceived without original sin, the new Eve. Catholics do not worship Mary. We venerate her and give her, her proper place as the queen of heaven, as stated in the Book of Revelations. Jesus said ask and it shall be given, knock and the door will be opened. If he is willing to do this for us how much more so will he do this for his mother, the only sinless human person, and one who never denied or lost faith in her son? Behold your mother. Jesus gave us his mother as the example on how to live and her intercession to him on our behalf is second to none.

Only Jesus saves, not Baptism.

Yup, no argument there. Baptism alone cannot save you just as much as not being baptized sends you directly to Hell. Neither is correct. Baptism is the first Sacrament of Initiation and the doorway to all of the other Sacraments. A sacrament is an efficacious sign of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is 'dispensed' to us. In other words, baptism is a tool used by Jesus to give us grace to live a holy life. A holy life leads to salvation; it is not salvation in and of itself. Baptism cleanses us, puts an indelible mark on our souls, and brings us into God’s family as an adopted child.

Only Jesus saves, not good works.

That is correct. There is noting salvific about works of any kind. Heaven will be filled with people who did not do a single good work. Take the repentant thief as an example. His faith alone was rewarded with paradise. Yet, there are many, many passages in the bible where we are told that it is not only expected but commanded that we do good works if we truly love Jesus. Obedience is more pleasing to God than even sacrifice. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, give shelter to the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned, and to bury the dead. These are good works and we have been commanded to do them. He also went on to tell us that anyone who does not do these things will be separated out with the goats at the end of time. If we truly love Jesus we will naturally do the good works that he has commanded us to do.

Only Jesus saves, not a church.

Spoiler alert – there will be many who attended church services faithfully their entire lives in Hell at the completion of time. In 1820 the whaling ship Essex was sunk by a sperm whale. The crew escaped to the lifeboats and spent the next ninety-five days at sea. Just because they made it into a lifeboat did not mean that they survived. The crew lived off of the bodies of five of their shipmates who died. When those bodies were not sufficient they drew lots on who would be sacrificed so the rest may live. Seven of the crew were cannibalized to save the rest. Just because you are physically in a church does not mean you will be saved.

Yet, Jesus did start the Church. With a little understanding of Jewish culture and the significance of the number twelve this becomes very clearly evident from Holy Scripture. Jesus did not just start any church or every church; he started only one Church, the Catholic Church. This has nothing to do with religion. It is a historical fact. He started the Church because he wanted us to be all one body, one family. That body is his Church. We are many parts but we are all one body. Jesus uses the Church as a tool to lead lost sheep to a saving knowledge of his love.

Only Jesus saves, not the Pope.

Ah yes. How often we hear this especially in today’s world of social media and around the clock news coverage. Non-Catholics so often mistake the reverence Catholics hold for the Pope as worship. Like with Mary, we do not worship the Pope but we do hold him in a place of honor because he sits in the Chair of Peter. Simon bar Jonah, the Rock, is the man whose faith Christ built his Church upon. Jesus appointed Peter the first “pope”, the leader of the twelve in his absence. Peter was to lead and guide, not rule over, the early Church. Why does the Church need a visible head? Well, we have one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Catholic Church that teaches the same truth in every one of its parishes and 30,000 plus Protestant churches that cannot agree upon what is true. The Pope in union with his bishops make up the Magisterium. The primary responsibility of the Magisterium is to ensure that the truths that Jesus taught the twelve are handed down exactly as he taught them. The Pope is the visible face of the invisible Christ. It is through the authority passed down to him from Jesus that the Pope acts.

If this meme represented the Catholic understanding of salvation it would say:

Jesus saves through….

through the priesthood.

through Mary.

through Baptism.

through good works.

through the Church.

through the Pope.

Jesus saves through the tools that he gave us to use to live a holy life.

Some eight days after these sayings, He took along Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while He was praying, the appearance of His face became different, and His clothing became white and gleaming. And behold, two men were talking with Him; and they were Moses and Elijah, who, appearing in glory, were speaking of His departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions had been overcome with sleep; but when they were fully awake, they saw His glory and the two men standing with Him. And as these were leaving Him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three tabernacles: one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not realizing what he was saying. While he was saying this, a cloud formed and began to overshadow them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. Then a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him! And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent, and reported to no one in those days any of the things which they had seen.” Luke 9: 28-36

My heart is full because the tomb is empty.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Time to break out the hoes.

This is truly an exciting time of year. The hazy shades of winter are slowly losing its grip and the day is returning to full splendor. The snow is retreating and soon the first signs of green will start to emerge. My mailbox has already beginning to fill with seed catalogs filled with pictures of produce in every color of the rainbow. I have loved these catalogs since I was a small boy and their arrival fuels my urges to dig in the dirt. There is something so satisfying about being able to grow your own yummy, nutritious food from a small seed.

We are also in the season of Lent where we prepare our hearts to receive the greatest miracle ever granted. For me Holy Week is the greatest week of the year. My emotions run high as we re-present the Passion of our Lord, standing in the congregation while everyone yells, “CRUCIFY HIM!” I have never been able to take part in that portion of the service. It takes all my strength to keep tears from flowing down my cheeks.

Then on Good Friday Jesus is gone, body committed to the ground. I have never experienced such utter loneliness as what I feel when I am in a Catholic Church and the tabernacle is empty. Last year my parish did a Tenebrae service. In this service the last seven things Christ said on the cross are read. After each reading a candle is extinguished. At the end you are left in total darkness, alone, as Christ would have been in the tomb. You will never experience the feeling of such loss except in Hell.

Holy week concludes on the Easter vigil where the year’s catechumens and candidates are baptized, confirmed, and brought as new members into the family of God. It is the single greatest celebration that mankind has ever experienced. Darkness is vanquished and Light returns to the Church. Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed! Imagine the torment you would feel if you misplaced your new born. Now imagine the joy you would feel when you found her again. Holy Week is like that for me but infinitesimally greater.

In part of the Easter Vigil the catechumens (unbaptized) are baptized. They become a new creation, an adopted child of God. Their sins are wiped clean and they begin anew. All of the faithful gathered also renew their baptismal vows.

In baptism God tills the fertile soil of our hearts. In each of us he plants a single seed. The seed is then germinated by the waters of baptism and we are given the command to be fruitful and multiply. It becomes our responsibility to tend to this seed, to nurture it, and help it grow. If we do our part that seed will grow to a strong plant and produce much fruit. Each fruit is full of hundreds seeds waiting to be spread to other catechumens and the light of God’s love will spread.

But how we care for that plant is up to us. Many neglect it. Many more let it die. They become infertile soil incapable of growing the love God has for each of us. But with God there is always hope. If those who fall away can see the abundance a fruitful garden can yield they can come to long for what that garden produces. This is where the real work of ministry, of tending the garden, begins. It is up to us to help the fallen away fix their infertile soil and then replant the seed of everlasting life.

Most of us are quite content living in our own garden. The abundant fruit is not shared with anyone and begins to rot on the ground. Rotting fruit attracts every sort of evil that will take over the garden and eventually destroy it. We are given an abundance to share with those who lack real fruit. This is the true meaning behind Jesus’ sermon on the sheep and the goats. Sheep share their abundance bringing new sheep into the flock. Goats do not and are cast aside. Goats need not the Shepherd for they have their reward.

Use this period of Lent, the lengthening of days, to tend to your garden so it may be fruitful and multiple bringing many sheep into God’s Holy flock.

My heart is full because the tomb is empty.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Puzzling Pachyderm

Five blind men heard that the circus was coming to town and they thought they would go down and see an elephant. They approached the elephant at the same time, side by side.

The first man grabbed the elephant by the trunk and after feeling it declared, “An elephant is like a big fire hose.”

The second man got a hold of the elephant by the ear and after feeling it disagreed with the first man. “An elephant is alike a large tropical leaf.”

The third man wrapped his arms around the elephant’s leg. It didn’t feel anything like a fire hose or a large leaf. “No, an elephant is like a mighty oak tree.”

The fourth man ran into the side of the elephant. He extended his arms as wide and as high as they could go. “To me an elephant feels like a rough brick wall.”

The fifth man only felt the elephant’s tail. He couldn’t understand what the other men were talking about. “An elephant is like a long rope.”

The five blind men began to bicker with each other over which one was right. The elephant trainer stood back taking in the whole sight. He just silently shook his head. “An elephant looks like, well, an elephant.”

We are like these blind men when we cherry pick passages out of Holy Scripture and use them to form our own beliefs as to what the bible actually is trying to tell us. We can latch on to one passage that leads us to believe that we are saved by only our faith. We can read another and believe that our faith is dead if we don’t perform works of love. One may read a passage and come away believing that anyone who isn’t baptized cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven. Another may believe that they can cast out demons by simply using the name of Jesus.
Yet God can see the entire picture, a beautiful tapestry, the magnificent masterpiece of art. God doesn’t see just the fire hose, the tropical plant, the tree, the brick wall, or the rope. God sees the elephant. Jesus took on flesh so that he could teach us how to see the elephant as well. He instructed his church on how to understand the bible. It is only through the lens of the Church can we see and understand the bible for what it is. Without the guidance of the Church we are just grasping at parts of the whole.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

You have dirt on your forehead.

“You have dirt on your forehead.”
I remember saying this to the Catholics who came to work after receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday. How little I understood what that mark meant.
Ash Wednesday begins the Christian season of Lent. Lent is the forty days before Easter and signifies the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the desert before he began his public ministry. The word lent comes from an Old English word meaning lengthening, as in the days are lengthening and the rebirth of spring is coming. That is what Easter is – a rebirth. Death has been conquered and we are all reborn in Christ’s resurrection.
Lent is a time for fasting, alms giving, and penance. In ancient times Christians would put on sackcloth and ashes as a sign for all to see that they were being penitent. Out of this tradition many Christians today start the season of Lent by having a cross of ashes traced on their foreheads with the words;
“Remember man, you are dust and to dust you will return.” Or,
“Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
Lent is a time for fasting. We do not fast because God likes it when we suffer. God does not want us to suffer nor is he impressed when we do. We fast to show God our love for him and to strengthen our wills. Everything I have belongs to God. I am just a steward of these things for him. The only thing that is truly mine is my free will. When I deny myself something pleasurable I exercise that free will. The devil hates it when we exercise because exercise makes us stronger to resist temptation. Satan loves spiritual couch potatoes.
Lent is also a time for alms giving – giving to the poor. If we are fasting we have extra we can offer to those who do not have these pleasures. We are to be more charitable during this season, giving not only money and food to those in need but our time as well. We can give alms by serving those not as fortunate as ourselves.
Most importantly, Lent is a time of penance. We are to look at our lives and be consciously aware of where we fail in our love for our Lord. We are to pray more and seek reconciliation. It is this purpose that the second person of God took on flesh and became the man known as Jesus of Nazareth. In his perfect love for us he offered up his divine blood as the payment for death brought on by sin.
Lent is our time in the desert, to prepare for the greatest gift of love ever given. When an important guest is coming we clean the house for them. During Lent we clean our souls to prepare for the arrival of the most important guest who will ever visit. We prepare to receive the risen Lord on Easter Sunday.
My heart is full because the tomb is empty.
So today I have dirt on my forehead as an outward sign to all that I am a Christian and that the season to prepare for Jesus is at hand.
“Jesus said to his disciples:
“Take care not to perform righteous deeds
in order that people may see them;
otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.
When you give alms,
do not blow a trumpet before you,
as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets
to win the praise of others.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you give alms,
do not let your left hand know what your right is doing,
so that your almsgiving may be secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

“When you pray,
do not be like the hypocrites,
who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners
so that others may see them.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you pray, go to your inner room,
close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

“When you fast,
do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.
They neglect their appearance,
so that they may appear to others to be fasting.
Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you fast,
anoint your head and wash your face,
so that you may not appear to be fasting,
except to your Father who is hidden.
And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”
– Matthew 6, 16-18