Monday, May 23, 2011

The Heritage

1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

I have always thought the murder of St. Stephen as recorded in Acts 7 to be rather troublesome for many reasons, not least of which is the authority by which he was killed. These were "righteous" men - or at least they thought themselves to be sufficiently pious - who believed in the Lord God and who believed in the Law of Moses and presumably the Ten Commandments, including the prohibition against "bearing false witness".

Yet we are told in the latter part of Acts 6 and leading into chapter 7 the stories of "setting up false witnesses" against Stephen (Acts 6:13). So this "righteous" council that presumed to be in charge of the spiritual well-being of the Lord's Chosen took deliberate steps to set up and murder an innocent man, an innocent man who was at one time one of their own. It bears a striking resemblance to the extraordinary measures taken not long before that led to the Crucifixion of the Christ.

In spite of the Church's phenomenal growth from those days until now, our religious heritage has been somewhat inconsistent because exactly what may define our common heritage is hard to pin down. The New Covenant is humanity's common link to the Holy Father and to one another, of course, but our common religious heritage existed long before even the time of Jesus because Jesus is not, nor did He ever claim to be, an "alternate" God. He also did not "come to do away with the Law". By all accounts He was an observant and devout Jew.

"Heritage" is best defined as something which is passed from generation to generation, something we inherit from our forebears with the intent and design to preserve it, protect it, and then pass it on ... intact. It is what we receive and embrace for ourselves and call our own presumably only after we have come to understand what has been passed on and entrusted to our care. A "passing of the torch" is absolutely necessary, in my humble opinion, because nothing I know of comes from absolutely nothing. Everything has a root, and this includes Christianity. And considering how Christianity has evolved over the course of some 2000 years and considering how we are more inclined to simply make something up more pleasing to ourselves than to observe something much more enduring, I think we will have to reach back more than 2000 years to reclaim whatever heritage we have lost or outright surrendered.

Though we can and must teach our children about our religious heritage and tell the stories as Moses required of the people of Israel so that the heritage would not be lost, there is one thing we cannot hand off to our children. It is the one intangible that can be spoken of and witnessed to, but it cannot be passed along. It is the one thing which sustained Stephen - and Jesus - in their final hours. This one thing is, of course, faith.

We can and must teach faith principles and we can and must witness to what we believe and, more importantly perhaps, why we believe it, but it is difficult to pass on because of what I had spoken of previously. We are all geared somewhat differently even if we come from the same genetic pool. We have different experiences and environments which mean we will approach the same topic but probably in very different ways.

When it comes to an intangible like faith - a belief in what cannot be seen, a hope in what is to come - we must understand that no one, not even our own children, can have our faith because they do not have our experiences. They must be taught to develop their own faith, to ask their own questions, for that is the enduring faith which will serve them well. Grandma's faith will fail them because it is not their own, but grandma's heritage will give children the grounding and the foundation they will need to build their faith upon.

It may sound like I am splitting hairs because it is commonly understood that responsible Christian parents are to teach their faith to the little ones, but our common heritage is much bigger than what may be strictly personal. It would explain why the many who are outside the Body of Christ would defend themselves and their separation from the Church by suggesting that while they are fully prepared to believe and trust the Lord, they are just not willing to believe or trust US!

Such a stance is highly significant because it speaks of the disconnect that is often so prevalent when we talk about faith because we rarely tell the stories; we speak only of our own, personal experiences and then expect others to believe US. We are expecting them to start at nothing and build from a foundation which, for them, does not exist. We tell them what WE think they should believe, and we typically do not allow any variations as attested to when we try to "correct" them by telling them how "wrong" they are. We do not teach others HOW to think through the stories because we have forgotten the stories ourselves, unlike Peter who is "telling the stories", passing the torch of the Jewish heritage to help his predominantly Jewish audience to make the connection between their parents' past and their own spiritual future.

Jesus does not disconnect Himself from the Holy Father. He does not ask for faith for His own sake. Rather He seems to suggest that since they presumably already know the Holy God, they should then be prepared to believe in what the Holy Father can and will do for the sake of His own people and His own glory. What they are hearing and currently experiencing is very troubling for them and for their futures because of what they had been taught, probably from childhood, to believe. They want to believe that the Almighty would actually do such a thing as to humble Himself to share in our imperfect humanity and subject Himself to the same temptations, but what they know about the Lord from the dominant pharisaic religion disallows the concept of an infinite and Holy God as becoming a finite and intimate Human person.

Yet Jesus is the Law, and Jesus is the prophets (Mt 5:17-18). Jesus is also "the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6), but I would venture to suggest that what Jesus is talking about goes far beyond Jesus the human Person. Indeed it must! I would suggest to you that the "Way", the "Truth", and the "Life" in Christ existed long before Jesus the Man. John's Gospel begins with the testimony that Jesus is the Word that "in the beginning ... was God", and Jesus attests in His prayer to the Holy Father that His love preceded "the foundation of the world" (John 17:24). So Jesus the Man was born of a mortal woman, but Christ the Word has no beginning and certainly no ending.

Our common heritage is not - and cannot - be strictly limited only to personal experiences. By its very nature, a "personal" experience is unique only to that particular person. Would you care to share in St. Stephen's "personal" experience and be beaten to death with rocks? As fair as a parent would strive to be with all the children, it is reasonable to know that each child as an individual must be dealt with according to what is unique to that particular child but within the same household, the same rules, the same philosophy, and yes, the same religion. And to also remember that "what is good for the goose ..."

Our heritage - as is our future - is infinity. Our lives in Christ are eternal. Our hope is informed by our faith, and our faith is imparted to us by the One who created us, the One who sustains us, the One who has invested thousands of years in running us down and telling us in no uncertain terms that we are not alone, we are not forgotten, and we are never to be forsaken. The certainty of these promises is the heritage in the stories we have been told so that we may tell others "The Truth".

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