Sunday, October 23, 2011

Integrity: the Church's first - and last - Leg

Psalm 90:13-17
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

"It is to be anticipated that perhaps not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching. There is too much clamorous outcry against the voice of the Church, and this is intensified by modern means of communication. But it comes as no surprise to the Church that she, no less than her divine Founder, is destined to be a "sign of contradiction" (Luke 2:34). She does not, because of this, evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical.

Since the Church did not make either of these laws, she cannot be their arbiter—only their guardian and interpreter. It could never be right for her to declare lawful what is in fact unlawful, since that, by its very nature, is always opposed to the true good of [humanity]."
Pope Paul VI, "Humanae Vitae"; translated, "Of Human Life"

This encyclical was written in 1968 by then-Pope Paul VI who was answering the issue of artificial birth control and the Church's traditional stance and teaching which, incidentally goes back to the Didache believed to have been composed sometime between 50AD and 130AD. Didache is translated "Teaching" and is believed to be a reflection of the apostles' teachings if not their actual writings (scholars are in dispute). Needless to say, most Catholics probably did not read or even know about the encyclical unless they heard it referenced at Mass; and I think it safe to say many Catholics who did know of the encyclical disregarded the pope's - and ultimately the Church's - stance on artificial birth control. For Protestants, of course, the encyclical was not then nor now even an issue.

What caught my eye as I was reading the encyclical for a paper in one of my classes was the quoted reference to "a sign of contradiction". The pope used Luke 2:34 as his justification for the statement that is set to define the Church as the Body of Christ in a society that will largely reject Christ Himself by rejecting His Holy Church. And the Church is rejected when the Church's historic teachings, however difficult and counter-cultural they may be, are rejected. The Church was not called forth to be a friend to human culture, but rather to serve instead as a "sanctuary" and respite from human culture, as guardian of the Gospel, and as a reflection of the spiritual reality of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Luke 2 is the story of Simeon's blessing of the Messiah when Jesus was presented to the Lord at the Temple by Joseph and Mary. Jesus is, as expressed by Simeon, the long-awaited "revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of Your people Israel" (vs 32). The rest reads as follows: "Joseph and [Mary] marveled at those things which were spoken of [Jesus]. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, 'Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed".

Of course Simeon was not talking about birth control; neither am I. His prophetic statement was much more profound than any single social issue we deal with today; social issues which have split the Church and society in general right down the middle. Yet we cannot ignore the far-reaching implication of Simeon's prophetic statement within the context of Paul VI's interpretation of what he meant when he referred to the Holy Child as a "sign which will be spoken against", "a sign of contradiction".

Yet for years people have walked away from the Church - in all denominations - for a variety of reasons, most of them probably personal disputes with religious teachings that interfered with cultural conditioning, personal choices, and personal preferences. True enough, it can be said that through the ages the Church as a whole has probably been a little more rigid that necessary, but we could not possibly know this except maybe on a case-by-case basis; but there again is a lack of consistent standard but plenty of opinion and individual preference and interpretation. Since such an evaluation is impossible by human standards, then, we have to look deeper and try to understand Simeon's reference, the pope's reference, and of course Jesus' own reference to the "greatest commandment" and what each of these can mean to us today.

Simeon's proclamation would not dare to be rejected out of hand by Christians in general because, as is so often said, "it's in the Bible", and thus considered to be sacrosanct and untouchable. Paul VI's statement must not be rejected by Protestants merely on the basis of his status as pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church because whether we know it or not, we continue today to embrace the beliefs and practices of the so-called Catholic "church fathers" because their teachings, in no small measure, inform Catholic and Protestant theology and doctrine today. It is no insignificant thing to realize that the writings of these men - and women - have endured and will endure beyond the centuries they have so far endured. These will still be referenced long after this world has forgotten about Joel Osteen, Billy Graham, Rick Warren, Beth Moore, and Mike Daniel.

It is noteworthy within such contexts, contrasts, and comparisons, however, that contemporary preachers, pastors, and bishops are busy trying to find ways to reconnect the Church to the secular social reality ostensibly without compromising the Church's moral principles, a nearly impossible task that would ultimately compromise the moral integrity and authority of the Church. And if integrity is in fact the "first and last leg" of the Church and this "leg" is taken away, the Church is left vulnerable to the whims and wiles of a fickle human culture that often cannot tell whether it is coming or going.

My guess is that Jesus threw the Pharisees and the Sadducees off by His answer to their very simple question. My guess is that they were expecting something along the lines of a "great" commandment being one of what we consider to be the more familiar "Ten", one of the "don'ts"; i.e., "don't do this", "don't do that". Instead they got the very broad and all-encompassing "love the Lord your God with everything you have and with everything you are". "This is the greatest and first commandment." (vs 38).

Sounds easy, doesn't it? Love the Lord first before anything and anyone. Indeed. However, contemporary human culture hasn't the first clue what "love" really means, not biblical love, not "agape" love. We know infatuation. We know fondness. We know reciprocity as in getting something for something - like bartering. We know what suits our personal preferences, and we know where to go to get whatever it is we want. And sometimes we will go out of our way and disregard everything else in favor of that thing, whatever it may be. And that, dear friends, is "love". That is what the Bible means, but we do not know "love" if our "fondness" or "infatuation" is directed only at something or someone from whom we expect something in return. The truth is we love what we can get, but we are unwilling to love if there is nothing in it for our own benefit.

Our children do not understand that our love for them, which is real, will sometimes require that we take a firm hand to them. We do not allow our children to run helter-skelter all over creation and do as they please when they please because we know to be so negligent is not "love" - it's laziness. We stand firm with our children in teaching them right from wrong, and we know there are some things that are always wrong, no matter what kind of spin we put on it.

Taking innocent human life is always going to be wrong. Abusing a child is always going to be wrong. Taking what does not belong to us is always going to be wrong. These are but a few of the "absolute" moral codes upon which the religious and non-religious alike will always agree. It's when the "spin" enters into the moral discussion that we then begin to take liberties in efforts to justify our personal beliefs in contradiction to centuries of historic Church teachings, centuries of consistent integrity that is challenged when we find ourselves in the unique position of personally disagreeing which may be, more often than not, a matter of not fully understanding why the Church teaches this or that. And we don't understand because we do not bother to ask nor study. It is much easier to make our own rules and establish our own boundaries and perhaps justify ourselves and our behavior by simply saying, "Well, at least I didn't kill anyone".

This is when we find ourselves dancing on the edge of a cliff within the context of the "greatest commandment". This is when we find ourselves hopelessly caught between two paradigms; that of the Church and that of the dominant secular culture. And we are hopelessly so trapped because Jesus is emphatic about another moral absolute: it is impossible to serve two masters. He does not suggest it may be "difficult" or "unlikely"; He says "impossible".

Jesus removed the conflict between these two standards and broke all ties in the very face of evil itself when He was challenged by the evil one: "You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve" (Mt 4:10). This paradigm, this standard is the one and only leg of integrity upon which the Church can - and must - stand. Everything we are and everything we do must necessarily be measured only in terms of whether the divine law of the Lord is foremost in our minds and hearts because of the choices we make - or - if the focus is only on us and what we love and choose for ourselves.

From the very beginning the Church - the Christ - has been set to be a "sign which will be spoken against", "a sign of contradiction" because the reality of this world and the future reality of the Kingdom of Heaven cannot be reconciled except by complete submission of one to the other. So it is by the choices we make not as individual persons but as a people of faith "whom we will serve", whom we truly "love". There is no middle ground and there can be no compromise lest we jeopardize that "first love" which redeemed us and made us whole and holy. But if we find ourselves seeking to make a deal, searching for "middle ground", or seeking compromise, we will most likely find - as was shown to us in the wilderness - that the only one willing to "make a deal" ... is the devil himself.

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