Sunday, August 09, 2015

The Prerogative of Faith: doing right in the face of wrong

Isaiah 66:1-6
Titus 1:10-16
Matthew 5:33-48

"I tell you that you have less to suffer in following the cross than in serving the world and its pleasures."  St. John Vianney, 1786-1859

A “prerogative” is to be understood as more than only a “right” to which one is entitled; it should also be understood in terms of “duty”.  In the ministry of the Church and realm of the Kingdom of Heaven, however, we must not understand “duty” in terms of the dreaded and cursed “works” many have declared as “unnecessary” or a bounden “obligation” to be done whether we like it or not. 

Rather the “prerogative of faith” is best understood, especially within the context of the Sermon on the Mount, as the “opportunity” it truly is and not the burden we have deemed it to be or have allowed it to become.  The only reason we may even consider it to be a choice speaks to the complacent nature of our being and ultimately denies the power of faith itself, especially if we consider faith to be strictly self-serving.  It isn’t.

It is our “holy prerogative” to bless those who curse us as much as it is our “secular prerogative” to curse those who curse us; our “prerogative” to defend ourselves as we see fit even in deliberate defiance of what is written in the Scripture for us to know.  Our Lord Jesus seems to be clear in which option His followers must choose, but somehow His message has been lost on the greater Church which is struggling for survival as we claim not to know what the real problem is. 

And while it may be easy to say we are in the “end times” when so many will choose to walk away and “worship the beast” (since it is prophesized, it cannot be avoided), it becomes much more difficult when we come to terms with the reality that we are in no way and at no time “authorized” by the Lord of the Church to throw up our hands and give up! 

Think of it; what would be the difference between the ones who walk away and the ones who just give up by taking their faith into hiding?

St. John Vianney (whose quote I share at the top of the page) came of age at the turn of the 19th century during the time of the French Revolution, a time in which the Church had been outlawed.  Priests were imprisoned or killed, and the faithful went into hiding.  During this period St. John the boy saw the priests who were still active even under such threats as heroes, larger than life; men to be admired and looked up to because they persevered in the face of imprisonment and/or death.  They persevered to bring the Sacraments and the Gospel to the faithful in spite of the dangers.  It was this period that formed St. John’s determination and calling to the priesthood.

The theologian G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts [that generation] the most”.  This quote is attributed to the spirit and ministry and calling of St. John Vianney who persevered in the face of overwhelming odds during a time in which it seemed much easier to give in to the demands of the state than to put one’s life at risk just to “have church”.  He converted whole communities and restored generations to faith by his perseverance, his insistence upon his service to the Living Word first.  Untold numbers of souls were won or regained by one man’s faith.

Catholic or not, St. John’s example to us is that he chose holiness of heart and life over secular safety and comfort.  And we must understand that choosing holiness of heart and life does not mean we can take our faith and go into hiding.  This is not at all what the saints have shown the historic Church.

Of course we Methodists do not pray to the saints in asking for their intercessory prayers, believing as it is written that there is “one Mediator” (1 Timothy 2:5).  Yet we have no problem asking others to pray in our behalf (often instead of us) for whatever ails us or frightens us.  However, this isn’t about Catholic doctrine regarding the saints. 

It is entirely about the “great cloud of witnesses” written of in Hebrews which clearly includes not only the heroes of the Bible – but must also necessarily include those throughout the history of the Church who by their extreme examples of faithfulness showed us what is possible when we fully trust The Lord and not our own instincts or the cultural “signs”.  We see by their examples what is possible when we fully trust The Word of The Lord rather than our own ideas.

Those who were served by St. John were, of course, cradle Catholics who knew that an earnest confession and an expressed will to repent would open the floodgates of the Gospel back into their lives.  They did not come to be hit over the head with the Law, although there was certainly penance to be done.  They came to be fed by the Gospel!  In Catholic doctrine, that is the whole point and purpose of the Sacrament of Reconciliation – the Good News of mercy! – and to be held to account for one’s sins.

Jesus’ lessons in the Sermon on the Mount are quotable and memorable – and rightly so!  For daily living, however, these lessons just don’t seem so practical.  They don’t work for us, they are unrealistic, and they don’t take into account what we face today.  We should be able to see, though, that for all those we accuse of dismissing the Written Word as “ancient” to suit their own social purposes, political agendas, and personal lifestyle choices, we are as guilty of dismissing what is clearly written for us as much as it is written – not for those who don’t believe, but for those who claim to believe.  Especially for those who claim to be “saved”.

It is not about the threat of Hades or any other spiritual penalty, however, that should drive us back to the Word.  It is, rather, the promise of the Life which is before us in faith.  It is the promise of spiritual peace even in the face of social and cultural and even political turmoil.  It is peace of mind and heart and spirit on The Lord’s terms rather than our own.  The “prerogative of faith” is entirely about how deeply we actually TRUST The Lord to the point of obedience to The Word.

Still there is a catch.  Having the “prerogative of faith” which comes with the calling of every baptized Christian means we cannot shut ourselves off from the community of faith or participate only when the “fun” stuff comes around.  Having the “prerogative of faith” means we are not only fully engaged and fully invested in the whole life of the Church – worship AND Bible study AND fellowship – we are also searching for our place in the whole ministry of the Church.

We are in search of “perfection”, as our Lord Jesus so commands us: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).  What does this mean to us, to pursue perfection?  The answer may be found in John Wesley’s sermon entitled, “The One Thing Needful”, based on Luke 10:42.  Recall the story of Martha and Mary playing host to Jesus.  Martha was taking care of all the chores while Mary just “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what He was saying” (Luke 10:39).

The compelling verse (42) is the one in which Jesus states, “There is need of only one thing”.  Wesley believed that “one thing needful” for us is the recovery and restoration of the Image of God in which we are all created.  This is, in our mortal lifetime, the “one thing needful” we are to pursue, and it is the “prerogative of faith” by and through which we pursue it.

We must not continue to make the mistake that is the habit of so many of what Wesley called “almost Christians” who have fallen into the rut of complacency, those “almost Christians” who have the “form of religion but lack the [transformative] power”.  For these “almost Christians”, faith is nothing more than a token we place into a bag and hold on to until the Day of The Lord and then expect to be able to cash it in.  We don’t do anything with it in our lifetime, believing there is simply a space “held” for us in trust. 

Yet throughout our lives we deny the better part of all we are called to be because we are too busy, we don’t want to, we’re mad at the preacher or a neighbor, or have convinced ourselves (or have been allowed to become convinced) that doing for The Lord and His Church is not necessary or “not my thang”.

Ultimately the “prerogative of faith” is the call to “holiness of heart and of life”, and it means much more to Christ, to His Church, and to us than simply “being good” or going through the motions of “church” without fully engaging and investing in the life and mission and ministry of the Church.  It is entirely about “sanctification”, the pursuit of holiness, the restoration of that Holy Image of perfection from which we have fallen so far. 

Our Lord Jesus came to us as an expression of God’s eternal love for us so that we could have the means by which to restore that Image.  Humanity cried for help in the bondage of secularism just as ancient Israel cried for help in Egypt’s bondage, and The Lord of Mercy answered in His Eternal Word who is Christ Jesus, the Lord of the Church and Savior of the whole world.  Now it is time for His Church to answer.  Amen.

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