Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Rock And The Keys

This weeks gospel is at the root of much disagreement between Protestants and Catholics. It has been much debated yet not really. I have yet to see a protestant really engage some of the most powerful reasons why their interpretation is untenable and the Catholic interpretation is correct. Most protestants ignore it or parrot arguments that have long been discredited. It makes the argument so on-sided it gets boring after a while. 
Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi andhe asked his disciples,“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah,still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply,“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply,“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter,and upon this rock I will build my church,and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven;and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly ordered his disciplesto tell no one that he was the Christ.  
It starts out with the most basic of theological questions: Who is Jesus? That question dominated so many church councils for centuries. Jesus does not tell us here how to answer that question. Rather He focused on who should answer that question. 

First Jesus asks what people are saying. What opinions of Jesus are out there? Everyone has a theory. Some make more sense than other. Yet they are all wrong. 

Then Jesus addresses the question to the disciples. Who do you say that I am? Peter is the only one who speaks. You are the Christ. The Son of the living God. He get is right. Yet how does he get it right? Jesus specifically said God gave Peter that knowledge supernaturally. Peter did not figure it out on his own or with the help of any other person. 

Why is that important? Jesus is teaching us how the new covenant is going to work. We can't trust what the crowds say but we can trust what Peter says. How do we know this? He says, "on this rock I will build my church." Note the future tense. He is not talking about the present question. He is talking about what will happen in the future. This is how the church is supposed to work.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

O Woman, Great Is You Faith

This weeks gospel is offensive. Jesus acts like a racist. What is going on?
At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out,“Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. Jesus’ disciples came and asked him,“Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”He said in reply,“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” He said in reply,“It is not right to take the food of the childrenand throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scrapsthat fall from the table of their masters.” Then Jesus said to her in reply,“O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.
 Mat 15:21-28
Jesus is met by a woman who's daughter has a demon. You expect Jesus to just heal the daughter and move on. Yet He does not do that. First He does nothing. Then after the woman persists He points out that His mission is to the Jews and she is not a Jew. He even compares gentiles to dogs. 

So what happens? Does she get offended. If she does she does not show it. She accepts the analogy that she is a dog. Then she points out that even dogs get scraps from the table. 

That does it. Jesus totally changes his tone. He says her faith is great. He heals her daughter. Now He is being offensive to gentiles. Remember that Jesus has been commenting on how little faith people had. He did it last week after Peter walked on water and faltered. When dealing with Jews he never seems to have anything positive to say about their faith. Now this gentile gets such high praise? Matthew is writing to the Jews. They are going to notice this. 

Yet what is great about her faith? It is precisely her willingness to accept things from God that are offensive to her. She continued to pursue Jesus even when Jesus was less than responsive. She continued even when Jesus seemed to slap her in the face. She does not question the wisdom of God. She accepts her position and still begs for mercy. 

That is the key. She realizes that the offense Jesus might have given her does not change the fact that she is a sinner begging for mercy.  She does not have grounds to complain to God. God is still God. If something seems wrong to her then it must be her that is the problem and not God. Yet she does not give up either. She persists. She argues. She even grovels. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Peter Walks On Water

This weeks gospel is the famous story about Jesus and Peter walking on water. It starts with Jesus making the disciples get into the boat and leave without Him. Then He goes up into the hill by Himself to pray. Jesus sets it up. Then He prays until the 4th watch of the night. That is until 3 AM. He knows they are going to be in trouble. He prays for them. Yet He lets them experience the fear for a while. God does that. Even when He is going to save us He often does not do it right away. He wants us to face our fears. He wants us to make those desperate prayers. 

Eventually Jesus goes down to the Sea of Galilee and starts walking on the water. Now the disciples are afraid again. Not sure if they thought this was part of a death experience. If you are about to drown then why is a ghost scary? Anyway, Jesus calms them down and assures them it is just Him. 

Then something truly amazing happens. Peter asks Jesus to call him onto the water. Peter is a fisherman. He lived on that seas and had likely known people who died on that sea. He had been in danger of drowning that night. Yet he want to step out onto the stormy water. Why? Jesus is there. If it is really you then ask me to come. It can be a life transforming request. I remember praying this when investigating the charismatic movement. I remember praying it when investigating the Catholic church. If this is you Jesus then call me. 

There were 12 disciples. Only one asked to be called. Only one was called. The other often followed Peter after he had spoken. He was their leader. This time he is leading nobody. He is alone. Yet he walks on water. Somehow Peter does what only Jesus can do. By desiring to go to Jesus, in a way, He becomes Jesus. 

Then fear enters in. Peter starts to realize he can't do what he is doing. When he saw the wind he was afraid. Of course you can't see wind. Still he is no longer looking at Jesus and he begins to sink. People give Peter a hard time here. The truth is that anytime we try and do anything for the kingdom of God we are going to fail. It is not a matter of if but of when. We will get into a crisis. We will lose out faith. We will start to sink. We can say it won't happen to us but it will.

What happens next is most encouraging. Peter calls out to Jesus. Jesus immediately reaches out and grabs him. No letting him wait it out this time. Peter ends up where he wanted to be, with Jesus on the water. Isn't life often that way? Our worst fear happens and instead of disaster we end up closer to God then we ever were. We were not really afraid of falling. We were afraid of falling and not being caught by Jesus. That somehow Jesus would abandon us because we fell. That simple cannot happen. Not because our falls are not that bad. It is because Jesus is that good. 

Then Jesus asks the question He asks us all. O man of little faith, why did you doubt? He talks often about our faith being little. He does not address it personally to Peter but to anyone who happens to have little faith and has struggled with doubt. Why do we doubt? We don't believe it is really real. We doubt whether God is real. We doubt the church. We doubt His love for us. All the things we say we believe. When it really matters we can doubt them. 

Then Jesus simply gets into the boat and turns off the storm. Just to confirm for them that He was only using the storm to freak them out. They get it. They respond with worship. Worship is due God alone. Jews know that better than anyone. These Jews know that God just got in their boat.  

Monday, July 28, 2014

Love Like Jesus

This week's gospel is a familiar story. The multiplication of 5 loaves and two fish to feed 5000 men plus women and children. It starts with Jesus in mourning. Jesus hears about the death of His cousin. He withdraws to be alone. He has no home so He just goes off in a boat to try and find a place where He can mourn in peace. 

What happens? People find out about this. As soon as He steps off the boat there are vast crowds there. He has to be a little annoyed. Yet the gospel says He had pity on them. He cured their sick. 

We tend to try and set boundaries in ministry. We don't want our whole life to be consumed by it. We need some personal space. Yet Jesus does not enforce boundaries. He does not try and avoid rewarding this behavior. He has pity on them and heals them. It gets to be evening and He has every excuse to send people home and He says No. He wants to do more than cure the sick. He wants to feed everyone. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Why Does Christianity Produce Atheists?

A while ago on Strange Notions someone noted that modern Christianity is the first religion to produce a significant number of atheists. Before the last 200 years atheists were rare. Female atheists were almost non-existent. Even in the last 200 years we have not seen a lot of atheism in Muslim cultures or Buddhist cultures or Hindu cultures. The only cultures that have produced a lot of atheists is those where the dominant historical religion is Christianity. 

Why is that? What is it about Christianity and particularly modern Christianity that becomes a fertile ground for atheism? A key clue, I think, is to look at atheists. What kind of Christians do they typically resemble? Certainly politically they are left of center. They tend to be feminists. They tend to be environmentalists. Basically they are almost all pretty consistent liberals. 

There is such a thing as liberal Christianity. It does not have to coincide with liberal politics but it tends to. I am strange because I am politically liberal, except on social issues, and yet theologically I am not at all liberal. You find a few people like that but very few, most of us are Catholics. 

So what defines Liberal Christianity? Is it their willingness to question long standing traditional Christian teachings? Sort of. It is an undisciplined questioning of Christian teachings. Questioning is good. All Christians do that. But is there anything you won't question? The bible? The resurrection of Jesus? Sexual morality? Anything? The ultimate liberal would be willing to question any aspect of Christianity. There are very few of those. Most Liberal Christians have a few things they believe are solid. Yet the list is quite arbitrary. 

You might be able to see why liberal Christians and atheists have a lot in common. If you start questioning the basics of the faith then it just makes sense to question the existence of God as well. If more and more of your religion is based on human reason rather than divine revelation then why not go all the way and say it is all reason and no divinity is required?

Monday, July 21, 2014

All Thing For Our Good

The second reading this week begins with Rom 8:28 which many Christians pick as their favorite verse:
We know that all things work for good for those who love God,who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestinedto be conformed to the image of his Son,so that he might be the firstbornamong many brothers and sisters.And those he predestined he also called;and those he called he also justified;and those he justified he also glorified.
It is a big promise. All things work for the good of those who love God. I love God. So all things work for my good. Sweet! Yet we need to be careful. What is meant by "good" here? The rest of the passage makes that clear. Being conformed to the image of Jesus. That is the good that is being referred to. 

God knew beforehand who would respond positively to the gospel. He took that knowledge and used it to accomplish something called predestination. That is a word Calvinists use a lot. When they use it they refer to a doctrine that Catholics reject. That does not mean Catholic reject predestination completely. As you can see in this passage, the word is in the bible. We have to have some understanding of what St Paul meant when he used it. 

What this means is that God uses Hid foreknowledge and power to plan our road to holiness. It does not mean it will be easy. That is often the implication when people quote the text. That all of life will be good because we are believers and that means we will have great jobs and wonderful relationships and good health. All of life will be good and that means we will become more and more Christlike. Of course, Christ did not have an easy life. So it is good news. It means we don't just go through life and put in time until heaven. That God is actively working not just in us but in everything and everyone around us. 

His goal is to bring about the virtues of faith, hope and love. Being called is to hear God's voice and respond positively to it. That is to have faith. Being justified is to understand God's mercy and to have the hope of heaven. Being glorified is to let the grace of God permeate the depths of your being and to make you a lover through and through. 


We tend to comb the scriptures for assurance that God will protect us from some of the things we worry about. The trouble is we don't know God's plan. He might be protecting us from all manner of misfortune. That is often the way He works for our good. Yet there are no guarantees. He might let the calamity we most fear happen. That is hard to face. We know the future is planned for our good but we don't know what that good looks like. 

The other aspect of it is our choice. God can give you opportunities to grow in holiness and you might not take them. God can put someone in your life who is difficult for you to love. That is a great chance for you to become a better lover. Yet you can respond the other way. You can treat them badly. God is working for your good and you are turning it into something bad. At the end of the day grace always requires our cooperation. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Good But Not Good Enough

There is an old joke that sex is like pizza. When it is good it is very good. When it is bad it is ... still pretty good! There is a lot of truth to that. When Catholics talk about how bad pornography is or how bad casual sex we run into this problem. Bad sex is still pretty good. Sure sometimes people feel cheap and used but there is some pleasure there. Pleasure is good. Catholics don't believe that everything that feels good is wrong. Physical pleasure is good. It is a lower level of goodness than some of the other good we often talk about but still a good thing.

Then there is the next level which gets even more confusing. When people have somewhat less casual sex. When the physical pleasuring of casual sex is supplemented by psychological and emotional pleasuring. It goes much deeper than casual sex and we know it. It makes us feel like all the purely physical stuff we did was an embarrassment and this is true love. The trouble is we are not there yet. What has happened is we are still pleasuring each other. We are in it for our own benefit. This person gives me what I want and the main reason why this relationship is good for me. We are still at a selfish stage. It is a deeper and more noble form of selfishness but still selfishness. 

People who feel this way often don't want to marry right away. If they do want to marry they don't necessarily want to have kids right away. They feel they have arrived. They have figured out love and sex and really don't want to be told any different. Marriage and procreation are things they will use in ways that suit them. 

The church sees even these goods as not good enough. The physical pleasure of sex is not good enough to justify pornography and casual sex. People often get that. They might struggle with those things but they don't find it strange that the church would label them immoral. Yet taking it to another level is hard. That the emotional and psychological good that comes from more serious sexual relationships is still not good enough. What is more, it does not just miss by a little. It is fundamentally a different thing from what it needs to be. The relationship of give so I can take has to be replaced by a relationship of give so I can achieve something good for the other person. That is what the New Testament calls agape love. 

That love is what separates heaven and earth. The phileo love between brothers and friends is good but common to humans. So it the romantic love of eros. What God designed into the human body when He created sex and marriage and procreation was a road to agape love. Learn to celebrate each other's beauty at an intimate level. Learn commitment and communication. Then learn to give your whole life away. By giving our lives away we become fruitful and bless the word many times more than we could any other way. 

Yet the confusion remains. How can something that feels so genuinely good be seen as gravely evil? Think of what sex and procreation are for. Adam and Eve sinned and God gave them curses. The woman's curse was great pain in childbearing. Yet in the curse is a blessing. The pain we have in raising children gives us an opportunity to love. Suffering allows us to suffer for the good of the other. That is the essence of love. Sex tied together with marriage and procreation pulls us from selfishness into self sacrifice. The punishment for sin becomes a way out of sin. At least we can get an idea of what agape love should be.

This is why Catholics take sex so seriously. It is a path to love and to God. If we change the nature of it then it becomes a lesser good. Something finite that cannot satisfy us yet can consume us. We are to be consumed only by God. Properly ordered sex, marriage and procreation can lead us to be consumed by God through our family. If that does not work out for any reason we can be consumed by God in other ways. The religious vocation is the most obvious but there are many ways for a chaste single person to be consumed with the things of God.