The Only True Church?
When I was a youngster my best friend told me that he was upset. I asked him why and he said that I was a nice enough guy and a great friend, but that I was not going to heaven. “Why?” said I. My friend told me I wasn’t Catholic, so I couldn’t go. Years later, when I worked in a warehouse in Toronto, a co-worker asked me if I was saved. I just don’t think in those terms so I said, “That’s God’s call, not mine.” I think I failed that exam too. In the meantime, I went on to become a priest in the Episcopal Church.
There are all kinds of ideas “out there” about which is the “true church”; or which television preacher has the “plain and simple truth” about what the bible says. In many cases the plain and simple truth plays out a set of inclusion/exclusion exercises based on the speaker’s understanding of the “plain and simple truth”. For me, too many people I love fall outside the salvation circle in both the former and in the latter pronouncements.
And so Pope Benedict has now entered the dialogue. In the post Vatican II world, many of us had hoped for more overtures to ecumenicity. Instead we now find that many of us are with “defect” and cannot even be called “church” in the most proper sense of the word.
The reader may remember that last year on September 12, 2006 to be exact at the University of Regensburg in Germany the Pope said the following; “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The Pope was referring to a passage that originally appeared in the “Dialogue Held With A Certain Persian, the Worthy Mouterizes, in Anakara of Galatia”, written in 1391. It was an expression of the views of the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, one of the last Christian rulers before the Fall of Constantinople to the Muslim Ottoman Empire, on such issues as forced conversion, holy war, and the relationship between faith and reason. You may remember that the response from the Islamic world was instant and vigorous. The Vatican was forced to do a bit of backpedalling and no end of “clarification.”
In addition, after a number of impressive and magnanimous overtures to our sisters and brothers in Judaism, the revival of the Latin mass with its unfortunate and somewhat intemperate prayer for the conversion of the Jews, has certainly raised more than a few theological eyebrowse.
Now we have yet another statement that will cause no end of consternation within the Christian world. Pope Benedict has signed off on a statement observing that the Churches of the Reformation are “defective” since they do not have an episcopacy or a priesthood that arises out of the historic apostolic succession. The concluding paragraph is the most damaging part of the new statement: “These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called “Churches” in the proper sense.” That should provide plenty grist for the mill for those charged with the responsibility of cultivating ecumenical relationships around the world. To say that this is a setback from Vatican II would be an understatement indeed.
How then do we respond? Do we get into the game of theological one-upmanship? Is there any sense in which any “one” of us could claim to be the “one”, “true”, “church”. Rome is running very close to that position if it hasn’t already hit the bull’s-eye!
To be sure there are those who claim exclusive right to call themselves the “only” church, or the “true” church. There are certainly those who claim that their understanding of the Bible is the only true interpretation. We seem to be in an age where the need to be “right” trumps the need to be compassionate. And there are now a host of so called “non-denominational” churches, which are just each one yet another denomination of a singular sort…each of which claims a corner on the “Truth” or an issue that makes them “True”.
Is this what we really want? Do we want to be an “issue based” Christianity? If we do, we run the risk of dividing the Body of Christ. If our Christianity is based on our view of a particular issue like abortion, sexual orientation, the death penalty, the ordination of women, liberation theology and the like, we run the risk of alienation among sincere people of faith. All we manage in “issue based” Christianity is divisiveness.
There is another way.
Perhaps if we put our faith in Jesus, who is the perfect image of God, we may very well find a much more satisfying road to unity. Our unity must be based in Christ or we will have no unity at all. Paul makes clear that Jesus is the head of the church in today’s letter to the Colossians. In sublime language Paul reflects the person of Christ to the church: “Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created” and again, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things”.
The ministry of reconciliation then seems somewhat close to the heart of God. It needs to be near to the heart of God’s church as well. It makes no sense whatever to me to engage in some kind of denominational competition to see who makes muster when it comes to some kind of competition around orthodoxy, catholicity, apostolicity, biblical absolutism or any other kind of standard other than the standard of Jesus himself.
How I wish we could get past that. Jesus is not very likely to check our denominational membership cards when it comes time for us to be presented before the great judgment seat of Christ.
Jesus is more likely to inquire how we treated the least of these; the hungry, the oppressed, the imprisoned, the homeless, the outcast. Jesus is likely to want to know whether our hearts were on fire for the poor, the leprous, the lame, the broken hearted, the widow, the orphan, the refugee from war, plague and pestilence.
Jesus will want to know if we were listening when he spoke to us. There is that part of me that is like Mary and another that is like Martha. Part of me wants to be like Mary and sit at the foot of Jesus and listen to him. That indeed is the better part. There is another part of me that is very busy in this work-a-day world. I never have time to sit at the foot of Jesus. I never seem to have time to listen to the voice of God. I don’t even seem to have time to listen to my own heart and give myself time to catch up with who I am or who I am becoming.
The story of Mary and Martha is not the story of two women one of whom gets to endulge in idle chatter about speculative theology, the other gets to do the grunt work at the kitchen sink. No this story is about us; each of us and whether we will listen to Jesus or whether we will exuse ourselves from our greater responsibilities because we are too busy to listen.
If I did listen to Jesus, then I would hear the voices of my brothers and sisters crying out for love and care in a world torn with grief, warfare and poverty. That is the issue. That is the only issue. The people of Jesus looking for someone to care. When Jesus spoke, that is what he wanted us to hear.
All the other issues of denominational affiliation, doctrinal correction, biblical understanding, as important as they are, pale in comparison to the urgent call to ministry on behalf of those in need.
It is no wonder so many turn away from the church. While we fuss about “in-house issues” of denominational bias or controversy, the rest of the world turns from one dangerous corner to another. We are a world at war. We are a people set on the edge of terror. And while injustice, poverty and disparity stare us in the face, we go on mindlessly busy.
We need to listen to Jesus for the sake of the world. The only true church is the church that listens to the voice of Jesus who is All in All. Jesus is Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Liberal, Conservative, Orthodox, and yes, Jewish, Arab, Muslim, Hindu and Bhuddist. Jesus is All in All. And in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell!