Thursday, 30 December 2010

"I'm not a huge fan of the Pope because I don't see the need for one."

As I was eves-dropping from my digital priest-hole into that great digital courtyard which is Facebook, I overheard this assessment of someone's feelings for the Pope. This comment was made on a friend's status. She was sharing her enjoyment of a Pope Benedict-related Christmas present, and wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, when someone began a series of comments beginning with the above statement, all designed to show her "the truth about the whole Catholic church [sic]". It turns out that this guy used to be Catholic, until "God changed my heart and showed me the truth." I think it's a safe guess that he hasn't become Orthodox, because he proceeds to quote a number of passages of scripture, all of which apparently show that the papacy (and 'the whole Catholic church') is, well, needless. And no mention is made of Sacred Tradition, or the history of the Church, which surely an Orthodox christian would have done.

First of all, let's acknowledge that such an action is the height of bad manners. Commenting on someone's 'Merry Christmas' Facebook status to try to prove that their religion is bogus? I think this guy might start by putting down the Bible he's determined to misread (more of which in a moment), and pick up something about being a gentleman from Amazon.

However, if we find ourselves in such a situation, how are we to respond? As usual, there will be a few guiding principles we can apply in pretty much any situation. In this case, our antagonist follows the above statement of personal preference for 'no-popery' by quoting the letter to the Hebrews, in which the divine author describes Christ as "a great high priest" [Hb 4:14], and then 1 Timothy 2:5, wherein the Apostle tells Timothy, one of his disciples and successors in Ephesus, that "there is one God: and one mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus." Clearly, this is supposed to be evidence for his statement.

Our heroine (and she is a heroine for making a reply at all) asks what he thinks about Matthew 16:18 - "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church", and correctly points out the flaw in the young man's premise, which seems to be that we don't need a Pope because Jesus is the only high priest and mediator, and the Popes are trying to replace Him. So here's our first principle - examine the premise of their argument. Once you get past the reeled off passages of scripture, what are they actually trying to say? In this case, he was trying to say something which has nothing to do with the passages he quoted. Jesus is the only high priest and mediator? Yeah, we know, and we agree. That does nothing to affect the fact of there being a divinely established papacy or not, does it?

Which brings us neatly to the BIGGEST principle in dealing with these situations. Or rather, the biggest mistake people, Catholic or not, often make. Indeed, our young heroine makes this mistake in referencing Matthew's Gospel, and understandably, because no one has taught her otherwise. Sadly, it seems some Protestants are actively taught to make it. That mistake is quoting Scripture out of context. Selectively quoting isolated passages of Scripture is good for nothing. Nothing. Even the Enemy does that for his own infernal purposes [Mt 4:6]. The real skill is reading each part of Scripture in unity, in harmony, with the other parts, whether it's the previous or subsequent parts of the same chapter, or book, or a different book. This is something urged by Pope Benedict in his document on Scripture [which is very long, so this is a summary]. When we do this, we discover what the Holy Spirit intended.

A prime example is the Devil's own misreading of Psalm 91 in Mt 4:6. After his selective verse about the angels bearing Jesus in their hands lest He strike His foot against a stone, if Satan was to quote the next two lines, he would see what God has in store for him - "On the lion and the viper you [Jesus] will tread, and trample the young lion and the dragon." It's not too much to suppose that, in fact, this passage of the Old Testament is fulfilled when Christ refuses to throw himself from the Temple tower - he doesn't put His Father to the test, and so does indeed go on to trample the dragon on the Cross.

Let's do the same thing with the quote from 1 Timothy 2:5. Yes, Jesus is the one mediator between God and men. A mediator is someone who makes peace. Yet St. Paul also says at the start of 1 Timothy 2, that he desires the church over which St. Timothy has authority to make "prayers, supplications, intercessions, and thanksgivings for all men" and especially those in authority, so that "we may lead a quiet and peaceable life." He then explains where this peace comes from in the passage already quoted - from Jesus Christ, the one mediator. So the Apostle connects the actions of the Church (offering prayer, fasting, thanksgiving [eucharistia!]...for peace) with the action of Christ (making the peace for which they have prayed). Therefore, while Christ is the only mediator, the Church is an intercessor for the whole world, and can effect its peace.

What do find if we widen our context to the whole of this letter? St. Paul is giving St. Timothy fatherly guidance on how to organise the church, and what to teach them, including a warning against false teachers. The letter reveals that Timothy has this authority because grace was given him "by prophecy [in some translations 'by the prophets' i.e. Apostles], with imposition of hands of the priesthood." [1 Tm 4:14]. Grace, of course, is a spiritual reality, coming from God through the Holy Spirit, but St. Paul is making it clear that this gift of grace can be given by the Church's elders/bishops by the laying on of hands. The Apostles do exactly the same with the seven Deacons in the Acts of the Apostles [see Acts 6]. So, the Bible is plainly telling us that the Apostles can give their authority to others. This authority is not merely a worldly authority, or status, but an authority backed up by the Holy Spirit. For Catholics and Orthodox, this is an early example of apostolic succession, where by the Apostles could hand on their authority to successors, in an unbroken chain down to the bishops of our own day.

So, now it's reasonable to ask where did the Apostles get their authority to direct the prayers of the Church, appoint successors with spiritual power, and determine what is authentic Christianity in terms of faith and morals, which is also covered in the letter to St. Timothy? According to the Bible...from Jesus Himself! When we read these passages from the Gospels, it is obvious that the Apostles have no authority of their own, but that Christ is sharing His own authority with them. A great example is Luke 10:17, when the 72 disciples come back from their mission to the surrounding towns. Rejoicing, they tell Jesus, "Lord, the devils also are subject to us in your name. [emphasis mine]" As if a core group of disciples imitating Christ by casting out demons isn't explicit enough, the Lord says to them, earlier in chapter 10, "He that hears you, hears me. He that despises you, despises me. And he that despises me, despises the one who sent me." He also shares His power to forgive and retain sins in John 20:21-23, and declares, "Just as the Father sent me, so am I sending you." It seems that Jesus was keen for the Church to continue doing His work after He'd returned to the Father.

Our final example will eventually widen our context into the Old Testament as well. In the Matthew's Gospel verse that our heroine quoted, a longer passage shows us something very important regarding the Church's authority. After Simon, brother of Andrew, had confessed that Jesus is the Christ, "the Son of the living God," Jesus says to him, "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever you bind on earth, it shall also be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth, it shall also be loosed in heaven." This is the most familiar passage in this dispute about the nature of the papacy, and is the key to understanding it. Or rather, this is the lock, and we need a key to unlock it to reveal the full meaning.

Jesus here is making a reference, almost word-for-word, to Isaiah 22:20-22. In it, God gives the King's authority to Eliacim, so that he can be "a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem [the holy city], and to the house of Juda [the king's tribe]." Effectively, God is appointing a steward to govern in the king's name. He is definitely not trying to replace the king! The key passage (sorry for the pun) is this, "I will lay the key of the house of David on his shoulder: and he shall open, and none shall shut: and he shall shut, and none shall open." Click! That's the sound of the lock of Matthew's Gospel opening. Is it not painfully obvious that Christ is likewise appointing a steward to govern his people (the Church) in his name, and to be a father to them? Just as the stewardship of Jerusalem was passed on from one steward to the next, so has St. Peter's authority been passed on from one Pope to the next. Such a blatant reference to the OT would not have been lost on the Jewish readers of Matthew's Gospel.

Further to this important passage, Jesus also prays for Peter so that he can strengthen his brothers, that is, the other Apostles [Lk 22:31-32], and after His Resurrection asks him to "feed my lambs" and "feed my sheep" [Jn 21:15-17]. Jesus doesn't give these tasks to any of the other Apostles, unlike the power to forgive and retain sins which the Apostles share.

Before we finish, let's tackle a strange assertion the antagonist makes regarding Peter as the rock. His response to our heroine's quote was to claim, "Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour is the only rock on which the church is built. The LORD alone throughout the whole bible is called the rock." He proceeds to quote from a couple of Old and New Testament passages, which do indeed refer to God/Christ as a foundation, a corner stone, or a rock. Of course God is the Rock, Foundation and Cornerstone! But this does nothing to diminish, and everything to exalt, the authority of the Church, with which He chose to share that power. 

As for the notion that only God is referred to as rock, foundation, etc...well, that's not what the Bible says, is it?  What about Ephesians 2:20, where St. Paul says, "You are part of a building that has the apostles and prophets for its foundations, and Christ Jesus himself for its chief cornerstone."? If Christ is the chief cornerstone, doesn't that mean that there are other cornerstones? Yes it does, according to Revelation 21:14, where the 12 Apostle's names are carved into the cornerstones of the heavenly Jerusalem. The Lord doesn't even reserve the authority to judge to Himself, but promises the Apostles that they will sit with Him in His majesty, on twelve thrones to judge the twelve tribes of Israel [Mt 19:28]. Oh...and not to forget the passage where God Himself gives Simon a new name by calling him Rock!

It seems like we can only conclude that Jesus was taught to share with others as a boy. He shares His authority with the Church through the Apostles, who can cast out demons, offer right worship to God and intercede for the world, are definite channels of grace to others, can forgive sins, determine the boundaries of authentic Christian living, and support the Church as its foundation, and appoint their own successors. In addition, St. Peter is called to govern the Church as a steward, and strengthen the faith of his fellow leaders. All of this power comes from Christ, so that people can be lead to Christ. 

Now, it's important to recognise that the Lord didn't have to do any of this. He could have converted the whole world by Himself, which would have been particularly easy after His Resurrection. However, He chose to do it the way we've examined so as to share His glory with us (as is clear from the Mt 19:28 passage). Any of us may think He acted unnecessarily in doing so, but He also acted unnecessarily in redeeming us, though I'm glad He did. As such, I think it would be a good idea for this young man to heed his own advice, and pray for guidance, confident that if he knocks, the door will be opened, because we know who's holding the keys.

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