The time will come when all will “worship God in spirit and in truth.” – John 4:24
I spoke yesterday of the time of division that has come upon the world. There is another division that has come in Christianity and in people of faith throughout the world. It is not the division of denomination, or of Catholic vs. Protestant or even Christian vs. other faiths. Rather, it is the division between those who worship in spirit and in truth and those who use the language and forms of faith as a means of obtaining prestige, power or dominance.
In the 21st Chapter of Matthew Jesus tells the story of two sons, one who told his father he would go and do as asked but did not and another who defiantly refused, but then repenting, went and did as he had been asked. In Matthew 21:31, Jesus pointedly asked His hostile questioners which of these two had done the will of his father.
We have all known pastors who bide their time in one church, ever looking for the chance to take over a bigger and better one; or the priest who tries to make the Mass into an encounter with him rather than with Christ. When I was young, I once had a revival preacher urge me to go into the ‘business’ because it was such a great way to get girls. As Christ would say, they have their reward.
Over the years, I have had many Christians explain to me with certainty how wrong I am, citing their favorite Scripture to prove it, avoiding the question or making a hash of it when I quoted Scripture back to them demonstrating their interpretation must need a little work. Sometimes, good people get caught up in the lens through which they have been taught to view Scripture all their lives – and are resistant, or even offended, when asked to look at those passages that do not support their preferences and perhaps contradict the very interpretation they have come up with. The fact is, the Bible is a very densely formed book. It is like a fine and great jewel with infinite facets. Sometimes people get so caught up in one facet they lose sight of the fullness of the jewel. Two honest men can be looking at different facets from different perspectives, honestly seeing things differently while looking at the same jewel. That is fine. It is when they pridefully decide that their perspective is the only valid perspective or that their facet excludes all others that they venture onto dangerous territory.
Lest you think I am perilously venturing into the territory of relativism, rest easy. There are things that we can know are contrary to truth when examined and can dismiss them. But when confronted with something that is not contrary to truth, but different from the way we have contemplated things, it is not only worthy of consideration, but may even be God speaking to us. Christ gives some direction on this: He says you will know a tree by its fruit. Now some would like that fruit to be magic or miracles, but that is not reliable. The devil can do magic. But there are things the devil cannot do. In all four Gospels is a version of the great commandment – that you shall love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus even says that ALL the law and the prophets are contained in these. Jesus says that His followers will speak and act in a way that builds up rather than tears down. When His disciples complain of a man who was not of their number casting out demons in Jesus’ name, Christ tells them to “forbid him not…” for who was not against them was with them and none could cast out demons in His name except through Him.
The denominational divisions in Christianity will soon be 500 years old. Disputes within Christianity, itself, have ebbed and waned for all 2,000 years of it. I have never been particularly evangelical in the sense of winning converts to a specific faith – though I have been right zealous in wanting to show people with compelling evidence that God is, indeed, near to them and cares passionately for them. The central prophetic message I am given is, “Be not afraid. God calls all men to salvation.” It is consonant with my understanding of God that it pleases Him to send good, true men in all pockets of humanity – and that He would send men of their own kind to offer them comfort and hope. Does this require that He withhold some details of His will from those He sends to those who are confused? Could be, but their reward will still be with Him. In the end, if it turns out that your understanding was true, you will still tremble, for God requires more from whom He gives more. Greater knowledge does not give greater power, but entails greater accountability. The man with one talent who gains another is regarded with divine approval – but woe to the man given 10 talents who only gains one with it.
God is far too big for us to grasp. We are feeble and childish. The man who thinks He knows the mind of God does not even know God. Remember that Jesus’ enemies almost always denounced Him on religious grounds; grounds that were not truly religious at all but were just their legalistic interpretation of it. Remember Luke 18 and the distinction between the religious man who prayed, thanking God that He had made him righteous, “…not like other men…” and the publican (tax collector) who merely beat his breast and asked God to have mercy on him, a poor sinner – and who Jesus said was justified before God. (Spoiler alert: it was the humble ‘poor sinner’). But we can, humbly, work to build each other up. For decades, I prayed that I would keep silence on religious matters until what I said would build up rather than tear down. To be right in a way that wounds the faithful is to sin. Our Lord has shared many intimacies with me over 50 years. But the month does not go by that He does not correct some misconception or misemphasis I have. Usually it is several times. If it were a regular job, I would be embarrassed at how often I am corrected. (As an aside, sometimes He accomplishes these corrections in comical ways that show how foolish I am. I actually like that. It pleases me that He treats me with such intimate affection and I like to think I give Him some amusement as I continue to stumble forward).
The thing I most often advise people is to “just take the next right step and to be a sign of hope to those around you.” I go so far as to say that is all that is necessary to get through these times. What that really is is a restatement of the great commandment in terms specifically fitted for the times we are in. Modern man is full of delusions of grandeur; we are plagued with people convinced of their own greatness. Alternatively, we have good people who are completely paralyzed by the magnitude of the problems we face. Take the next right step is an admonition to renounce both these frauds. Don’t make things worse by insisting on controlling everything when it is far bigger than you can ever be. Neither be intimidated by all you can’t do. Just do the little you can that is right in front of you, trusting that when you do that God will move. To be a sign of hope to those around you…how many people do you know who claim they aspire to doing grand acts of mercy, feeding all the children in Africa, solving all these great problems – while not even noticing, much less helping, with the distress that afflicts their neighbor. It is a vanity: these people are not interested in helping anyone, just in being seen as a great figure. Again, they have their reward. But pay attention, be kind and offer help to those real people that God puts in your path. Do this and the world will be saved, even as any hunger for grandeur on your part is thwarted. Do it for love, do it with humility and do it with trust – and that is all that is necessary. It is to love God with all your heart, even if you do not know His name, and to love your neighbor as yourself.
Now, lest anyone mistake me, I am a committed Catholic, passionately in love with my faith. I am an obedient and grateful son of the Catholic Church. But whatever another calls himself, if he is committed to just taking the next right step and being a sign of hope to all he encounters, I know he is my brother – and my Christian brother, at that – in spirit and in truth.