Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The unexpected messenger

I've been thinking a lot recently about the Church. My thoughts weren't engendered by the media-fanned abuse scandal that flared up just before Holy Week, but those events played into my train of thought.

I wasn't thinking about the Church as an institution, or as a social phenomenon, or even as a spiritual entity. We take the Church for granted, assuming its presence and going on from there. But my recent Scripture study and meditation have had me considering the question at a more fundamental level: specifically, why would God entrust such a vital thing as His entire plan of salvation to such frail and untrustworthy messengers? Why did He involve the Church at all? From a purely practical standpoint, wouldn't angels have been at least more reliable messengers?

To the modern skeptic, and certain Christians, the answer seems obvious: God didn't. The Church is a man-made institution, constructed to exert political power and best understood when viewed through that lens. Many interpretations of history presume that understanding. But over against that are Jesus' words: "Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me." (Luke 10:16), or "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." (Matt 28:19,20a) The connection between the Lord's message and the messengers is clear, firm, and even frightening.

To those with a more modern humanist outlook, the answer also seems obvious: we're such Wonderful People, why wouldn't God choose us? But all anyone has to do is look at themselves realistically to see the folly of this. We may bear the image of God even after the Fall, and still be loved by Him, but that's despite what we are, not because of it. Sober self-examination of our own behaviour, especially under difficult life circumstances, betrays the truth: within each of us lies the potential to do horrible, despicable things, and usually it doesn't take much to bring that part of us to the surface. We don't have to go reaching for tyrants or sadists to use as examples. An honest evaluation of our own hearts will reveal that we are the most faulty and unreliable of materials for anyone to build with.

That being the case, why would God choose to build His Church with us? With salvation and damnation of eternal souls at stake, one would think He'd want a more secure foundation. Yet He does choose us, and the more I ponder it the more mysterious it seems. I know there are plenty of glib answers to this, and all of them contain some truth, but to me it seems a deep mystery.

One aspect I'm pondering that I've never considered before: I wonder if part of this has to do with humility? Pride is our deepest sin, our greatest enemy, and the surest path to hell - and we've all got far too much of it. I can't help but wonder if having salvation ministered to us by means of other weak, sinful humans isn't the first dose of the "humility prescription" which we all need. After all, wouldn't it be a nice salve to our vanity if we were all knocked to the ground, Damascus-road style? Or at least had the message of salvation delivered by a noble and impressive messenger? (It's worth noting that two of the most prominent and dangerous heresies of our time, Mormonism and Islam, were both started by men who claimed to receive revelation directly from angels.)

I know this urge from my own experience. I know of two parishes: at one, the pastor is devout, inspiring, liturgically careful, and even funny. I love going to his Masses, because I feel uplifted and blessed. At the other parish, one of the assistant priests is rambling, repetitive, sloppy with the liturgy, and forgetful. I tend to heave a little sigh when I see him processing in as celebrant. I'd much rather be ministered to by the first priest. I feel like I deserve better than what the assistant priest provides - and therein lie the problem.

What I deserve from God is damnation. That's what my actions and attitudes have earned me. His saving grace is a free gift, and I should be thankful to get it on any terms. If I have even a shred of humility, I'll thank God for the gift of Himself which comes through the hands of that assistant priest. If I have more, I'll pray for him. A bit more humility, and I'll be rejoicing in that servant of God and appreciating him, quirks and all.

I know someone who is filled with sputtering indignation at the Church, dogmatically proclaiming that the bishops forfeited all claim to moral authority when any of them allowed any sexual abuse to continue under their leadership. Leaving aside sacramental theology of how it's always Christ who administers grace, or the question of balancing the good done by Church members against the evil done by them, the thing that strikes me most about this person's blanket indictment of the Church is the inherent pride. What he is saying is: "I will not be served by such as those! I deserve better!" And though it's sure that all of us who minister in Christ's name should seek to live in such a way to bring honor to the noble message we bear, it's also certain that being who we are, we will fail in that trust at some point. I wonder what this person would say if the Lord were to reply to him, "Those are the ministers I have sent to you. You take My saving grace from them, or from nobody." Would he be too proud to accept it?

And, perhaps, might that be the very strategy?

1 comment:

Branwen said...

Very thought provoking Dad. Thanks for your insights!