It’s fitting that I post about Encountering the Risen Christ in the Scriptures today, because today is the feast day of St. Jerome, a doctor of the Church and one of its preeminent biblical scholars of all times. In fact, St. Jerome was responsible for translating what was for over 1500 years the standard Latin text of the Bible, called the Vulgate. In this post, I want to look at three things: (1) the historical transmission of the text of the collection of books that are together called Bible; (2) the meaning and role of the Bible in the life of the Church; and (3) how I have encountered Christ therein.
The texts that became the Bible were written by a variety of authors over a period as many as a thousand years, the most recent being the Gospel, Letters, and Revelation of St. John, written toward the end of the first century after Christ. At the time of Christ, the standard translation of the Bible used in the Holy Land was actually in Greek, and it was called the Septuagint. It included the 46 books still found in the Catholic and Orthodox versions of the Bible. This Bible is the one used by Jesus and the apostles. After the Ascension of our Lord, the Christian community began to flourish and spread. The earliest books in the New Testament are actually letters written to these communities by St. Paul, St. John, St. James, St. Peter, St. Jude, and probably some of their disciples. It’s important to note that the communities to whom these men were writing already existed. It sounds like a no-brainer, but really, it’s important. The Bible and its books did not found the Church, and are not its foundation. The Church came before the Bible. These letters were mostly written between about AD 45 and AD 65, except for the letters of St. John and the Letter to the Hebrews, which probably came somewhat later – and the first Christians went out into the world to spread the Good News (the Gospel) in Jesus’ name sometime around AD 35. Apostles and their disciples later wrote biographies of Jesus of Nazareth, whom they insisted had risen from the dead, and a history of the earliest days of the movement that started around Him. These books, the gospels and Acts of the Apostles, were all written sometime between AD 60 and AD 90 or so.
Many others wrote works providing their take on Jesus and the early Church, but while their writings provide historical insight into the situation of the early Church, very early on, Church leaders became convinced that these other writings did not accurately depict Jesus or the Christian faith. As early as about AD 180, lists of which books belonged and which ones didn’t were already circulating among bishops, and these lists matched what is found in the Catholic Bible today. By about AD 400, there was nearly universal agreement as a number of local councils and popes had considered the matter with increasing unanimity. The works selected were chosen because they were clearly of apostolic origin, depicted the faith and beliefs of the Church, and were already in widespread use among Christians for the liturgy and in religious instruction. It is the constant Christian belief that these books, 73 in total, were inspired by the Holy Spirit as they were authored by their human authors in real times and places, and that the Church authorities were inspired to select them accurately.
The inspiration of the Scriptures guarantees their correctness, or inerrancy. This topic can be problematic if misunderstood. St. Thomas quipped, “If we understand the Scriptures to be wrong, it is because we wrongly understand them.” To properly understand what the intent of a passage is, it is important to know what sort of passage it is, because different types of writing use different styles to address different topics. No part of the Bible is a science textbook, for instance. So we should not take the Genesis creation stories to be rivals to scientific theories about the physical origins of the universe. That’s not what the Genesis creation stories are really about. It would be like reading a newspaper article for instructions on making a cake, and being surprised that the cake turns out badly, or using a financial ledger to woe a lover. That’s not what those things are for. The Scriptures are inerrant, without error, only in the way they were intended to be: the moral-of-the-story parts always tell the right moral; the historical parts always get the key historical details right; the praise and prayer parts rightly tell us how to pray to God; and so on. On the other hand, just because an account, say of the slaughtering of some tribe or another, is included in a historical description found in the Bible, that doesn’t mean that we are all to go out and slaughter some tribe. That’s not what that part was trying to tell us. Precisely because the Scriptures are difficult to understand, as St. Peter himself warns us (2 Pet 3:16), it is important to realize that they do not stand alone. The Scriptures themselves record the earliest Christian belief that the same Spirit inspiring the Church to write and select the books of the New Testament also inspires the Church to understand them correctly (Jn 16:13). On a natural human level, the Bible is not the foundation of the Church, nor is it exactly the rule of faith for the Church. Rather, taken together with the whole living and handed-down memory of the Church, of which the Scriptures are a part, we have the Deposit of Faith, which is our rule. Though the Scriptures are the most concretized expression of that deposit, but alone are insufficient because they do not interpret themselves, explain themselves, or enforce themselves.
Yet all the above in no way denigrates the Scriptures. Rather, it is written to put them into their natural, proper context: the life of the Church. The Scriptures contain in written form, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the whole Word of God, the same Word that created the world (Gen 1:1-3), and the same Word that took on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (Jn 1:14). The Word of God is God’s self-understanding, His self-articulation, His self-expression. The Word of God is the pattern upon which God crafted the entire universe, which is why the Scriptures, themselves the written Word of God, can always be applied in every human circumstance. Jesus Christ is the Word-Made-Flesh, which is why His Life speaks to every human life. If we cannot see His Life in ours, it is because we are blind and not because He has left us. If the sacraments are the lifeblood of Christ given to us, the Scriptures are the mind of Christ given to us. All Christian thought, and all thought about Christ, should have recourse to the Scriptures, should stand on them as on a rock, and should be built of out of the Scriptures as if out of building blocks.
In my own life, I have found great consolation in the Scriptures. When read as a book of platitudes and promises, the Bible is a complete waste. But when it is read prayerfully as a witness of faith, and under the guidance of the Church’s teachers, the Bible is an absolutely indispensible tool for growth in faith, hope, charity, and all the Christian virtues. St. Therese Lisieux, whose feast day is tomorrow (1 October), is also a doctor of the Church. She died very young, and was very photogenic. These facts seem to have led many to believe unconsciously that the Church added her to the ranks of St. Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the other doctors of the Church (there are 33 in total) because she was so cute. Anyone whole will read her writings, and especially her hundreds of letters, will see that this unconscious conviction is incorrect. Without any secondary or higher education, St. Therese intuited that the Bible is meant to be a living book, like a script for a play, which governs the details of our lives as medicine does – by digestion. Reading, rereading, and praying over the Scriptures led her to internalize their words so that in whatever circumstances, just the right words for the Word came to her heart, mind, mouth, and pen. She put herself into roles found in the texts, and put her friends and family into roles as well. By doing so, she was able to find sure guidance for how to live a loving, Christian life. You might call this interpretive key, or hermeneutic, that she developed the Hermeneutic of Love.
While struggling to understand God’s plan for my life, and in great anxiety that I had entirely misunderstood His purpose for me, I came across a passage in Jeremiah, at 18:1-6. The passage shows Jeremiah going, under inspiration from God, to the house of a potter. At the potter’s house, Jeremiah observes the potter working clay into one shape, and then flattening it and molding it into another, until he comes up with just the right vessel. That was what God was doing with me, I realized. He was kneading and folding me, and though I could not tell where He was going, He still had a plan for me. In understanding that, I received a peace that had eluded me up until then.
And so it goes. If we think that we can test and judge the Scriptures, their meaning will evade us, because God’s ways are far above ours, and the Scriptures are a presentation of His mind. But if we will humbly submit to them, those sacred words will be like stars above us, illuminating our paths and providing just enough light to see the signs of our life. Before reading the Scriptures, we should pray for inspiration. If our understanding of some passage upsets us, we should humbly submit it to the teachings of the community that has given us the Bible, and to the teachers that preserve that teaching. When we finish with the Scriptures for the day, we should replace them reverently to their secure and accessible home, and thank God for having opened His mind to us thus.
It’s fitting that I post about Encountering the Risen Christ in the Scriptures today, because today is the feast day of St. Jerome, a doctor of the Church and one of its preeminent biblical scholars of all times. In fact, St. Jerome was responsible for translating what was for over 1500 years the standard Latin text of the Bible, called the Vulgate. In this post, I want to look at three things: (1) the historical transmission of the text of the collection of books that are together called Bible; (2) the meaning and role of the Bible in the life of the Church; and (3) how I have encountered Christ therein.
I am listening, as I type, to "Black Eyed Peas" and Justin Timberlake (I know, I know, we all have our little vices) singing a song called "Where is the Love?" The song is composed as a prayer to our Father in heaven, and urges the listener to integrity, forgiveness, and prayer. Among its little unexpected gems is the statement, "If you never know truth, then you never know love."
Every once in a while a pearl of truth falls out of our vacuous pop culture, like a moonrock from outer space.
I enjoy those little surprises. If you like them too, then I recommend the new Batman movies (Batman Begins and Dark Night) for some excellent moral theological gems. While I am recommending things, let me add the movies Bruce Almighty, Children of Men, Walk the Line, and Hotel Rwanda for excellent studies of the process of conversion and redemption in the life of otherwise not very good men. I would be remiss not to add Sophie Scholl, a true story of one woman and a few friends standing up to the Nazi machine, and relying quietly on rock-solid faith to do so. In the movie, Sophie prays briefly at one or two points, and her prayers are among the most moving I've ever heard. These movies aren't for children, but for an adult that realizes the world isn't perfect and neither are its characters, these movies are refreshing for their positive yet realistic view of human nature and the drama that is life.
OK. You caught me. I added those movie recommendations so that you wouldn't think I'm a big dork for having Justin Timberlake on my iPod. I promise, that's the only song of his that I have. And the iPod was a gift.
Some of my friends have heard my woes of Syriac. Really, it's all three languages I am studying right now in school, plus the knowledge that I need to, as my advisor put it, "Pick up German and French along the way, sometime on my own." I LOVE languages, and dead languages the most. Don't get me wrong. It's just that it seems that - and this isn't a complaint, mind you, I know I asked for this and want it - but it seems as if my professors are tag-teaming me. As one recuperates from beating me (and probably my classmates too) senseless, another one gets psyched up for the next round by watching the current heavy-weight champion do his/her worst. This time our Syriac professor gave me a pounding. See below. If you cannot see the red ink, click on the picture for a zoom in. Make sure you see the red ink. It should be hard to miss.
Yeah, it really is that bad. Now admittedly, this paper is one of the worst, but it is not too far from the average spillage of red ink. Our profs own stock, rumor has it. You judge for yourself. I'll keep plugging away.
Scholastic matters brought me to my university's campus, unusual since normally I am in my office on Thursdays. Confessions are scheduled there for a couple hours before mid-day, and I had a bit of free time, so I slipped in. The priest listened patiently. I try not to make confessions perfunctorily, but to put my heart into it, to give myself back to Jesus. I ask Him to take me back, to come back to me, to come back into me, and to draw me back to Himself.
"Don't be discouraged. Perseverance is the key thing in the Christian life," Father, whose given name I will never know, told me from behind the screen. "Jesus will always be here waiting, waiting for you. However deep the woundedness runs in you, remember that God's love runs deeper." He spoke simple words to me and a power beyond those words and filling them entered into me. As I left the anonymous confines of the box where, nameless, I am known in some ways better to a stranger and to God than to anyone else, the spring was back in my step.
"That's right. God does love me. He does have a plan for me. And I am on the right track. How silly of me to have forgotten. Thanks, Jesus."
My penance was also simple but clever. He said, "Pray to the Virgin, who knows what each soul needs, to suggest an acquaintance who needs prayers, and for that person offer an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and a Glory Be. Now make your Act of Contrition and I will give you absolution." The privatest of sacraments, Confession, is still very much a public thing. The priest stands in for Christ and the Church. I, while confessing only my own sins, in that moment somehow symbolize the whole Church in our sinfulness, returning to the Eternal Father. In some way, I even symbolize Jesus, offering Himself (though He was perfect and did so perfectly) to the Father. My pride being as immense as it is, I am very grateful for the anonymity, and awed by the love that transcends it without violating it.
Another thing that hits me again in a fresh way is that I prayed for someone who at that moment, as far as I know, needed it more than anyone else I know. And he or she will not know until heaven that those little prayers were offered on their behalf.
A last thing strikes me. Maybe someone is praying for me right now. Maybe someone in the Body of Christ, right now, is praying for you, dear reader. It's a beautiful thought that we are loved and cared for far beyond our knowledge. In fact, I think as I lay falling asleep, I will mutter a few decades for all of you, especially whichever of you needs them most. God knows.
But does anyone else think that a multi-gajillion (that's 700 with about a billion zeros following it) dollar bail-out right now is a bad idea? I mean, we've already floated $10,000,000,000,000 in debt in the last 8 years. That's ten trillion dollars, if you lost track of the zeros. No joke. That's $33,500 per man, woman, and child - citizen, visitor, undocumented migrant in the entire USA in debt in the last 8 years. About 70% of it is owed to Chinese interests, I believe. Now, who still thinks a bail-out right now is very smart? Maybe I'm being too conservative or old-fashioned. I mean, what's another trillion or so dollars borrowed from our bossom buddies? I mean, I've got an extra $33,500 laying around to pay off what we already owe - don't you? And so do each of our children, or retirees, and our well-paid guest workers.
At the very least, does anybody else think that some personal responsibility is called for?
Now, we don't want our economy to tank (by objective standards left unreported, it is not doing badly at all, and certainly not in a recession). And we certainly don't want to see lots of new homeless. Perhaps a solution this mess might be something like:
1) Defaulted adjustible-rate mortgage (ARM) loans are legally cancelled and their collateral (the house) is reclaimed by the lending institution, which then has no further recourse against the borrower.
2) Banks get the houses, but will receive no further money, so should not auction them too cheaply. What they do with the houses (probably auction them) is their business.
3) Dispossessed (and presumably bankrupt) borrowers are given, as a one-time gift, a voucher for two months' rent (a LOT cheaper than bailing out the mortgage industry) so they have some time to get their lives in order without being homeless.
4) Laws prohibiting the current nonsense, repealed in the 1990s and 2000s, are restored with criminal penalties attached to irresponsible lending. Whatever laws (still) exist that could possibly be applied to land as many of these yahoos in jail as possible, for as long as possible, would be well applied right NOW.
Of course, all these steps are intermediate steps to a more permanent solution. I actually stand with the consensus among the world's traditional ethical systems (including the Jewish and Christian) in holding that lending at interest is immoral. Not just high interest, but at any interest. Investing with a share of the risk and profit is perfectly alright, but to expect money to grow on trees (that is, to give someone money, and without working for it, or knowing what they are going to do with it, expect more to be given back - NO MATTER WHAT) is ludicrous. They are looking for something for nothing. The whole present problem is caused by greed - the greed of investors, of bankers, and of potential home-buyers. We are seeing some fallout from that; how many bailouts before we recognize that the massive industry exploiting usury is just flat-out stupid. With the exception of a house (which is very expensive, and also a very solid investment, generally) - if you cannot afford it, you do not need it, and you shouldn't take out a loan for it.
If I've offended anybody out there, or hurt their feelings, GOOD. STOP being stupid and greedy and indebting us all to the Chinese! If you're a friend of mine, it's not personal, really. You still need to stop getting us all into messes, though, even if I like you a lot. This is serious.
If you have been living irresponsibly with respect to finances, and I did for most of a decade, and got into and only recently out of a LOT of debt, I cannot recommend the following link highly enough. Dave Ramsey makes his living teaching people sound principles of personal finance. No get-rich-quick schemes here, but just learning how to work hard, save your money well, and retire comfortably with your responsibilities met. But I warn you, it is a real call to conversion that Dave sells. Back in the springtime, I went through his 13-week program (for a whopping $95) and it changed my life.
I know I already put this one up (Isa 43:4) but it is so beautiful that it bears repeating, and this time at greater length.
But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
"Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my eyes,
and honored, and I love you,
I give men in return for you,
peoples in exchange for your life."
Father, I am weak, and falter. Please remind me of your love so that I will not perish, but turn to you and live. Amen.
Last night, I sat down with my newly-arrived Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensis (BHS, for short) - the standard critical edition of the Hebrew Bible. Armed only with the Bible and five weeks of Hebrew crammed into my brain, I read the words:
The words came haltingly out of my lips at first, and then repeated they came faster: "Bere'shith bara' 'elohim eth hash-shamayim weth ha-arets." I was elated not only to be able to read the words, but to know what those particular words mean.
"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."Not a bad way to start. I could sound out, but didn't know the meaning of a single word for six more verses, so I guess it's time to get back to my Hebrew notes.
In various ways, before ascending bodily into heaven, our Lord left for us concrete, tactile ways of making contact with Him: the sacraments. Sacrament is an interesting word. Sacramentum is what Roman soldiers called the branded tattoo on their shoulder, which read SPQR. It was a seal of loyalty to the Senate and People of Rome, and the physical manifestation of their permanent bond to their military unit. The seven sacraments of Christ have something of the same role in the life of a Christian: they seal and bind us to Him and His Church. The Eastern Christians call these same seven actions the seven mysteries. A mystery, for the ancient Greeks, was not a problem to be solved, but an interaction with the divine. In these mysteries, we Christians come face to face with the living God and share in His divine life. They are possible because in Jesus Christ, God already shares in our human life. This shared life of God is called grace, and is always freely given and only freely received. The Church defines the sacraments, the mysteries of the faith as “visible signs instituted by Christ to convey invisible grace.” It is important to note that sacraments do not merely represent grace in our life, but actually bring it into our life. This definition is not only words on a page, but it is the fabric of my spiritual life, and of the life in Christ of many, many others.
I don’t remember my baptism because I was just a few weeks old. I didn’t care much about my confirmation as a young teenager. My first communion, though, was important to me. I remember how even as a small boy, I felt drawn to the Eucharist, the sacrament by which Christians renew our relationship of intimate communion with Jesus. I couldn’t have told you why, and I know I didn’t fully understand, but I did desire it. I desired Him.
Nowadays, the Eucharist and its sister sacrament, Reconciliation, are key to my daily life. At first my thinking was, “If I botch it in life, or just need a spiritual checkup, I’ll go to Reconciliation, to make sure that I am tight with Jesus.” As time goes on now, even when I don’t have any egregious sins, I want to go to the sacrament of Reconciliation to make sure that there’s nothing between us. It’s maybe a little like a husband and wife touching bases just to make sure that nobody’s got some unvented frustration or anger. As time goes on, I find myself going more and more often. In the sacrament of Reconciliation, also called Confession, I bare my soul to the priest, and thereby give it away to the One he represents.
It’s a very small thing to give away the soul. At least, the degree to which I turn it over to Jesus is very small. I am trying, don’t get me wrong. Time after time, it seems, I confess the same sins. At any given confession I seem to confess five or six from the same pool of ten or fifteen sins. But something else deeper is happening – over years of regular confession, certain sins have dropped out, others that have been long-ingrained habits become somewhat dislodged, and still others previously undetected come to light. Each confession removes an obstacle in my relationship with Jesus, each confession uproots a rock in the soil of my soul that otherwise stunts the growth of the gospel there. Each confession confesses, in more specific language, “Jesus, I tried to do it my own way, but you’ve got a better grasp of reality than I have, and my way didn’t work, so I want to go back to your way; I tried to be like God, but you are Lord.” Every confession of sin is a confession of the humility of our condition and of the exalted Lordship of Jesus Christ. Every sincere confession of sin to one authorized to forgive on behalf of Jesus puts us back into right relationship with Him, and thus with all of creation that He is bringing, slowly but surely, into His authority. Every confession of sin unloads a burden and a weight to great for a mere mortal to bear. I along with hundreds of millions of other Catholics can attest to the relief and lifting, the ease of conscience and lightness of heart that follows a confession soaked in the genuine intention to go and sin no more, to be right with God and neighbor.
In return for kinda partly trying to give my little self to Jesus, He, the Lord and God of Heaven and Earth, fully and entirely gives Himself to me in the sacrament of the Eucharist, throwing in the beginnings of the life of heaven and a renewal of His promise to bequeath to me the whole world. It’s amazing and crazy, really. The Church fathers called it the commercium admirabilis – the wonderful exchange. In giving Himself to me, Jesus makes it possible not only for me to give myself to Him, but to discover myself, my who-I-am, in the process. In giving Himself to me, Jesus shows me in a tactile way His great love for me. He literally takes the self-sacrificial and unbounded love that led Him to Calvary, to death on a cross, and puts it into me, the way pretty much everything else is put into me: as food. Read John 6 for the most beautiful account of this reality that has ever been written.
Self-doubt riddles the fabric of my soul on so many levels, and the Eucharist, Jesus hidden behind the appearances of bread and wine, eager to dwell in my heart – so eager that He is willing to pass through my stomach – this Eucharist tells me that He loves me, that my doubts of my own worth and purpose can be set aside, because He does not doubt my worth, and for me, He has a purpose.
I am never so at piece during the day as when, after a time of hearing God’s word spoken to me, and prayerfully, quietly preparing myself, that Love that never ends makes His home in me again, unworthy tabernacle though I am. A day without the Eucharist is a waste. I plan my vacations, days off, and even hiking trips around it. This devotion to the Eucharist is not because I am a good man, but because I am a needy man. I need more Jesus in my life.
Each of the seven sacraments could have a volume written about it, but there’s no time for that. For now, I wish to make the point that the community of believers draws people into itself, and at the heart of the community of believers lay the seven sacraments, which institute the community, constitute it, and give it its shape and meaning. The sacraments bear the life of Christ using material, sensible signs to creatures made matter and endowed with senses to receive that matter. That life of Christ permeates us and, if we succeed well enough in our contest against sin – those things that oppose the life of Christ – that life will begin to radiate out from us and draw others into our company as well.
Subsequent installments of this series will address the sacred scriptures and prayer, by which Christ forms our minds and hearts more fully into the likeness of His own; and suffering, the process by which our transformative purification, started in the sacraments and guided by prayer and the scriptures, is made perfect.
...Click here for an addendum subsequently added to this post.
Nowadays our idea of community has something to do with neighborhoods, online chat rooms or discussion forums, or perhaps a school. These communities are communities of convenience though, groups of people who happen to have something in common for the time being, and not really what the word “community” means. Community, in its Latin roots, means a strong or complete unity. I have heard that many parishes are cold and uncaring places of pew potatoes that just happen to live near each other and happen to be Catholic rather than Unitarian. That experience has not been my experience of parish life, however. My parish has affluent white folks; Latino, Asian, and African immigrants who come from halfway across the county by bus; young adults and grandmas; workers, professionals, and retirees. With thousands of different stories, interests, and aspirations we all gather around Jesus, the Christ. He is what holds us together. Some people do walk off in a huff when their feathers get ruffled – that’s always a temptation and happens in any group, even families. But what amazes me is that with all the feather ruffling in a parish, in my good parish, so few actually do walk off in a huff. Most folks there forgive, or try to, and then keep coming back. When I am absent for a while for whatever reason, I am asked about. The pastor uses our common resources and anonymous coparishioners use their own money to support those in need. When someone is evicted, others among us help to move them into their new home. There – it is perhaps the one place outside of my family’s home - I am not a number; I am a person who is known and loved. We help each other in a thousand ways. It was there that I first saw people serving those who could make no return, just because. But it wasn’t really just because – no Christian will say that. They do it because Jesus served us first.
Christian families are meant to be like little parish churches, and are the building blocks of parish churches – they are even the units that people register in. An oddity arises from this understanding of parish life: I cannot register as an individual, but only as a family of one. So are parishes are meant to be, and sometimes really obviously are, families of families. My family was basically a decent home to grow up in, but like most in my generation, not a particularly devout one. I have friends now who are raising their children, and maintaining their family, in a specifically Christian way of life. It is amazing: fifteen year olds that are still innocent and pure (mostly), five year olds who are (fairly) obedient, husbands that bend over backwards to help their wives with their chores, families with good boundaries and respect that welcome virtually all comers to join them around their table and share in their happiness. Their lives are not Norman Rockwell paintings. Mostly, they have their share of sufferings: chronic health conditions, untimely deaths, job insecurity. But still, their hearts and homes seem to expand rather than contract in the face of what are usually show-stoppers for family happiness. These people all swear that Christ is the source of their joy, and in their homes and hearts, as in my parish, I have found my own measure of joy, of gentle and eager love.
The largest such example is the Church herself. Founded by Jesus to continue His presence and work in bodily, animate form, the Church comes before and “plants” all the local churches but is also made up of them. The analogy of a body with its cells and parts really works well. The Church is too big and vast to experience immediately, except at certain powerful moments. The World Youth Days have, for my generation and this new, younger group of people, offered just such an opportunity. While leading a group of teenagers to the World Youth Day (WYD) in 2002 in Toronto, I remember a poignant incident. Two of the boys had bought an atlas with maps, and were marking off the different countries as they identified their flags. At one point, one of the boys spotted a group of pilgrims sitting together under two different flags. As the group sat, they were praying before a meal. One of the flags the boy identified as being India’s. The other was Pakistan’s. The boy said to his friend, “Hey, aren’t India and Pakistan supposed to hate each other?” The other boy said, “No, idiot, they’re supposed to love each other, and these ones are getting it right.” The Indians and Pakistanis finished their blessing with the Sign of the Cross and then ate their meal together. The WYD experiences offer a similar experience on a broader scale. This most recent one was in Sydney, where teenage binge drinking is an immense problem. With nearly a quarter million foreign young people descending upon the city, authorities were sure that the problem would amplify tremendously. Even rock concerts with merely 30,000 or so in attendance can cause emergency rooms to start hopping. Contrary to expectations, the number of alcohol-poisoning incidents plunged well below normal, according to one police officer on the street. No reported murders or rapes by unknown assailants that week: not with all those singing Christians on the streets at all hours, not with all those wholesome, enjoyable events going on day and night. In Toronto, I asked one local resident if she and other local citizens minded the longer lines, the delays on public transport, etc., occasioned by the locust swarm of teenagers on a biblical scale. She said, “At first I think we were all annoyed, but now, I think you are making us happier. People are kind of talking to strangers, even. You know?”
This encounter with a love that sacrifices rather than consumes, with joy that does not falter because of hardship – that is just the reason that Jesus instituted the Church: to get us to heaven, and to help encourage us until we arrive. It is what the Church establishes local parishes and dioceses for: to see that the Church is present all over the world, in every nook and cranny, so everyone has a chance at the Life of Christ. It is the reason that Jesus reconstituted family life on a new model: so that families, instead of being microcosms of the broader social chaos, can be little incubators of love.
In Christ, rooted in Him in other specific means, it actually works. Communion is possible in Christ. The following four posts on Encountering the Risen Christ will delve into how the various manifestations of Christian community actually work.
The following outline is meant to be succinct, but I hope to convey the crucial points effectively. What I am going to summarize and categorize is literally half a lifetime of experience, so the task will not be easy. In previous posts I have tried to establish in a more or less objective terms the different sorts of knowledge and provability, the reality of a transcendent Creator, the historicity of the man Jesus of Nazareth, and the unbroken historical and present claim of Christians that the same man claimed to be God-in-Human-Flesh. I now set out from objective argumentation about how Christianity is possible, into the much more dangerous waters of my personal experience with the Christ, who is at the center of Christianity. In my lifetime, I have myself encountered this Jesus, and seen Him to be the Living God. I do not pretend that these experiences prove Jesus to be God – that cannot be proved, but only that the experiences do not contradict reason, and for that reason can be said to be reason. And they are reason enough for me.
There will be five brief installments, each briefly shining on one of these categories of experience in which I have come to meet the living God, Jesus Christ. Those categories are: community, sacraments, scripture, prayer, and suffering. The first follows immediately, and the remainder hopefully will all be up within a couple weeks.
"Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified."
- 1st Corinthians 9:24-27
A bit over a week ago, while getting ready for the weekend before last's sixteen mile run, I received an unexpected phonecall from a friend who is currently in basic training with the Maryland Army National Guard. We caught up for a bit, and being without email, he had no idea that I am training for a marathon. I told him that I was doing so, and that on the evening of the following day, I would run sixteen miles.
"Why?" he asked, in the tone of voice that conveys complete befuddlement, complete lack of reference point. It was as if I'd told him I planned on flooding my basement with tomato juice. He was being made to run five or seven miles daily, with a rucksack loaded with cumbersome equipment and in boots, I imagine. Plus, this particular friend hates running in the first place. His "why," if it meant anything, meant, "Why would someone voluntarily subject himself to THAT!" My own reason seemed so obvious to me for so long that I had ceased to think of it, and now, asked for one, was clueless. I don't like being clueless, especially about things I should know, so I just shifted the topic and asked how his weekend leave was going.
The answer haunted me. I had had an answer at one point - even several of them. But now, it seemed inarticulable, maybe even unreal. I ran the sixteen miles the next night, with my unflappably adventurous roommate, Tom, joining me for the first twelve. We laughed and goofed around afterwards, and had an overall good time. That's a reason. That's most of why I ran in high school and college, but it's not exactly a WHY.
Well, yesterday afternoon I had a brief conversation with a friend of mine from South Dakota. He is a priest and promised to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for me that evening, and I returned the favor in my meager way by promising to offer last night's run for him - my own little sacrifice. As I ran, mile after mile, I could feel the effects of pavement pounding, first on the ankles, then the knees and hips, and then the back. That's OK, I thought, because I can ice those joints afterwards, and they'll be good as new. I felt a new pain I never felt before, in my ankle. It was lower than what I think is a gradually developing case of Achilles' tendonitis, right at the heel, and sharp, although not that bad, and only momentarily popping up every mile or so. I studied the pain carefully - almost always on uphills, often just after or during a turn... hmm... maybe it was the same Achilles tendon after all.Ice has been holding it at bay so far, and perhaps still will. By mile fourteen I was fatiguing a bit. The sugar laden gel packs with gulps of water I was consuming every six miles helped, but I still needed to dig in and just keep on keepin' on. By mile sixteen, I was just keepin' on, and that's it. One foot in front of another. At about that point I came to the last long hill - it felt like thirty six mile straight up, but is probably about half a mile at a 10% grade - still no mean hill. Though I was making running-like movements, I am convinced that a well-rested great-grandma with a walker could have passed me.
Then I had my answer, sometime during my seventeen. I was running because it was hard, and painful. Lance Armstrong has said, "Pain is temporary, but quitting lasts forever." With due deference, I wish to amend his words.
Pain is temporary,
but glory is eternal.
That's a lesson from Calvary if I ever heard one. My friend was offering for me, as I ran and trudged, Jesus' Holy Sacrifice on Calvary. And as he offered that exquisite sacrificial Lamb, God's first and best fruit, I offered my own poor, best fruit for him. "That's the reason," I remembered. I want to help the Church in Washington DC to prepare men for the priesthood so that those men can help lead us to Jesus and bring Jesus to us. Something happened in me then. Seeing... no, feeling... in some small way how mile eighteen could fit into the Grand Scheme of the Universe made it so easy to overcome all the nagging reservations about how seventeen miles was enough for one night, about how tired I was, about my ankles, or that weird pain in the heel. I felt taken up and drawn into something larger than myself, although I won't exaggerate and say that I felt lifted up or bouyant. But I did every single step of eighteen miles, and averaged 30 sec/mi faster than I need to break four hours on the marathon.
The Goo Packs, those little sugary concoctions with electrolytes designed to require no real digestion, coincidentally made me think of the Holy Eucharist this morning as I ate breakfast. I don't think our Blessed Lord will be offended by the analogy. The Goo Packs gave me nourishment for a hard journey in progress, and a small taste of this finish line. In the Eucharist, our Blessed Lord feeds us on His own flesh, to sustain us on the hard journey of loving each other as He loves us, and to give us a taste of the finish line. Of course, the analogy breaks down as they all do: Goo Packs aren't necessary for a runner, but I don't see how a Christian can manage without the Eucharist; also, life is more important than marathoning, and the Eucharist is infinitely more powerful and precious than Goo, even vanilla flavored Goo. But I think you get the point.
Next weekend I get a rest - my long-distance run will only be 14 miles. Then will come the longest run of the training regimen: twenty miles. And thanks, by the way, to those of you who are helping me to help the Church to help the People of God get to the Kingdom. Let me know how I can help you do the same.
Walking from the metro to Mass at the National Shrine this morning, I passed a bunch of little birds chirping and scampering about on a patch of lawn at CUA's campus - very little birds. It looked like I could hold two in my hand at once without a problem. The were really like little balls of feathers with squeaky beaks and legs, and seemed to be playing.
Then a dark thought crossed my mind.I could stomp on one and blot it out, and it would be gone forever, without hardly a trace, and with no memory of it left. Annihilated. And not just me - cars and cats, and so forth, could all crush such a little thing, such a little joyful thing.
And yet, something stays the hand of death against these chirpy little things. The gospel hymn, "His Eye is On the Sparrow," came to mind and then the words from St. Luke, "Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God," (Lk 6:12). "That is how much God loves me," I thought. Each of us, individually - He has His eye on all of us. Coming off the metro during rush hour, it is very easy to feel like a number. I got a little choked up with the reminder from God that I am not a number to Him.
Today's Mass readings (1 Cor 9:16-19, 22b-27; Ps 84:3, 4, 5-6, 12; Lk 6:39-42) speak of two themes. The Gospel speaks about the importance of removing sin from our own lives before we address it in those around us. At the very least, if we do not completely eradicate sin in ourselves first, chronologically, we should put that process first in importance and priority. The epistle speaks about the importance of diligence in the Christian life - and the seriousness of our goal. Sin is bad. In the life of a Christian, it is very bad. Sin hardens our hearts against God, weakens our wills in the face of further sin, dims our mind's ability to know truth from falsehood. It damages our ability to convey God's love to the world. To show Christ to our neighbor and to the world, we must get rid of sin in our own life as thoroughly as we can. It's that simple. If we do a lousy job showing Jesus to our neighbors, if none or few of our coworkers and friends have asked us about Him (who we say is the center of our life), you can bet that it's because of all the sin in our lives. If we can't see the sin in our life, we probably need new glasses.
The Roman Calendar lists as an optional memorial for today the Holy Name of Mary. Mary, conceived without sin and sinless her whole life, brought into the world Him who changed everything - who, simply by existing, challenges every the encrustations of sin. Because we have crusty buildups of sin inside of our heart, Jesus challenges us. Everyone that comes into contact with Him will, when push comes to shove, either despise Him or fall at His feet. No person, place, or thing that comes into contact with Jesus can remain indifferent - the heart hardens or breaks, but it does not sit untouched.
Mary was capable of bringing Him into the world because she was so open to God's will, because her heart is so soft to Him, so supple, so pliable, so moldable, so flexible, so free for service to Him. If we want to be softened by our contact with Jesus, rather than hardened into our sins, we should call on her and ask her to show us the way.
We must pray that the memory of the events of this day in 2001 do not bring us to demands of vengeance, but to a national life of justice, and to prayer for the deceased, and for our enemies.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and may perpetual Light shine upon them; may their souls and all souls, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
Sunday evening I was scheduled to go back to the C & O Canal Trail and run sixteen (16!) miles. I started a wee bit earlier than I had the week before, hoping to avoid the deep darkness and the Terror of the Woods. I got to the Canal and stretched, and off I went. The problem was that the date being a week later, and so close to the autumnal equinox, we are losing a half hour or so of daylight each week at this point, and so very quickly it began to get dusky again. On top of that, some Spanish rice and chicken, which I had scarfed down a couple hours earlier hoping to digest quickly for some last minute energy, was causing some, um... mild unpleasantness. Now, don't get me wrong - my symptoms were limited to some moderate distension, a bit of gas (sorry), and some very mild cramps. Nothing that can't be run through, but the sort of symptoms that tend to demoralize.
As I ran, it got darker and darker. My halfway point was also the starting point (I was doing two laps on a there-and-back course) and as I approached it, I realized that it was 8:15 p.m. and just plain dark, and I was only halfway done. Now a debate began to rage in my head: to bail out and call the run a make-up for one of the 7-8 mile tempo runs I'd skipped while trying to adjust to my new academic career, or push through and finish the sixteen miles? The distension and other symptoms were subsiding, but could always return. The darkness would certainly get darker, and then the trail (safe from bandits, I think) would become a bit dangerous because of physical obstacles. "WUSS!" something inside of me shouted. "Isn't it be better to dig in, push on, and develop my fortitude - moral, emotional, physical perseverance?" something else asked plaintively. Prudence? What would prudence say? The debate raged and raged, absorbing my thoughts and began to steal away my enjoyment of the run, and even my peace.
Now, prudence, far from being prudery, is the virtue by which one knows the most important good, and the best way to achieve it, and by corollary, how to prioritize other lesser goods beneath it. It is the most practical natural virtue, so I said a quick prayer for some, tried to clear my mind, and thought. The purpose of this run is to get into better shape to prepare me for my marathon. If I injure myself in a pothole, that won't happen. More importantly, this marathon isn't the most important thing: I still had some Syriac homework to do, and class in the morning; if I ran for another hour, and was consequently whacked physically, those things would be shot - and they are more important than the marathon or the workout. While my stomach didn't feel lousy, it didn't feel great, either. Tomorrow I could run without the Spanish rice and chicken. Feeling like a wuss isn't pleasant, but it isn't as important as these considerations: (1) school/work, (2) safety, (3) marathon performance. In fact, if I was doing this just to feel good about myself, then damaging my career and injuring my body would be counterproductive, and one of those was certain to happen, and the other one increasingly likely. OK... so at the eight-mile mark I stopped running, walked back to my car, drove home, ate my dinner of leftovers, and did my Syriac homework.
Last night, with the day planned out better, I drove back to the C & O Canal Trail and did the sixteen mile run. All of it. I stopped for a minute or so a couple times in order to stretch out better, and overall enjoyed the run. My average pace was about 8:27 min/mile if memory serves. My roommate ran the first 12 with me, and then met me at my finish mark, water bottle in hand. I've never been so flush with gratitude in my whole life. We went home and had dinner, a pit stop at McDonald's for milkshakes and 7-11 for a big bag of ice were our only distractions. After eating dinner and icing my leg joints for 45 minutes or so, I went to bed. Today, my legs are tired, but limber, and I feel fine.
So what I learned about being a Christian by not running the sixteen miles the first time around was this: when we are in the throws of a struggle, our decision-making process can become very convoluted. Virtue and vice become jumbled, and the right path gets lost from sight as surely as when I was running in the dark. Our emotions rise up in a great rebellious assault, and our minds get clouded as we begin to rationalize. Telling rationalizations from true and good reasons becomes nightmarishly difficult. I think I made the right call to give up my run the first night, but it was hard to make the call. Likewise, when fighting temptations to sin, it can be very difficult to figure out the right thing to do. It is best in life, as it would have been in my run, to make a sound decision before getting into the thick of things, and then to just hold the course against all comers - trusting that our first decision, made in the calm, clear daylight, will turn out to have been the right one.
The Jesuits recommend a frequent spiritual exercise called the Examen, in which we look over a block of time past and block of time to come, in the calm recollection of a prayerful heart, resolve to do better, and practically speaking how we will do so, anticipating obstacles, and making prudent decisions before all hell breaks loose in our psyche. C. S. Lewis identifies this phenomenon of good-decision-stuck-to-even-when-it-becomes-hard-later as the basic, natural, human sort of faith, faithfulness, fidelity. It's what married couples and religious do when they make their vows - only, those choices are so monumental that merely human faith is insufficient, and for fulfillment of those choices grace from God is needed.
That's the lesson: make good decisions before decision-making gets difficult; then when the hard times come and all hell assaults our resolve, we need only pray for the grace of fidelity to our good decision.
And yeah, sixteen miles IS the longest run I've ever, ever done in my entire life. Not too shabby, if I say so myself. Marine Corps Marathon, here I come!
Read this little story. It is astounding!
Young African woman crawls 2.5 miles to attend Sunday Mass
Lord Jesus, give me half as much faith, please! Amen.
Posted by Ryan Haber on Wednesday, September 03, 2008
So last night my (re-)scheduled long-steady-distance run was down to 10 miles, as a sort of recovery period. I had intended to go on Sunday night, as scheduled, but then did homework and stayed late at a party instead. Anyhow, I decided to run on the C & O Canal Trail. It's really beautiful, and also a very easy run on packed gravel at a very slight incline, laden with beautiful scenery. I aimed to get there about 7 p.m., and calculated that if I got running pretty quickly, I'd finish before the park closed at dark. Since the distance was shorter and the path easier, I decided to run it a little faster and budgeted 80 minutes for the run. I putzed around though, and got there a few minutes late. While I was stretching, a friend of mine walked up out of the blue (well, actually off of the Canal Trail) and so we had to catch up a bit. Long story short, it was almost 7:30 when I started my run. That meant it would be darker when I finished, and on top of that, since the park closes at dark, I would officially be an outlaw. It sounded enticing, so off I went, first running north 2.5 miles, then back to the start where I picked up a pack of calorie gel I had planted for myself, and then south 2.5 miles, and then back to the beginning again.
It tasted tolerable, and didn't seem to give me any stomach problems (my main concern), but at a mere 100 calories (about enough for 1 mile) I couldn't imagine how it could keep me from "hitting the wall." Maybe eating a pack every few miles on a longer run, but for just ten miles. Well, the experiment was to test the effects it would have on my stomach, acid reflux, cramping, etc. Happily it seems to have had none.
Now, running at night in a closed park was a new experience for me. The gravel path is white, which was literally the difference between running on the path and running off a cliff into the Potomac or into the Canal. For the first quarter of my run, it was dusk. The middle half, it was progressively more twighlight. During the darker part of this stage, as I moved into the second half of the run, I passed a utility road turnoff from the trail, at the end of which there was some vehicle with its lights on. The vehicle itself was too buried in the dark and woods to be visible, but the headlights were very clear. Seeing them through the trees as I ran by created the illusion that it was moving slowly, almost in circles. Then it occured to me, "Might I not be the only person in this park illegally?" The thought was, as you can imagine, a bit unnerving.
The last quarter, even though I was running northwest toward where the sun had been, at 8:30 p.m. in September, it was just plain dark. Signs standing on double posts looked like sturdy men at the path's side until I was very close. Dark spots in my field of vision looked like strangers in the shadows up ahead. A number of times I became suddenly unsure of my footing and slowed down to reorient myself. I took my headphones out of my ears so I could "run aware." The soothing sounds of folk music or my favorite quirky bands gave way to the rhythmic sounds of my feet scraping the gravel, and to the woodland noises I've grown up with, but that now sounded menacing and eerie for the first time since my childhood. Prayers for protection floated into my heart. Even the white gravel path melted into the river and the woods only four or five yards ahead of my feet. I found myself running faster and faster, developing self-defense plans. As I passed by the utility road again, I saw the headlights still down at the bottom of the hill, through the trees that were themselves now blotted out by night. "What are they DOING down there?" Faster and faster, until suddenly a new thought entered into my mind. "I went to confession yesterday. What am I worried about?"
Immediately, even unintentionally, my pace relaxed again. The earphones found their way back into my ears, and were singing one of my favorite songs. Within a few more minutes I came back to my starting point, ten miles done. I stretched for a few minutes and ate a bagel and drank the liter of water I'd left for myself in the car. A milkshake pit-stop at McDonald's kicked things up another notch on the pleasantness scale. After getting home I made myself dinner - chicken on Spanish rice, and while eating I studied for my Syriac class.
Last night, I learned to write the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary in Ancient Syriac, one of the first scripts to write those names in the Christian era. That made me immensely happy. After studying, a warm shower and my rosary made things even better. I conked out and, as you will imagine, slept very, very well.
Some time ago I was asked in a comment to respond to the question, "Where would you say the evidence is that compels you to believe that [Jesus] was a god?" In response to that question, I've written on the historicity and facticity of Jesus of Nazareth, and on the reality and knowability of God. Along the way, some basic Thomistic ontology and some epistemology has worked its way into my writing. In short, the one thing that hasn't entered into my writing is a direct answer to a very direct question. The groundwork is sufficiently laid, I believe, to give a cogent answer to the question asked.
As previously noted, evidence can only take us so far in things. The Church does not teach that the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth is provable as the existence of a Creator is. That said, there are serious reasons and evidences in favor of the divinity of that particular itinerant rabbi. The present treatment will treat the data recorded in the four gospels and in Acts of the Apostles as basically historical in nature though each account is not entirely reconcilable with the others. Contradictions between them on immaterial points aren't themselves troubling because they are to be expected. Even something as trivial as a traffic accident will give rise to several testimonies contradicting each other here and there, but their existence and rough congruence is enough to establish the fact of the accident and some basic details. While presupposition of the historicity of the gospels is questioned by some scholars, it is essentially respected by the majority of historians and biblicists. When accounts of miracles are excluded, the accounts in the gospels are almost uniformly accepted. Miracles can only be excluded on philosophical grounds, rather than historical. In short, one can say a particular miracle didn't happen because miracles in general are impossible and witnesses to them are either deliberate or sincere fabrications, but not because there is no historical witness to them. But having admitted the existence of a transcendent God who interacts with the universe at least as far as creating it requires, it becomes difficult to see why a miracle would be flat out impossible. Of course, to say a miracle is possible does not mean that they are common, or scientifically explainable (they wouldn't be miracles then, but natural occurences). Of course, a miracle is quite likely very rare, even very unlikely. Otherwise, they are not noteworthy. Simply by recording them as miracles, the witnesses acknowledge their unlikeliness. While the gospels witness to a number of miracles, we will only consider one - the most important one, namely the bodily Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from death. This miracle is the most important, and therefore the most questioned and denied. But we will come back to this miracle in a moment.
The first reason to believe in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth is because he did not leave us any alternative. It is frequently said that he was a good and holy man, or a prophet. He himself put the kabosh on such sayings though by openly claiming divinity. One of his most dramatic claims to divinity occurs in John 8:58-59, Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am." So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple. His claim to have existed before Abraham, who was certainly born more than a millennium before Jesus, is hard to explain as anything other than a claim to divinity. Moreover to describe himself Jesus uses the Holy Name of God revealed to Moses in the wilderness, the Sacred Tetragrammaton, YHWH, which is literally "I am," in Hebrew, and which Jews never even pronounced aloud. The claim struck them as blasphemous, and so they prepared to stone him. Rather than save himself by repudiating his words, Jesus slips away. Later, after apprehending him and dragging him to the Roman governor, the charge laid against him by the Jewish elders is this:
The Jews answered him, "We have a law, and by that law he ought to die, because he has made himself the Son of God," John 19:7. The passage notes that the governor, Pilate, became anxious as a result of their anger and his claim. The thousands of followers Jesus had gathered might very well have been stirred to rebellion if they believed him to be a deity. It seems that Jesus' enemies and the local authorities took Jesus' claim very seriously, although they clearly did not believe it.
Even if we cannot believe the claim, we must take it equally seriously. Good moral teachers, like Gandhi and the Buddha, like Confucius, do not claim to be God. For that matter, they really even claim to be good. Goodness is recognized in them and their teachings by contemporaries and subsequent generations, but everyone recognizes that to go beyond that, to claim to be God, would not be good at all. It would be lunacy (if sincerely) or deceit (if spoken in bad faith). But nobody supposes Gandhi to have been God, and Gandhi least of all.
Jesus seems several times to have made precisely this claim, both explicitly and implicitly (in the passages, for instance, in which he forgives sins, raising the question, "Who can forgive sins but God only?" Lk 5:21, cf. Mt 9:1-9). He refused to repudiate the claim when doing so would have kept followers looking for a good moral teacher from abandoning him (Jn 6:53-66). He refused to repudiate it when it would have perhaps saved his life. The claim then leaves us with two possibilities: that he was insane, or a charlatan. C. S. Lewis and George MacDonald have said that given his claim he was either a lunatic or a liar. Nonsense about him having been a nice teacher like the Buddha cannot be taken seriously in the light of such claims by anybody who believes that there is actually a God; and for that matter, it cannot be taken seriously by anyone who believes there is no God. It can only be taken seriously by someone who does not care.
But there is a third possibility, other than Jesus having been deranged or deceptive. He may, logically speaking, actually have been Divine, precisely as he seems to have claimed. The convincing proof of his divinity for his followers was his Resurrection from the dead: this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it, Acts 2:23-24. The ambiguity of the text in presenting the identity of God and Jesus is not the salient point of the passage. The key point is "it was not possible for him to be held by [death]," which asserts Jesus' divinity and takes the Resurrection as its evidence. The earliest disciples after the Resurrection believed in Jesus' divinity because of the bodily Resurrection - a miracle they certainly considered weird, even unique. Paul makes a big deal out of the importance of the Resurrection and of the large number of witnesses to it. He writes about fifteen years later to the Christians living in Corinth:
"Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast -- unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep," (1 Cor 15:1-20).
And those first Christians took their claim seriously enough. Some foolish, really foolish bigmouths will say that those first Christians, the Apostles and their disciples, didn't really believe in the Resurrection, or Jesus' claim to divinity if he did make such a claim, or even that he was really a prophet, but that those first Christians were charlatans who merely smelled a profit. They are foolish for overlooking the fact that profiteers bail when their profits slow down, and they certainly bail out or 'fess up before they are executed for their crimes. But executed those first Christians were, and before long, by the dozens and hundreds - right from the very first days after the Resurrection (cf. Acts 7 for an account of Stephen's martyrdom).
Even if we cannot believe a claim ourselves, it behooves us to give the benefit of the doubt in matters of sincerity to people who are willing to die for a claim. I take very seriously the nationalist beliefs of Japanese Kamikaze pilots for that reason. But here we have an interesting difference. The Japanese Kamikaze pilots stopped. In fact, even while they were going, they had to be given hard alcohol to keep going. But they stopped because they realized that the Emperor was scamming them. They may have loved Japan, but they realized that Japan did not love them. But for two thousand years Christians in every century have been shedding their blood rather than shed blood, and rather than deny the Lordship of Jesus, the real sovereignty of Him over them, the great love He has for them and demonstrated Himself on the Cross. Also striking is the love Christians so often show for their killers. In the account of Stephen, he makes a request to God for mercy upon his killers, even as they kill him - modelling his own dying act on Jesus'. Fanatics who die "for a cause," usually go down killing others; Christians martyrs forgive the ones killing them. There is a noteworthy difference.
This testimony is the essential duty and function of the Church. I take seriously the testimony of the Church because, while composed of human beings, and not even especially good or clever human beings, she has persisted for two thousand years, shedding her blood and testifying to the Lordship of the man Jesus of Nazareth, who while a real human being was also the transcendent creator of the universe, who died and rose from the dead, and who still lives and desires a life together with us. If she were merely wicked - launching crusades and inquisitions, burning witches and putting down peasants - it makes it all the more unlikely that such a thing would be tolerated for very long. Priestcraft isn't a compelling answer to this problem of why the peasants and kings of Europe tolerated such horrors for so long, because it takes a real idiot to endure someone making your life and the life of everyone you know intolerably miserable when you can just as easily pop him in the nose or hang him from a rope - if the Church was just so wicked, and nothing more.
Despite the great deal of wickedness in many of her members, despite the idiocy of most of her members, despite the sluggishness of nearly all her members, still she trudges on in all four corners of the world proclaiming the same central fact proclaimed on the first Christian Pentecost: "Let all... know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified," (Acts 2:36). And what's more, she has grown steadily in the midst of vicious persecutions, and where she is persecuted she has grown the most, defying all odds and expectations. I cannot think of another explanation for this literally unparalleled phenomenon except that she has an unparalleled source of power. In a weird way, the wickedness of many Christians convinces me of the lordship of their lord, because otherwise I cannot see how they could have managed from then til now. No other group has made such claims, and no other group has got such a mass of testimony.
Now, these are all reasons that the Christian faith is reasonable, but they are not proof, as I said at the start. They are reasons to believe that Jesus made such a claim, that his disciples sincerely claimed to witnessed his Resurrection, and that the Church of which they were the beginning has since continued the same message. They are not proof, but they are reasons to believe, or at leasts reasons that belief is reasonable. However reasonable, before I would believe that the man Jesus was also God, and before taking on all the consequences for how I live my life, I would want more than reasons that belief is reasonable. I would want to meet the man that I was supposed to worship, around whom I was supposed to reorganize my entire life.
And meet Him I have. In the next installment I will briefly outline the five principle kinds of encounter I have had with the Risen Lord Jesus in my own life. I may go into more detail about each one; we'll have to see. Thank you for your patience, and if I've left anything out, or made some blunder in logic, please point it out to me so that I can address the point.