Saturday, June 9, 2007

A perspective

"On her part, the Church addresses people with full respect for their freedom. Her mission does not restrict freedom but rather promotes it. The Church proposes; she imposes nothing. She respects individuals and cultures, and she honors the sanctuary of conscience" (Redemptoris Missio, n.39). The context for this quote is an argument addressing those in the Church who are opposed to missionary activity because they see it as imposing on non-Christian peoples and cultures, not just religion, but Western culture, economic and political hegemony, etc. Nonetheless this is true in all contexts. The darkest periods of the Church's history are constituted by those times and places that the Church sought to impose instead of sticking to proposing in accord with the Great Commission Jesus gave to his followers: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age" (Matt 28, 19-20).

Committed Catholics all recognize the importance of discipleship, of practicing the disciplines of the Master that constitute living a Christian life. If my faith doesn't inform and, in turn, form, not just how I live, but who I am, then there is no point in being a Christian. Obedience is never a matter of adhering to a set of rules externally imposed. We are obedient because we love God and our neighbors, who are all people, especially the ones least like me and the ones hungry, oppressed and otherwise in need.

Therefore, the practice of the disciplines, obedience to what God wants of us and for us, are means and not ends in themselves. We frequently fail, our practice is inconsistent, we need God's unmerited help, God's grace, if our feeble attempts are to bear fruit in the world. This rocky, winding road, is our pilgrim path, the end of which is almost always out of sight. and we must walk it together if we are to reach our destination, which is, to quote REM, "still aways away". Is there a connection between faith and works? Of course there is, St. James' letter tells us this (Jas 2,14-18), as does St. John's first letter, where we read: "In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another" (1 Jn 4,10-11), as does our Lord himself many times, perhaps most succinctly in St. John's Gospel when he says, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (Jn 14,15). Hence, love precedes obedience, in turn, faith precedes, or is at least simultaneous with love. This why obedience is, at best, secondary. Besides, without being the least bit presumptive, I know God loves me and will forgive me when I fail and, bit by bit sanctify me gratuitously. St. Paul writes, "where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more" (Rom 5,20)

Works, when motivated by love of the kind that seeks the good of the other, called agapé, are but evidence of our faith and love, as well as being signs of hope, flickers of light in the darkness. It is love, pure, unfeigned, unconditional love, that we are so infrequently capable of, that is the motivator, the intention, one of three necessary conditions that must be met for an act to be good. Therefore, if you put stock in your works, with the thought, the expectation, maybe even the hope that you will get what you deserve and so will others, then you are living karma, or something else, but not grace. The end of obedience is not loyalty to a set of propositions, or an institution, but is born of a relationship, an encounter. This is expressed well by the Holy Father in Deus Caritas Est: "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction" (no. 1) We are not to become ethical automatons, but free and loving people of faith, possessed of hope, which is the source of our irrepressible joy. Obedience is never a matter of mere rule keeping, it's end is to love God and our neighbor perfectly, in imitation of Jesus. Loving truly, honestly, unconditionally, is what it means to be holy, to be Christ-like. "Beloved," we read in first John, "let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love" (1 Jn 4,8).

Turning to the apostle, we read: "If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, (love) is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (1 Corinthians 13,1-7) [underlining and emboldened emphasis are mine].

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