Not a Christianity 'A La Carte'

03-14-2021Weekly Reflection

We have heard the passage from the Acts of the Apostles (20:17-38) in which Saint Paul speaks to the presbyters of Ephesus, intentionally recounted by Saint Luke as the testament of the apostle, as a discourse destined not only for the presbyters of Ephesus, but for the presbyters of all time. Saint Paul is speaking not only with those who were present in that place, he is really speaking with us, so let us try to understand a little of what he is saying to us, at this time. [...]

(Note: Already in the time of the apostles we see a hierarchy of deacon, presbyter (or priest), and bishop (Acts 14: 23; Phil 1: 1; 1 Tim 5: 17; Titus 1: 5– 9; 1 Pet 5: 1; “presbyters” is translated “elders” in the RSV). The difference between a bishop and a priest may not have been sharply defined yet, but the basic organization of the Church was already established in the generation that had known Jesus on earth.)

"I have served the Lord with all humility" (v. 19). "Humility" is a keyword of the Gospel, of the whole New Testament. [...] In the letter to the Philippians, Saint Paul reminds us that Christ, who was above all of us, was really divine in the glory of God, humbled himself, came down becoming man, accepting all the fragility of being human, going all the way to the ultimate obedience of the cross (2:5-8). Humility does not mean false modesty – we are grateful for the gifts that the Lord has given to us – but indicates that we are aware that all we are able to do is a gift from God, it is given for the Kingdom of God. In this humility, in this not wanting to make an appearance, we work. We do not ask for praise, we do not want "to be seen," for us it is not a decisive criterion to think about what they will say about us in the newspapers or elsewhere, but what God says. This is true humility: not to appear before men, but to be under the gaze of God and work with humility for God, and so really to serve humanity and men as well.

"I have never drawn back from what could be helpful, for the sake of preaching to you and instructing you" (v. 20). Saint Paul returns to this point after a few sentences and says: "I have not drawn back from the duty of proclaiming to you all the will of God" (v. 27). This is important: the apostle does not preach a Christianity "à la carte," according to his own tastes, he does not preach a Gospel according to his own favorite theological ideas; he does not draw back from the task of proclaiming all the will of God, even the inconvenient will, even the themes that personally are not very pleasing.

It is our mission to proclaim all the will of God, in its totality and ultimate simplicity. [...] And I think that the world of today is curious to know everything. [...] This curiosity should be ours as well: [...] truly to know all the will of God and to know how we can and should live, what is the path of our life. So we should make known and understood – as much as we can – the content of the "Credo" of the Church, from the creation to the Lord's return, to the new world. Doctrine, the liturgy, morality, prayer – the four parts of the Catechism of the Catholic Church – indicate this totality of the will of God.

And it is also important not to lose ourselves in the details, not to create the idea that Christianity is an immense package of things to learn. Ultimately it is simple: God has shown himself in Christ. Entering into this simplicity – I believe in God who showed himself in Christ and I want to see and realize his will – has content, and according to the situations, we can then enter into the details or not, but it is essential that above all the ultimate simplicity of the faith be made understood. Believing in God as he has shown himself in Christ is also the inner richness of this faith, it gives the answers to our questions, including the answers that we do not like at first and are nonetheless the way of life, the true way. When we also enter into these things that we do not like so much, we can understand, we begin to understand that it really is the truth. And the truth is beautiful. The will of God is good, it is goodness itself.

The apostle says: "I have preached in public and in homes, testifying to Jews and Greeks about conversion to God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ" (v. 20-21). Here there is a summary of the essential: conversion to God, faith in Jesus. But let's stay for a moment with the word "conversion," which is the central word or one of the central words of the New Testament, [...] in Greek "metànoia," change of thinking, [...] meaning a real change in our view of reality.

Since we were born in original sin, for us reality is the things that we can touch, it is money, it is my position, it is the things of every day that we see on the news: this is reality. And spiritual things appear a bit behind reality. "Metànoia," change of thinking, means inverting this impression. Not material things, not money, not the edifice, not what I can have is the essential, is reality. The reality of realities is God. This invisible reality, apparently far from us, is reality. (Note: Christian conversion has both an interior and an exterior dimension. It begins in the mind and heart, where the conviction of sin arises and where the desire to draw closer to God takes place. It is significant that the New Testament word for “repentance” refers to a “change of mind” (Greek metanoia). The point is not that conversion can be reduced to a mental act, but that a change of perspective is essential to the redirection of one’s life. The interior attitude thus leads to exterior actions such as fasting (Mark 2: 20; Acts 9: 9, 13: 2) and various forms of self-discipline and mortification (Rom 8: 13; 1 Cor 9: 25– 27).)

To learn this, and thus to invert our thinking, to judge truly how the real, that must orient everything, is God, this is the word of God. This is the criterion, God, the criterion of everything I do. This really is conversion: if my concept of reality has changed, if my thinking has changed. And this must then penetrate all the individual things of my life: in the judgment of every single thing to take as criterion what God says about this. This is the essential thing, not what I get now for myself, not the advantage or disadvantage that I will obtain, but the true reality, to orient ourselves to this reality.…this inversion of the concept of reality, namely that God is reality, Christ is reality and the criterion of my acting and of my thinking is to exercise this new orientation of our life. Benedict XVI

These are important words from a Pope regarding Christianity. They are important because many claim today a “personal Christianity or religion based on themselves and their reading of the Gospel apart from the Church. A-la-carte -Christianity is false and simply human egotism, the worship of self. In another explanation of the Faith the Pope reminds us: Therefore, a slogan that was popular some years back: "Jesus yes, Church no", is totally inconceivable with the intention of Christ. This individualistically chosen Jesus is an imaginary Jesus. We cannot have Jesus without the reality he created and in which he communicates himself. Between the Son of God-made flesh and his Church there is a profound, unbreakable and mysterious continuity by which Christ is present today in his people. He is always contemporary with us, he is always contemporary with the Church, built on the foundation of the Apostles and alive in the succession of the Apostles. And his very presence in the community, in which he himself is always with us, is the reason for our joy. Yes, Christ is with us, the Kingdom of God is coming.

People might bristle at that, as well as the enemies of the Church, pointing out all the scandals in Church history, bad popes, bad priests, bad laity. This reality mars the Church’s appearance and at times seems to be the only reality. However it is never the only reality because there are always saints and reforms rising up, just when people think the Church is “dead” or defeated. Plus Jesus and the Scriptures warn us and teach us that the Church on earth will always be a mixed bag: the good, the bad, the mediocre. There will be false Christians called false brethren. There will be scandals. Judas was one of the first big scandals. False teachers arose almost immediately in the Church. The “kosher-circumcision-controversy” threatened to undermine the infant Church. Hence there is a principle Ecclesia semper reformanda, the Church must always be reformed.

The rejection of a-la-carte-Christianity has to do with the doctrine of the Church and not with the day to day decisions of church-people, which one can disagree with and are often wrong, sometimes disastrous albeit most times sincere. These are called the prudential decisions in the day to day running of the Church. On the other hand today there is an anti-church/counter-church: clergy, laity, including bishops who no longer believe the Church’s doctrinal and moral teachings and seek to bend the Church to some reigning ideology. This is especially the case in their rejection of the Church’s teachings on marriage, family, and sexuality. Hence St. Peter Canisius, the second apostle of Germany, and a beacon for Church-reform reminds us: Better that only a few Catholics should be left, staunch and sincere in their religion, than that they should, remaining many, desire as it were, to be in collusion with the Church's enemies and in conformity with the open foes of our faith.