To love the Church is to love Christ. To reject the Church is to reject Christ.
Acts 9:32-42; John 5:1-15.
The Fourth Paschal Sunday, known as The Sunday of the Paralytic Man.
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11:58 AM 5/15/2011 — The Gospel lesson about how our Lord healed a man at the pool of Bethesda we’ve talked about before. It is, among other things, a lesson in patience, particularly with regard to the example of the crippled man at the pool who never gave up hope despite the fact that he had been waiting for thirty-eight years. My admonition to you the last time this Gospel was read was to emulate the crippled man in the exercise of patience, especially in our prayers; to recognize that God owes us nothing in exchange for our prayers and sacrifices—they are things we owe to God simply because he is God—and to remember that our prayers and good works are not payment for services rendered or to be rendered. How long must we wait for an answer to our many prayers to God? The man in the Gospel waited thirty-eight years. He never gave up hope, never presumed he had been abandoned by God, and was grateful for what he received when he finally received it.
What I wish to draw to your attention today is the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, frequently read after Pascha, in which our Lord’s chief disciple, Peter, raises another disciple named Tabitha from the dead. This is extremely significant because, previously, this was something only God could do; and God did do it, on several occasions, in the person of Jesus. He raises his own friend Lazarus from the dead in that famous and dramatic passage which begins Great and Holy Week; he also raised up the dead son of a widow while he was being carried to his grave, a Gospel which we read at the doors of the church at the conclusion of a funeral; he also raised up the servant of a synagogue official; and, of course, he raised himself from the dead after first descending into the realm of the dead to free the souls held captive there. But there is a sense in which—apart, of course, from our Lord’s own resurrection—this raising of Tabitha by Peter is the most important of all, simply by reason of the fact that it is not done by our Lord. For the Fathers of the Church this act had tremendous significance: it is the first indication of our Lord transmitting his own divine power and authority over life and death to his Church in the person of Peter and the Apostles.
Consider that our risen Lord had just ascended into heaven, just sent the Holy Spirit as tongues of fire to enliven the Apostles;—an event which many point to as the actual birth of the Church on earth—and already he has given to them his own divine authority over life and death. They are able, in his name, to raise the dead to life. And it is further significant that this authority over life and death is exercised first by Peter, the head of the Apostles, as a way of indicating that there will be order in the Church. The Church will not be a free-for-all, a loose assembly of believers doing as they please; it will have structure and order, and be guided by authority. Even at the very birth of the Church at Pentecost, her structure begins to take shape.
On the night before he died, during the Mystical Supper, our Lord gave to his Apostles the Blessed Eucharist for the first time, commanding them to do the same; he then breathed on them and gave them the power to forgive sin in confession; he sent his spirit to empower them to preach the Gospel to all nations; and, now, we see the extent of what he has given to his Church in the person of his chief Apostle; for what greater power does Christ possess than that over life and death? The lesson is clear: the Church is not simply a human institution preserving the traditions of an historical religion. What our Lord gave to Peter and his Apostles they, in turn, passed on to the priests and bishops of the Church in an unbroken line, for the sanctification of the faithful throughout the centuries until he, our Lord, should come again. To love the Church is to love Christ. To reject the Church is to reject Christ.
Of course, in this day and age, that truth can be a hard sell for some people. When someone is unable to make the distinction between the Divine nature of the Church as instituted by Christ and the less-than-divine people to whom the earthly Church has been entrusted, that person can easily become confused. And I’m not talking only about people leaving the Church because of moral scandals among the clergy; in most cases it has nothing to do with a moral scandal: people rejecting the Church because someone in the Church treated them badly.
As a priest, I run into these people from time to time; and you may have, too. For me it happens mostly at funerals. I’ll be burying someone who will have children or nieces and nephews who don’t practice their faith anymore; and I’ll ask them, “Why don’t I ever see you in Church?” And quite often I’ll get a story about how Father So-and-so treated them badly; and it’s usually a priest from another state that I’ve never heard of, so I can’t even know for sure if he exists. And I don’t let them get away with it: I look them right in the eye and say, “What does the conduct of Father So-and-so have to do with the truth of the faith that is preached by the Church that Jesus Christ personally established on this earth?” Of course, they don’t have an answer to that question, which exposes the fact that Father So-and-so—if there is such a person—had nothing to do with it; he was just the excuse. They had, in fact, abandoned the faith in their hearts long before they met Father So-and-so; he simply provided them with a target to absorb the blame so they could stop coming to Church without feeling guilty about it.
I have a friend who is a priest in the Latin Church who grew up in a very troubled household with a very abusive father who also happened to be a devout Catholic; and even though he was able to process this difficult childhood and deal with it quite well, his brother did not. As soon as his father died, the brother stopped going to Church, made a point of marrying outside the Church, and flaunts the fact that he’s not a practicing Catholic every chance he gets, as if putting this difficult childhood behind him requires that he reject everything his father stood for. I don’t presume to judge him because I don’t know what psychological baggage he’s carrying; but logically it doesn’t make sense: just because his father was a bad person doesn’t mean what his father believed was wrong. Remember a few weeks ago when we were talking about Blessed John Henry Newman, and his distinction between a question and a doubt? A person who questions is looking for answers; a person who doubts is looking for an escape. If what we’re looking for is an excuse to abandon Christ and his Church, we will find it; and we will find a way to make it everyone’s fault but ours.
In the Divine Liturgy, Christ comes among us disguised as bread and wine; but this does not happen on its own. It happens through the instrument of the Church, to whose priests our Lord gave this power. Certainly we can pray to Christ on our own; but we can only do so because Christ is already among us; and Christ is among us only because his Church is among us. If we are separated from the Church, we are separated from Christ. Consequently, as long as we remain in the Church, we can never be separated from our Lord.
Father Michael Venditti