CATHOLIC WITH A SMALL “C”

Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. [Ephesians 2:20-21 (NLT)]

We believe in…the holy catholic church. [Apostle’s Creed]

snowy egret - clam passAs a little girl, I remember asking a friend what her religion was. When she simply replied, “Christian,” I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to know whether she was Protestant or Catholic and, if Protestant, was she Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, or Episcopalian. She, however, kept insisting she was Christian. Like many, I was confusing religion with denomination. As a youngster, when reciting the creed, since we didn’t attend the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I wondered why we said we believed in the catholic church when we didn’t go there. It wasn’t until my confirmation class that I understood what believing in “the holy catholic church” meant.

After two decades of membership in a Christian church in town, a friend recently left it to attend another one. As one of the “prayer warriors” at her previous church, she received a weekly list of prayer requests. Within a week of changing churches, however, she stopped getting the list. She contacted the pastor, shared that her love for her brothers and sisters in Christ did not stop when she changed her place of worship, and asked to keep receiving the lists so she could continue offering her prayers for their needs and praises for their blessings. Unfortunately, her request fell on deaf ears. Perhaps, just as I did when a child, the pastor has confused one’s place and manner of worship with what it means to be part of the church.

Our brothers and sisters in Christ may belong to different churches and worship in different ways, but we all are members of the holy catholic church. That “catholic” with the small “c” is not to be confused with the capital C as in (Roman) Catholic. To avoid misunderstanding, some Protestant churches prefer to say “holy Christian church” when reciting the creeds. Regardless of the term used, this catholic (or universal Christian) church is what’s left over when all the church buildings burn down and the priests and ministers leave town. The term originates from the first century and the words of Ignatius of Antioch: “Where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.”

Indeed, wherever Christ is, there we find the church. Without a doubt, Jesus tells us to pray and there is power in prayer. Why anybody would arbitrarily decide who is allowed to pray for someone or whose prayers God will hear is beyond me. I’ll gladly welcome any prayer sent my way, regardless of who prays it or where they attend church. If they believe in and worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, they are my brothers and sisters and members of my church—the holy catholic church—the church of Christ!

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. [Galatians 3:26-29 (NLT)]

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THE CORNERSTONE

You are God’s building. Because of God’s grace to me, I have laid the foundation like an expert builder. Now others are building on it. But whoever is building on this foundation must be very careful. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have—Jesus Christ. [1 Corinthians 15: 9b-11 (NLT)]

oleanderTwo members of our small group attended Easter service at a Christian church in another town. Imagine their shock when the pastor began his sermon by saying he didn’t believe in the resurrection. Thinking his statement had been made for shock value, they patiently waited for him to make a case for Christ and defend the truth of Easter. Unfortunately, he only offered a feel good message about new beginnings. I was reminded of their story when another pastor mentioned his experience when a youth pastor. After one of the teens complained that he talked too much about Jesus, he was called into the senior pastor’s office and told that Jesus just should be a “side dish” in the church youth group!

As for the resurrection—can it be Christianity without the risen Christ? Without Easter, we just have a man who said some beautiful and wise things and was killed for his words. While He may have had a great message, he was either delusional or a liar. In the early church, an Apostle was someone who had personally known Jesus both before that dark Friday and after that glorious Sunday. Without the resurrection, Peter and the rest of the Apostles were equally delusional or liars who perpetrated a fraud with their claims of an empty tomb and their witness to the risen Christ. Without the resurrected Christ, everything that happened after the crucifixion and much of what happened before is suspect. When we read Acts, we find that the essence of every sermon preached is the resurrected Christ. Without the resurrection, how can we believe Jesus was God in flesh? Without the risen Christ how can we believe in the Holy Trinity, the resurrection of the dead, or the truth of the New Testament?

There are plenty of authors who make excellent cases for the resurrection and I’ll leave the Christian apologetics to them. Believing in the resurrection doesn’t mean we totally understand it, can explain how it happened, or know exactly what the body of the risen Christ was like but we don’t need those answers to believe in the risen Christ. Jesus is the cornerstone of Christianity and, if Jesus is still dead, so is our religion

As for a “side dish Jesus:” side dishes are optional and you can take as much or as little as you want or skip them altogether. They’re like the Brussels sprouts or green beans at Thanksgiving dinner. Jesus, however, is not a side dish; along with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, He’s the main (and only) course! Rather than a turkey, our Triune God is more like one of those Turduckens: three meats (turkey, duck, and chicken) rolled into one. When you slice through it, you get all three—each one equally delicious and equally essential. If we are going to call ourselves Christians, it seems that both the resurrection and Jesus are fundamental to our faith.

I don’t know about that doubting pastor from Easter but I do know a little about that teen who thought there was too much Jesus in her youth group. Her youth pastor refused to back down and, rather than put Jesus in a side dish, He kept the risen Christ front and center. The teen who objected to the main dish Jesus? Shortly after that meeting, she accepted Jesus—not as an optional add-on but as her Lord and Savior!

Scripture often referred to Jesus as the cornerstone: the foundation upon which the church is built. The cornerstone of a building gives it a reliable and firm foundation; it is indispensable and prominent. May the risen Christ remain indispensable and prominent in our witness as we build His church!

You are members of God’s family. Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. [Ephesians 2:19b-21 (NLT)]

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DOWN BUT NOT OUT

Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. … Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith. [Galatians 6:2,10 (NLT)]

damaged cypress trees - corkscrew swampHurricane Irma did quite a number on our southwest Florida bird sanctuary. Unfortunately, much of the boardwalk was damaged (some of it beyond repair) and there were several casualties among the trees, including two 100-foot cypress trees that proudly stood for over 400 years. Like them, many smaller trees were uprooted and now lie dead on the forest floor. Irma’s high winds did some violent and cruel pruning as it stripped bark, tore off branches, and splintered mature trees as if they were mere matchsticks. Cypress trees that were over 40-feet tall are now little more than stumps. Nevertheless, trees I thought were goners are recovering and greening up; new foliage is emerging out of their fractured tops and sides. In spite of the incredible damage they suffered, their roots still support and feed them with life giving water and they’re surviving. They may be down but they’re certainly not out.

I thought of the storms we endure in our lives; while some may be no worse than a noisy thunderstorm, others can be as devastating as a hurricane. Age and size certainly can’t keep us from falling. Nevertheless, the storm couldn’t defeat all of the trees and the setbacks and storms of life don’t have to defeat us. Like the damaged cypress trees with their new growth, we can stay rooted, survive and even thrive.

We do that through the church. Just as roots aren’t optional for trees, the church really isn’t an option for the Christian. I’m not talking about a building or a specific denomination; I’m speaking of a community of believers who belong to Christ and are bound together by both the gospel and the presence of the Holy Spirit. The church is what supports us when we start to fall, grounds us when we falter, and nurtures us with living water when we’ve been weakened.

God revealed himself to mankind when he became incarnate as Jesus Christ. As Christ’s followers, we reveal Him to mankind through the church—the church actually is Christ incarnate. As His hands and feet, heart and voice, we are the ones who keep, support, encourage, lift and comfort the broken and bruised. We are the ones who provide the nourishment and water that allow the damaged to grow and blossom once again. Like a tree that supports another one or the roots that ground and nourish it, the living breathing church is what makes it possible for our brothers and sisters to say, “I may be down, but I’m not out!”

 

All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it. [1 Corinthians 12:27 (NLT)]

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GONE BANANAS

Passion flowerI have told all your people about your justice. I have not been afraid to speak out, as you, O Lord, well know. I have not kept the good news of your justice hidden in my heart; I have talked about your faithfulness and saving power. I have told everyone in the great assembly of your unfailing love and faithfulness. [Psalm 40:9-10 (NLT)]

We recently attended a program at our local zoo about giant armadillos. The speaker has spent the last seventeen years in the Brazilian Pantanal wetlands conducting research on several species ranging from peccaries to iguanas. Seven years ago, he became enamored by the elusive giant armadillo and it has been his focus ever since he realized this prehistoric creature (about five feet long and weighing up to 130 pounds) is a keystone species. With its many burrows (a new one every two days), it plays a crucial engineering role in the ecosystem; many other animals depend upon those burrows for their survival. The biologist’s enthusiasm for his topic was compelling and contagious. With his incredible passion for these amazing and endangered animals, he admitted to speaking about them whenever and wherever the opportunity arises.

Like many other scientists, prior to meeting the giant armadillo, this biologist did research, wrote a paper, published it, and went on to another project. The more he learned about the giant armadillo, however, the more concerned he became about its survival. Realizing that academic research alone would not save them, he began sharing his passion. He educated people about these secretive and endangered animals and lobbied for changes in land management, conservation, hunting practices, superstitions and even bee keeping. Scientific treatises alone won’t save this animal but sharing its story just might!

Listening to this biologist speak with such fervor, I couldn’t help but wonder why we Christians rarely demonstrate such passion for Jesus. Much of the time, we seem rather lukewarm about God and rarely show that same zeal about our Savior. Moreover, like research scientists, we are often content to limit our activities to the theoretical rather than the practical. But, just as field work and scientific papers alone will not save the giant armadillo, our neighbor will not get saved by our church attendance and Bible study. Our passion, like that biologist’s, must be evident. He’s trying to save animals, but we’re trying to save souls!

The late Christian musician Keith Green is reported to have said the definition of a Christian is someone who’s bananas for Jesus! I imagine that within an hour of meeting this biologist, anyone would know that he’s bananas for giant armadillos. I wonder, within an hour of meeting me, would anyone know I’m bananas for Jesus? How about you?

Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” [Matthew 22:37-38 (NLT)]

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THE LUCK OF THE IRISH

Great blessings belong to those who don’t listen to evil advice, who don’t live like sinners, and who don’t join those who make fun of God. Instead, they love the Lord’s teachings and think about them day and night. So they grow strong, like a tree planted by a stream—a tree that produces fruit when it should and has leaves that never fall. Everything they do is successful. [Psalm 1:1-3 (ERV)]

wood sorrel - shamrockTomorrow we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and I’m inclined to think the revered bishop who brought Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century wouldn’t recognize this day in his honor. A once religious feast is now a day of parades, sales, “Kiss Me I’m Irish” t-shirts, corned beef and cabbage, music, dancing, and lots of green (including the Chicago River, milk shakes, and kegs of beer.) St. Patrick, however, would recognize the common symbol of this day: the shamrock. Of course, to Patrick, with its three leaflets bound by a common stem, the shamrock was a metaphor for the Holy Trinity. Those three leaflets also came to symbolize faith, hope, and love; luck is said to come only if a fourth leaflet is present.

We usually think “the luck of the Irish” means good fortune. Yet, it’s hard to see how a people who were invaded by Vikings, suppressed at the hand of England, suffered a potato famine, failed at every revolution, and were treated like third class citizens upon their arrival in the U.S. could be called “lucky.” According to Edwin T. O’Donnell of Holy Cross College, it originally was a demeaning phrase dating back to the 19th century. During the silver and gold rush days, some of the most successful miners were Irish or Irish/American. Saying a miner’s success was “the luck of the Irish” meant that it was mere happenstance and had nothing to do with the hours of drudgery he endured, the danger he faced, the sacrifices he made, the loneliness he suffered, or his skill with a pick and shovel.

A young mother in our small group told of her daughter’s recent school assignment in which the girl and her parents were to paste pictures of the things that made them lucky on a large green construction paper shamrock. A woman of faith, she didn’t want to be one of those parents who make a mountain out of every molehill encountered in public school. Nevertheless, she credits God (not luck) with their blessings so she and her daughter pondered how to proceed with the assignment in a way that honors God. They pasted photos of their family on their “Lucky Family” shamrock and then wrote these words: “No luck involved! We are blessed by the grace of God to be a happy family!”

Attributing their happy family to luck would be as insulting to God as “just Irish luck” was to a successful miner who’d struggled in difficult circumstances to stake his claim. That shamrock, however, does symbolize the things that enable their family to happily live with joy, peace, forgiveness, and confidence: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who govern and fill their lives. Moreover, the happiness of their family has much to do with their faith, hope and love (both for God and for one another). There was no”lucky” fourth leaflet on that shamrock. Indeed, luck has nothing to do with it; God, however, does!

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous, it does not brag, and it is not proud. Love is not rude, it is not selfish, and it cannot be made angry easily. Love does not remember wrongs done against it. Love is never happy when others do wrong, but it is always happy with the truth. Love never gives up on people. It never stops trusting, never loses hope, and never quits. [1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (ERV)]

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STUDENTS FOR LIFE

He also told them a parable: “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.” [Luke 6:39-40 (ESV)]

roseate spoonbill - corkscrew swampIn Pieces of Eight, columnist Sydney Harris tells the story of a dinner party at which an elderly Albert Einstein was seated next to an eighteen-year-old girl. Unaware of his identity, she asked the famed professor what he did for a living. “I devote myself to the study of physics,” he responded. Shocked that he still studied physics at his age, she told him she’d finished her physics studies the previous year! Without a doubt, Albert Einstein knew more about physics than anyone else of his time and yet he continued to study physics until his death. Harris’s explanation is that the physicist recognized that what he didn’t know far outweighed all that he did.

In Jesus’s day, the word disciple referred to a student or apprentice and was usually associated with people who devotedly followed a religious leader or philosopher. Christian writer Dallas Willard suggests replacing the word disciple in our Bibles with apprentice or student to get the true meaning of the word. Just as Einstein continued to be a student of physics, if we are true disciples of Christ, we must continue to be His students. Discipleship doesn’t end with accepting Christ; it begins. It requires commitment to be with and know Him, to grow more like Him, and to continually learn from Him.

Einstein continued to spend time in his physics laboratory. We must continue spending time with Jesus through prayer and Bible study. In studying the Gospels and Acts, we find His words, repeat His words, and reflect on them. In the Epistles, we learn how to apply those words. We then turn our attention from the New to the Old Testament to learn our history and how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies. Finally, we fulfill the commission given to the original disciples. The students are to become the teachers and find new students. Since the blind can’t lead the blind, we will continue to study and, after reading from Genesis to Revelation, start over again! We are life-long disciples who, like Albert Einstein, recognize that what we don’t know far outweighs what little we do.

Any fool can know. The point is to understand. … Learning is not a product of schooling but the lifelong attempt to acquire it. [Albert Einstein]

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth.  Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. [Matthew 28:18-20 (NLT)]

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