Witness We Must

 

The high priest questioned them,
“We gave you strict orders, did we not,
to stop teaching in that name?
Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching
and want to bring this man’s blood upon us.”
But Peter and the apostles said in reply,
“We must obey God rather than men.
The God of our ancestors raised Jesus,
though you had him killed by hanging him on a tree.
God exalted him at His right hand as leader and savior
to grant Israel repentance and forgiveness of sins.
We are witnesses of these things,
as is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

                                               Acts 5:27-32

The  Church of the first century was almost invariably law abiding, beginning with Jesus’ teaching that taxes should be paid to Caesar and compassing Paul’s reiterated advice that Roman authorities, especially the Emperor, were to be respected and obeyed as ministers of divine providence,  understood as having been sent to punish evil and to reward good (I Peter 2:13-17, Titus 3:1).   We have the evidence of Pliny, governor of Bithynia, that Christians had ceased their meetings on the Emperor Trajan’s command, and we have the testimony of Saint Clement embedded in his prayer for the Roman state, in which he prayed for the emperor, probably Hadrian: “Thou, Master, hast given the power of sovereignty to them through Thy excellent and inexpressible might, that we may know the glory and honor given to them by Thee and in nothing resisting Thy will” (41).   In the age of revolution in which we live, an era in which Jesus the revolutionary has been a popular figure, historians have often faulted the Church for its complaisance with authority, but the evidence is unambiguous.  

           As far as our sources go, the martyrs and those who described their sacrifices usually left  unvisited the question of the motives of the persecutors.  When they might justly have loudly proclaimed their persecutors to be judicial murderers and themselves victims of an unjust tyranny, such evidence as exists suggests that they saw their deaths as the will of Divine Providence.  There is no account that they railed against their persecutors. 

But in the text superscript from Acts we see the apostles rejecting the command of the high priest that they cease teaching in Jesus’ name.  To this order the apostolic reply was, “We must obey God rather than men.”   The apostles had been commissioned by Christ Himself to be His witnesses, a commission they would fulfill with their lives (Acts 1:8, Luke 24:48-49).   Paul spoke for them when he wrote to the Corinthians “For if I preach the gospel, I have no reason to boast, because an obligation is    laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!” (I Corinthians 9:16)    There would be other situations, when for example civil authority commanded evil, commands Christians would not obey, but the most obvious and common situation that would evoke disobedience would be the situation in which civil authority would say with the high priest, “Stop peaching in that name” To which the answer would be, “We are His witnesses,” and we are under obligation to teach in His name.   Christians would pay taxes; they would after a time serve in the army.   But witness they must.   From the person who refuses to bake a cake for an event celebrating what she knows to be sin to the bishops and faithful of the underground Church in China Christians are still bearing witness to what Scripture calls “the world.”

  Much has been written about the reasons that lay behind the persistent if sporadic persecution of Christians by the Roman state, which seemed to work against the civic interest, for Christians were pacific, tax-paying folk who cared for their own.  Except when forbidden to witness, or when their witness was used as an excuse for persecution, Christians were complaisant citizens.  Whether it was their mere existence that provoked their pagan neighbors to a call for their extirpation or whether it was the awareness of the Roman state that Christians’ beliefs relativized the authority of the state, Christians could not be left in peace.   To ordinary Romans Christians seemed to be stubborn enemies of the presuppositions on which civic life was based.  The attitude of Americans toward communists in the 1950s might be a near analogy.  And surely the nascent bureaucracy of the empire understood at some level that the appeal of Christians to a  transcendent order that as it empowered them lay beyond the reach of policies and legions, that this appeal  undermined the very foundations of Romanitas.  

Inevitably, Christians won this war of wills, not through violence, not through disobedience, but through steadfast adherence to the truth implied in the apostles’’ refusal to obey the high priest because they were obliged to witness to the resurrection and power of Christ.  Whether this war can be won in the twenty-first century is the question that is now before the Church.  It was possible to defeat a persecuting empire with fidelity and suffering. Whether Christianity can survive a culture of comfort in which the state is in loco parentis, dulling the sharp edges of that reality that teaches the lessons of life, and undergirded by  the bright darkness of technological transcendence over nature, would seem on present evidence a near thing.  There is no example of the survival of a vigorous Christianity in a socialist state, whether that socialism be democratic or authoritarian.    

Now it is precisely the ability to witness that is under attack.  At present nobody objects to your going to church on Sunday, but a football coach may not pray at the fifty yard line after the game because his doing so is a public witness.  The interests of irreligion have won in the battle for public schools   The name of Jesus may not be mentioned or the Bible read in government schools operated, with some regional differences, on the presuppositions of Marxism and the positive value of carnality for seven-year-olds.   To ask His blessing on the place and project of learning would be a witness.   But in one important respect the ability and power to witness cannot be forbidden: “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  Nobody can prevent that witness.

Set My People Free

 

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.
Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.”

                                               John 20:21

       The first Sunday after Easter, the eighth day that completes the octave of the feast, has come to be known as Mercy Sunday, the day on which the Church hears the command of Christ that His apostles, empowered by the Holy Spirit, should have the power to forgive or retain sins.     After the great sacrament of baptism, the ability to absolve (or not) is the greatest power the Church possesses, a power rooted in the declarative power of Christ’s promise to Peter (Petros) that he would be the rock (petra) on which the Church would be built (Matthew 16: 18-19).   It cannot be overlooked that Christ’s promise to Peter follows upon Peter’s God-inspired witness that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.  Just as Peter’s witness is not a thing of flesh and blood but a gift of God to Peter, Christ’s gift to Peter was not made in any recognition of Peter’s excellence     Immediately after receiving the gift of the keys, Peter, displaying the obtuseness characteristic of all the apostles before Pentecost, denies that Jesus must suffer, causing Jesus to call the prince of the apostles Satan.        

       Christ followed the famous ‘rock’ passage with the promise that the gates of hell would not prevail, would not stand,  against the apostolic power of the Kingdom of God, a promise fulfilled in one way when Christ descended to the place that embodied the lost past, to set free the prisoners in chains of all times and ages (I Peter 3:19-20) and in another way when it  became clear that Satan’s usurped reign on earth could not withstand the power of Christ’s mercy and grace, His will that the apostolic mission should set His people free from the chains of sin.   This power to restore sinners to a right relation with God, setting them free from a sinful past, restoring their baptismal innocence, is a divine power more important than any power, economic or military or demonic that the world, the flesh, and even Satan can command, for none of these can change the past and secure a promised future of blessedness forever.   This is the power symbolized by the gift of the keys to Peter, exercised by men called by God, and commissioned by the Church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, who through  the exercise of their ministry have the ability to open and to close the door to salvation, to set free from the bondage of sin and to withhold forgiveness from to those who come to confession seeming neither to have any degree of love for God and so to hate their sins or those who do not even fear  hell—if such exist.  Jesus resurrected in glory first visited His apostles to give this command; He breathed on them and said , “Receive the Holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them.”

         The practice of the merciful power of the keys, of the ability to know the forgiveness of sins at the hands of another person, a priest who presumes to act on Christ’s behalf, known and valued, indeed cherished, by many, has fallen out of use among others.    Superficial objections that all share can be dismissed shortly.   It is not only humbling but, truth told, embarrassing to recite one’s sins to another person, even when one has confidence that this is the path to setting oneself right with God.  The sins that burn for absolution are not climate change denial and abstract racism but the sins of greed, lust, cowardice.   It would be bizarre to fear embarrassment before another person, divinely empowered or not, but to believe that one could stand tall before the judge eternal with a soul bespattered by those same embarrassing sins.   

   But it may at least be suggested that there is another reason why the confession that belongs especially to this season of mercy seems a bridge too far and that is the pervasive denial, as it were in principle, that reality is always mediated.  Members of the Old Church, Easterners, some Anglicans and Lutherans live in a mediated world in which Christ is the one essential but not the only mediator, for there is the Blessed Virgin (Pray for us now and at the hour of our death) the Saints, the angels (through whom creation is governed, our guardian angel) and the whole body of the praying and sacrificing faithful on earth, each and all of which may play a part in our salvation.    None of these is of the slightest efficacy without the cross and resurrection of Christ, but the power of His merciful heart beats through each of these mediators and we are bound to each by the love of Christ they reflect.  

     This is not the spiritual world most Christians of the Anglo-sphere inhabit, where it would be the proud assertion that believers need no one standing between them and Christ.    Another track might be to be grateful to anyone who, commissioned by Christ Himself could be found to undertake that dangerous position.   A priest who undertakes to fulfill that role has zero salvific power.   He can, having been chosen and sent, defeat evil, enter and ransack the kingdom cringing behind the gates of hell, by judging sinners worthy of absolution or complete forgiveness, assigning a penance, and pronouncing sins forgiven, their guilt done away, with the authority of Christ himself.   

     Such forgiveness has a price, and the price is two-fold.   The first is that mother of every virtue, humility.  There is nothing as deceptive as the picture of oneself as basically a good person whose failures are to be explained by circumstance or environment.  The second is the hard-won ability, perhaps always imperfect, to know one’s self, to be able to understand which false virtues are screeds for real sins; which spiritual difficulties are dispositions, natural or acquired that must be borne, and which moral anxieties, however worrisome, are  failures of faith, when sorrow may be no more than disappointment that one has betrayed one’s presumed good character, which sins are rebellions against the divine will, which failures are misunderstood occasions for gratitude.  

     One way to understand the rancor that taints  post-modernity is to consider that much of this belligerence and hard-heartedness is the consequence of sin unacknowledged and unforgiven and the subsequent effort to see and defend oneself as good enough without God.   This latter is the sin of pride through which Lucifer fell, and this conviction that one needs no forgiveness is the foundation of our unwillingness to forgive others.    This closed-heartedness, while it leads those thus afflicted to eternal loss,  infects public discourse and education.  The beginning of a cure is the knowledge that we are not, none of us, good enough for God, that we each and all need the forgiveness Christ offered in John 20:21.   

Now Judge Eternal

 

This man God raised on the third day and granted that He be made manifest,
not to all the people, but to us
the witness chosen by God in advance,
who ate and drank with Him after He rose from the dead.
He commissioned us to preach to the people 
and testify that He is the one appointed by God
as judge of the living and the dead

                            Acts 10:42-43

       The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was a one-time event that altered the horizons of human possibility forever.  God’s witness that Jesus was alive in glory after being put to death was an event that occurred over many days.  The first witnesses were women, some of whose names Luke carefully remembered, Mary Magdalene, Jo-Anna, and Mary the mother of James (24:1–10); He then appeared to Peter, to James, and once to over five hundred people (I Corinthians 15:6).    His standing again, for that is the meaning of the Greek, being present once again to his disciples after being crucified under Pontius Pilate was not a sign given with great power as at Pentecost, seen by all Jerusalem, nor was it a wonder done before the crowd in the marketplace or the forum.  God’s purpose in raising Jesus from death was not to convert the unbelieving but to confirm His disciples.  His appearance before the world in glory, when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess His lordship (Philippians 2:10–11), an event reserved for His appearing at the fulfillment of the ages, would have violated the divinely appointed limitation:  He would not use the obvious and the incontrovertible to elicit faith.   So His appearance was not to all the people but to the witnesses He had chosen beforehand.  To them it gave great assurance, validating everything He had taught, while it convinced the doubtful (John 20:24-29).   

       The forty days between Jesus’ resurrection and His ascension to the right hand of the Father saw the completion of His work.  During those days He appeared to  the twelve to command them to forgive sins (John 20:19-24).  He explained the Scriptures on the road to Emmaus to His disciples:  “O foolish men,  slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:25).    And afterward they knew Him in the breaking of bread;   they recognized him, He ate and drank with them, first having blessed bread and broken it in anticipation of the sacrament of His body and blood (Luke 24: 31-35).  He spoke to the Twelve of the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3).  His resurrection was the sign that in Him that last enemy death had been defeated.   In His appearing to His chosen witnesses He  gave His disciples a foretaste of the world to come, for He appeared bearing the sign of God’s glory.  John wrote: “We beheld His glory, the glory belonging to the only Son of the Father” (John 1:14 ), a glory predicting for the faithful their future life with Him in glory.  

       But none of these good things was the one thing that the apostles remembered as the result of Jesus’ resurrection.  What the appearance of the living Lord to His followers but not to the world did was to set the apostolic ministry on the road with this message:  “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that He is the one ordained by God to be the judge of the living and the dead.”   And the Gospel of John assures us that it is  not the Father but the Risen Christ, He who knows intimately the human nature He has taken to Himself who will be our judge:  “For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgement to the Son” (5:22).   That this is the divine witness given in Jesus’ resurrection  from death is reiterated later in Acts:  Paul ends his apology to the council of the Areopagus with these words:  “In the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent:   Because He hath appointed a day, in that He hath raised Him from the dead” (17:30–31). 

       The resurrection is God’s promise that Christ will judge the living and the dead, which is to say that, among other great realities established by Jesus’ vindication, life has moral meaning assigned it by God who created it, that in the end goodness will be established and rewarded and evil done away and punished.   This truth, that God will judge in the end, is a theme reiterated in the Psalms, whose authors do not envision a world uncorrected.   It was prophesied by Christ himself: “When the Son of man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne.  Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate them one from another. . . .  Then He will say to those on His left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire, . . . but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:31–32. 46).    

       This Easter the world will celebrate the resurrection as the sign of Christ’s triumph over death, and rightly so.  Not so much attention will be paid the truth that the apostles considered of first importance:  Jesus’ vindication by the Father makes Him the King Eternal to whom it belongs to judge the world and its people, the living and the dead.   Judgement is not a popular topic in a world in flight from God; being judgmental, which is often simply calling evil by its proper name, is now a secular sin, but that does not change the good news that God’s “justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). 

           Every Christian should anticipate his or her judgement with profound and holy fear.   But also with confidence.  The world we see in which evil seems omnipresent if not triumphant , and every soul who has ever lived and acted for good or evil in it, all will be judged so that goodness will be established.   This is a cause for Easter joy.  We would not be happy in a world in which water ran uphill, in which we were constantly vexed with having to pry our chairs off the ceiling.  These laws of nature are dim reflections of  the divinely appointed order of the world called divine justice, seemingly trivial in the light of the great truth that no good will go unrewarded, no evil unpunished.  Because Christ resurrected is the judge eternal we  need not concern ourselves more than prudence demands that evil seems so persistent, with defeating evil in the world.  We know because we are Christians that the theory of German philosophers and progressive politicians that human nature is inevitably improving is a lie.   One of the great marks of human equality is the fact that we all, each of us,  have an opportunity to do good or evil.  The Lord himself (Matthew 25), Saint Paul (II Thessalonians 2:3–10), and the Apocalypse of the prophet John tell us that the world and its inhabitants will become worse at the end, when God will at last set all  things right. And remember; that judgment means vindication for those who love His coming (II Timothy 4:8).   To them He will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord” (Matthew 25:21).  And says the Apostle James: “Behold, the Judge is standing right at the door” (5:9).  

Not the Righteous

 

Some scribes who were Pharisees saw that Jesus was eating with  
sinners and tax collectors and said to His disciples, 
“Why does He eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus heard this and said to them, 
“Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. 
I do not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

                            Mark 2:16-17

To be called by Jesus is to know oneself as a sinner.  The standard He sets is high:  “Be perfect as Our Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:45).  In the light of this high expectation every person who will enter Christ’s kingdom of the new heart knows himself to be a sinner.”  Saint Paul writes, “ For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  And  Saint John the Evangelist: “If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us;  If we confess our sins He is faithful and true to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:8–9).     

       The first proposition of Christian theology is the assertion that nature and man, being the creatures of a good God, are themselves good.  “Behold it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). The second is the assertion that man and nature are fallen from that state of original righteousness in which they were created.  So the first work of the apostolic mission and therefore of the Church is to convince the world and every person in it that we are sinners, coming into this world separated  from God by  our rebellion and neglect of our duties to the Divine Majesty.  The word righteous in the superscript describes a person who believes that without God he is good, or as good as he should be, when in fact he is a sinner, and the  worse for not  recognizing the fact,   The first word in the Gospel story, spoken by John the Baptist, is “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”    The burden of the first chapter of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans is found in two revelations.  The Gospel is the power of God to reveal the righteousness of God, with this followed immediately by the revelation that the wrath of God is revealed against all unrighteousness and the wickedness of men.   

       The foundation of the Kingdom is the realization of the righteousness and glory of God and of our sinfulness.   If we do not see ourselves as sinners we cannot hear the invitation of Jesus to enter His kingdom.   Our sinfulness is twofold.  First, there is the burden of original sin which teaches us that by our very condition as recent representatives of a rebellious race we too are with our first parents afflicted with the results of disobedience:  rebellion ending in disease, disorder, and death. Chesterton once observed that of all the Christian doctrines, the doctrine of original sin is most obviously true, for which see the front page of any newspaper, with its predictable tale of political incompetence, cupidity, greed, and the ravages of lust upon respectability.    

       This great doctrine of original sin has been in retreat in our culture since, taking  the eyes of our hearts off the righteousness of God, we took up various forms, hard and soft,  of the secular utopianism that characterizes the modern world.  We hear daily that the imperfections of the human condition, poverty and disease and ignorance are due not to the malevolence of weak and fallen wills but to the material environment.  Criminals are exonerated from responsibility by the fact of their imperfect childhoods and faulty education.  Given such presuppositions, the healing of the heart lies not in repentance but with the counselor or psychiatrist, and while such engagements may be beneficial, until human souls can see ourselves for what we are in the light of the Divine goodness and majesty, the rebellious will cannot be healed.   Thousands are exonerated from a duty to obey the laws of the United States by the poor conditions, poverty and unemployment, rampant in their biographies. Education has failed because it lacks the resources, a claim made in the face of the fact that the United States spends more per student on education than any other country in the world.   And through it all, increasingly, there is no cause for repentance because persons are not thought to be active in the formation of their own characters.

        This is a moral world that fosters grievance—someone must be responsible for the evil I see and experience—and moral incompetence.  The Christian doctrine that formed the soul of the pre-Enlightenment world does not require anyone to claim responsibility for original sin; it does require admitting that we are justly afflicted by and with it.   And this means looking at the world with a forgiving eye; for those around us share the weakness and ignorance and rebelliousness that is rooted in our common fallen nature.

       The other kind of sin belongs to us alone; the actual sins we commit, encouraged by the weakness inherent in original sin but consummated by our consent.   Satan encourages but he cannot cause wickedness in us.   “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God, for God cannot be tempted, for God cannot be tempted with evil and He himself tempts no one’”(James 1:31).  Our sins are caused by our cooperation, sometimes by a casual neglect of our duty to God, sometimes by enthusiastic participation in evil.   And the acknowledgement of this fact is the sticking point for modernity.   Utopians may tell us that many things are wrong with the world.  While capitalist greed and cultural selfishness may, sometimes justly, be abundantly denounced, repentance is personal, depending upon the awakening of conscience by the Church’s call to repentance.  

       This failure is in significant part the result of the abandonment by the Church of its mission to the world in the attempt not to be seen as judgmental or unkind.   The Church offers comfort to those who, touched by the Holy Spirit, remaining faithful to Christ, confess their sins and their sinfulness, but, seemingly,  it has largely abandoned its prior duty:  the call to repentance  of everyman in  the face of the glory, magnificence, and righteousness of God.  Those who neglect God because  they see themselves as, well, perhaps not righteous but surely good enough, are not only making a theoretical mistake, they are risking what Jesus called the eternal fire and the outer darkness (Matthew 8:12; 13:42, 50).  They will not be called into His Kingdom by Christ because they  believe the lie that they are not sinners.  Along the way they will make life hell on earth because, believing in their own goodness, they will assume that those who differ from them are not, like themselves, weak and sometimes silly sinners,  but will assumes that such contrary opinions are the result of an evil will, a will that can never be accommodated but must be defeated.  

       Lay persons are not commissioned to call the world to repentance,  but can play a part by resolutely refusing to cooperate with evil or to make terms with the world.  A Christian who will not bend to the ways of the world is an ever-effectual witness.  And we can enjoy the peace of not believing a lie, for the lie that we  are good enough is at the heart of the discomfort and irascibility that is part of the curse of secular modernity.

He Will Return

 

Jesus said to his disciples:
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, 
and on earth nations will be in dismay, 
perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
People will die of fright 
in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, 
for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
And then they will see the Son of Man 
coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
But when these signs begin to happen, 
stand erect and raise your heads 
because your redemption is at hand.

                            Luke 21:25-28


 

According to the progressive account the world we know will get better and better, climate controlled by man, the goods of the earth equitably distributed.  Iphones and electric vehicles will have been perfected,  there will be a world government.  Heaven will have arrived on earth; Christ’s prayer that the Kingdom would come will have been realized.   But human nature will be unchanged.  The selfishness, greed, and lust that characterizes human behavior, always frustrating our desire to do good and be good, although perhaps contained with pharmaceuticals will still be rampant.  

            But what if the history of the world is not a tale of technical progress and political pacification; what if this giant whirling cosmos is no larger than  a grain of sand in the hand of God omnipotent who made it and who will in due time call it home?     What if the quality of life that matters is the quality of our relation to Him and to our neighbor, not the sum of our achievements and possessions?     What if it is not the outside of man and of history that matters but the inside, the will and the heart?  What if the real you is not the self who moves easily through the world but that self who is with you when you lay your head on the pillow in the quiet of night? 

       That is always the question: are we things of stuff, bound in a cycle of endless birth that ends in death, or are we sons of Our Father in heaven,  making our way through time, enjoying a created order that is a sacrament of something better that is coming?     And when we look at the world through which we move, can we believe that the promise of the rose and the sunrise, the promise of every heart’s hope,  is a political settlement or a government program or the advance of science?  For in this world the highest thing we know is persons.  And if it were not revealed by God it might still be urged on the basis of insight that the end of life and history must be a person, for there is nothing in creation greater than a person.    And the Church teaches as truth revealed in Scripture and Tradition that the person who is coming, in whom all things are redeemed, is not a political person or a poet but Jesus, a divine human person who was once among us but who now reigns in heaven, 

“the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation, in whom all things were created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible. . . .  All things were created through Him and for Him.  He is before all things and in Him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-20).

His second coming—for He has been among us once—is promised in the words of the New Testament, better New Covenant.  In John:  

“When I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself” (14:3) .    Luke: “At that time you will see the Son of Man coming in  clouds with power and great glory” (21:27) .  

Paul in Thessalonians: “The Lord himself will descend from heaven, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.  And the dead in Christ will rise first” (4:16).  

And from John’s prophecy:  “I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away . . . And I heard a great voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold the dwelling of God is with men’” (21:1, 3).   

And again John says, “When he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (I John 3:2).

       Of course the thought that this person who is the meaning of life and history will appear in clouds of glory from the sky is considered by a materialist, secularist culture to be an impossible fancy, having no claim to reality.  This will be said because they believe there is nothing in the world but its outside in all its obviousness.   They forget that this cosmos that seems so solid is a thought in the mind of God and a creature of His will, so that at any moment He may choose to perfect it by bringing this fallen world order to an end at Christ’s return, renewing it and remaking it under the power of His eternal purpose into the new creation he willed in the beginning.   “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the  Son of Man” (Matthew 24:27).    It will always be difficult for secularists to believe that Jesus will appear in the clouds with glory because they forget that the sky is His, it was made through Him.

       The world has been taught by secularist  modernity that “all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation” (II Peter 3:4) that progress will continue, there will be peace and finally world government   The text superscript tells us that Christ’s return will be accompanied by disturbances in the sky and sea, by great fear among those who do not believe.  This truth, that after a time of crisis, nature released from its sin-afflicted pattern to be remade anew, Christ will return.  This is a time for Christians to stand tall, for Christ’s return  is our redemption.  Meanwhile, the fact of Jesus’ return may give us occasion to reflect upon the false finality proposed by the secular lie that this world is all there is, that what you see is what you get, that there is no meaning beyond the progress proposed by the secularist project.  “Come, Lord Jesus”  is the prayer of the Church (Revelation 22:20).

Heart Trouble

 

“Hear me, all of you and understand.
Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person;
but the things that come out from within are what defile.

“From within people, from their hearts,
come evil thoughts, unchastity theft, murder,
adultery, greed, malice, deceit,
licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.
All these evils come from within and they defile.”

Mark 7:14-15

 

With these words Jesus challenged the Pharisees claim that holiness consisted in strict obedience to the propositions of the Law, 613 in all according to later tradition, that included not only the Great Commandments:  You shall love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself, but also minute rules about  the washing of hands and the company one kept.    Our Lord’s point in this exchange was simply that it was damaging to the soul to insist on the small things that affected the outside, our behavior in the world, while ignoring what was going on within.    And what was going on within Jesus described graphically, from evil  thoughts and unchastity to blasphemy and folly, in short the catalog of human failure when the human heart is unhealed.   This will create a situation in which law will  be used to blot out charity and duty, as, for example, when one refuses to support aged parents on the grounds that the money is already corban or promised to the Temple treasury, a practice not uncommon among the Pharisees, who used the law to avoid true righteousness.    

When the human heart, which is born in slavery that is original  sin, is unhealed, unrighteousness will reign; human cleverness will think of a way to seem righteous while in fact assiduously achieving the projects of a fallen will.   Throughout the long years catalogued in Hebrew Scripture, Israel had been moving ever closer to the moral fulfillment anticipated in this text, the day when God would give not only commandments but a new heart.    The Pharisaic movement was the project of the best and the brightest, and it was woefully incomplete at its heart.   The prophets had always known that God would not accept the sacrifices of any save those of humble and broken heart, who, following the great example of Job, would finally cease arguing their own righteousness and accept the truth that God was the potter, they the clay.  It was not news in Israel that God would put down the mighty and lift up the lowly and meek.  But the entire Pharisaic tradition was devoted to what Newman called making a fair outside, which made Jesus say that the Pharisees were like whitewashed tombs, clean and bright on the outside, while within there were dead men’s bones (Matthew 23:27).  

There is something here about the order of men’s loves and the order that is in their lives.   If one wishes to have a clean outside, this project, the project of having a clean outside cannot be pursued directly with authenticity.  But if one puts first things first; namely love of God and neighbor, the world of smaller things may very well order itself aright.     In the long run one cannot have good manners without good morals. While always recognizing that the claims of God are not to be met on utilitarian grounds; we cannot with success teach Christianity to have a safe society, there is a reason why convents usually have a lovely and evident order, and it is not because religious women are better at house cleaning.

Given that Jesus was right and just in his condemnation of Pharisaic morality, given that His catalogue of the contents of the un-graced human heart is correct, the only cure for humanity is not the cure proposed by the philosophers, which, although it had a certain truth lacked power to make holy, pleasing to God, and pure in conscience.   The only cure that would suffice would be the gift of a new heart.  This was the promise of the great prophets; that God would establish His reign by giving a new covenant, “not like the covenant he made with their fathers when he brought them out of Egypt,” but one under which he promises those He calls into His kingdom new hearts.  It is Jeremah who promises in God’s name:  I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts (31:31-34).    Christ’s death on the cross was the blood of the new covenant that purchased the forgiveness of our sins (Matthew 26:27).  His resurrection foretells the life of Glory.  His promise was that He would send His Spirit, so that He would be in us and we in Him (John 14:11, 20).   The analysis Jesus gave the Pharisees, His awareness that the human heart left to itself is desperately wicked, is background for the miracle effected at baptism and in the sacraments through which those whom He calls  are made holy so that our will may be His will; as Dante wrote, in His will is our peace, and our joy and above all the possibility of being pleasing to our Creator, who is also our Father.  

Modernity, the harsh period through which we live, makes two mistakes.    It often assumes that as we are found in the world we are good, a theory urged by Jean-Jacques Rousseau at the end of the eighteenth century and since taken into the cloying moral environmentalism which assumes that were it not for poverty and poor education every person would be good.   This popular theory is self-evidently false and to its falsity every newspaper witnesses daily as it catalogs our follies.  CEO runs off with secretary; banker absconds with funds; woman beaten, child abandoned, etc., etc.   In fact we are not good as we come into the world; we are liable to the catalog of sins with which Jesus confronted the Pharisees, but we can be made good by the grace of God the Holy Spirit, so that Jesus’ catalog  of what lives in the human heart is not the final report.  

And then modernity, while proclaiming the essential sinlessness of the human race, simultaneously denies the possibility of holiness because it denies the very possibility of the restraint that lifts the human person into the company of the saints.  The line from the country music song, “If it feels so good it can’t be wrong,”  does not, as a moral theory, do much to elevate the human soul above the terrain we as animals share with our cats and dogs, but it is the thesis of a good deal of the moral chaos Jesus described in the superscript above.                 

Fathers and Children

Beloved:
See what love the Father has bestowed on us
that we may be called children of God.
Yet so we are.

I John 3:1

For much of the last century fatherhood has been an  endangered vocation. In the popular culture of the twenty-first century Patriarchy, when it is not the subject of ridicule, is a synonym for repression, an ancient pathology belonging to a vanished world in which fathers attempted arbitrarily to exercise authority and commanded obedience.  In a complementary way to be child-like, open and trusting, an attitude that our Savior considered necessary to faith, is now  counted naiveté.   Yet He once called a child, put him in their midst, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:1-5). And the wide world forgets that Jesus taught His disciples to call God His Father and theirs.  Christ the Son of God taught us to  pray beginning with the words “Our Father,” that He calls God His father thirty-four times in the discourses of chapters 14–17 of the Gospel of John, and His last words were, “My Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).    

But leaving aside the folly of the present—and every age has its follies—we can remember that fatherhood is the cornerstone of reality in the world Christ revealed:  the divine paternity of our Creator, the paternity over the Church of him called in Italian Papa, our pope, in the old world the paternal government of the anointed king, and everywhere the divinely appointed fatherhood of the head of every human family.

Among things human, the finest aspiration of every man is to be a good father, to beget children of the woman beloved is a natural duty, but fatherhood  itself in its fulfilment of a vocation that must be chosen and in Christendom fatherhood is a supernatural vocation.  In the natural and divinely appointed order every father is the head of  household, for which, the Christian way teaches, he must be willing to give his life, not always or even often  in a dramatic one-time fashion, but in the wearying, unending way of life lived, thus imitating Christ, who gives his life for the whole world and who still  intercedes for us.   Fathers of sons and daughters to a great degree chose that role, and when they choose to fulfill it they do so in imitation of our Father in  heaven, who, having called our humankind into existence first gives His life for His bride the Church whom He loves and then nurtures and disciplines every one of His children.  

Just so every father on earth is to his daughters and sons the model of our Father in heaven who governs with power and authority transfused with a tenderness that loves and gives.    Christ assumes the just generosity that belongs to fatherhood:  “Which of you, if a son asks for bread will give him a stone? If you give good gifts to your children, how much more will your father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:9).  The Epistle to the Hebrews construes the obedience of children to their fathers as analogous to the duty of every Christian to God the Father:  “We have earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of Spirits and live?” (Hebrews 12:7).   

The world Saint Paul assumes is one in which the bond that binds the family together is love made present in obedience. We know that these are inseparable:  Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Saint Paul says directly:  “Children obey your parents for this is right.  Honor your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise) that you may live long on the earth” (Ephesians 6:1–2).  And Paul then makes it clear that paternal authority combines patient teaching with discipline:  “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them  up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” 

  When Saint Paul commands children to obey their parents and wives to obey their husbands he is assuming that this obedience within the family is the second step in a hierarchy of obedience that begins with the father who is head of the family.   To be a good father is not simply to exercise one’s own will, for the tree of obedience that bears much good fruit begins higher.   It begins when the Father himself is obedient to the laws divine and natural, to the teaching of the Church and the laws of the political community, themselves being the reflection of natural and divine justice.   To ask one’s children to be obedient in the Lord, to ask one’s wife to be subject to him, every father and husband must first himself be submitted to the law both of the cross and of this world’s authority.   Saint Paul’s command regarding obedience to political authority , necessarily addressed to fathers as head of the family, are now no less embarrassing than his command that Christians obey and revere the emperor.  But the fact that they cannot easily be located in post-modernity does not mean that they can be ignored.  

Just as when nature has been defeated by the awful technological transcendence  that ignores the very forms in things, one must still respect those forms, just so when political authority claims only positive sanction, only the ability to command and punish, Christians, and especially the head of the house, must  live as though the law has the authority of God because the law of Christ lives in our hearts and is taught by the Church. When the head of the house, the authority in the family is truly submitted to the law of Christ it may be time to consider the duty of wives to be submitted to their husbands and of children to be obedient.   If the husband and head is truly submitted to God he has before him ever Paul’s admonition that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church and died for her (Ephesians 5:25), and as well the teaching of Jesus on the night in which He was betrayed:  “The gentiles lord it over one another, but it shall not be so among you,” and he has in  memory  as well the admonition that children are not to be provoked to anger (Ephesians 6:4).  A husband and father thus armed is able to expect from his household the obedience that belongs to love.    

Saint Paul incidentally names one other tie between fathers and children.  In explaining to the Corinthians that he seeks nothing but their good, that they owe him nothing,  he writes, “Children ought not lay up for their parents but parents for their children. I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls.”  Paul is citing a commonplace of family life to illustrate a spiritual obligation, but it is noteworthy that he recognizes the duty of fathers to the secular  future, to lay up something for their children.  But Paul knows that the greatest gift of fathers to sons and of mothers to daughters is a tradition of Christian virtue and honor.    

 

Eternal Wounds

Thoughts on the Gospel
for
the Third Sunday In Easter

                                                   But if anyone does sin,
                                                         we have an Advocate with the Father,
                                                  Jesus Christ the righteous one.
                                                         He is expiation for our sins,
                                                  and not for our sins only
                                                         but for those of the whole world.
                                                                                                 I John 2:1

Christians know that Jesus is the Lamb sacrificed, the one full perfect sacrifice offered by the Son of God Incarnate in order to purchase forgiveness of our sins and to send the Holy Spirit of God into the world, creating the kingdom of the new heart.  The text superscript, which assumes that we may sin, tells us that  His work of expiation for our sins continues throughout time. 

Here is a great mystery.  The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Christ is always able throughout all time “to save those who draw near to God through  Him, since  He always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25).  The Prophet John, through the open door into heaven, saw the Lamb standing as though He had been slain, the seven-fold Holy Spirit proceeding from His eyes into the world.     Christ’s work of offering Himself “not for our sins only but for the sins of the whole world,” even as  He lives in glory “between the throne, the four great living creatures, and the elders, eternally praised in creation’s new song.

                             Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals,
                                    For thou wast slain and by thy blood
                                         didst ransom men for God
                             From every tribe and tongue and people and nation,
                                       And hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God
                                      And they shall reign on earth
                                                                                            (Revelation 5:9–10)

The sacrifice of Jesus fills all of time, and when we are forgiven we are forgiven not only and essentially through the cross of Golgotha, which planted Christ’s sacrifice in time, but through the eternal sacrifice of the Son of God which is ever present.  Our faith is not only a religion of what happened but of what is happening always.   Christ will make intercession for us until He comes in glory.  

One might ask, “But does Christ need to make intercession for us since we are justified by faith, by baptism, justified in God’s sight anyhow.    And to this there must be a resounding yes.  Sin is an action which we may hope by grace to avoid, but sinfulness is a weakness of human nature that guides us away from the cross of Christ, into reliance upon ourselves.  The best of us is imperfect.   Oh God cleanse me from my secret faults, sometimes faults so secret that we do not recognize them in ourselves.    And in any event our relation to God is not exhausted in our avoiding sin, for there is an arid sinlessness, opening upon pride, that can be worse than sin itself.      Christ’s intercession is not only a rescue mission; it is an external relation of love which means that we live within a forgiven and grace filled life during which Jesus eternally pleads before the Father for us.    

Is this pleading, represented so  graphically by the image of Christ sanding as though slain seen by the prophet John, an eternal crucifixion for the Son of God Incarnate?   The answer must be no.  Saint Paul says truly in Romans 6:9:  “Christ having died dieth no more.”   Yet we know that Christ resurrected in glory still displayed the wounds in His hands and in His side.   We know from the prophet John that He bears them eternally.  But now they are not signs of His suffering but of His triumph.    Were Jesus not to bear them in glory we might assume that the work of the cross is done, but it goes on forever.  Just as the sacrifice offered at the Christian altar does not imply a new and painful death but brings into the present and makes efficacious the one full perfect sacrifice, just so the appeal for forgiveness is addressed to Christ in glory whose hands and side still bear the marks of the nails and lance of Golgotha, without which sacrifice in time sins cannot be forgiven.

In the Middle Ages a great devotion to the Five Holy Wounds developed, Many medieval prayers in honour of the Sacred Wounds, including some attributed to Clare of Assisi,  have been preserved; St. Mettled and St. Gertrude of Hefts were especially devoted to the Holy Wounds. In the nineteenth century the Passionist Fathers encouraged the Chaplet of the Five Wounds, as a means of promoting devotion to the Sacred Passion of Christ in the hearts of the faithful. For students of English history it cannot be forgotten that the rising in the north in 1534 against Henry VIII’s destruction made its way toward London to petition the king for the restoration of the Mass under the banner of the Five Holy Wounds of  Jesus.   It would be an oddity of the new English religion that reminders of the suffering of Jesus were not popular with the government, the crucifix being forbidden in parish churches.

Christ’s Triumph Remembered

                            When the great crowd that had come to the feast heard 
                            that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, 
                           they took palm branches and went out to meet him, and cried out:
                              “Hosanna!
                             “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,
                                 even the king of Israel.”
                          Jesus found an ass and sat upon it, as is written:
                              Fear no more, O daughter Zion;
                              see, your king comes, seated upon an ass’s colt.

                         His disciples did not understand this at first, 
                         but when Jesus had been glorified 
                         they remembered that these things were written about him 
                        and  what they had done to him. 

                                                                                                           John  12:12-16

Every Gospel, every account of what Jesus had done, lived  in memory, often finding its place in prophetic tradition before it was written down.  This is especially true of the Gospel of John.   After Jesus had cleansed the temple the disciples remembered that  Psalm 68:10 prophesied:  “Zeal for your house will consume me.”  After He had risen His disciples remembered that He had identified His body as the true temple of God’s presence (John 2:22).  After Jesus prophesied that His disciples would be forbidden the synagogue, indeed sought out and killed, Jesus reminds the disciples that He has told them these things so that “when the time comes for them to happen, you will remember that I told you of it” (John  16:4).   

It is characteristic of life that we often do not know what is happening while it is going on, and this is especially true of the apostolic memory, that the apostles did not know what was happening until after the coming of the Holy Spirit, after Pentecost they were able to see the import of the moments they had shared with Jesus.   They had not understood the meaning of Jesus’ life in the context of the Scriptures until on the road to Emmaus, in the very face of His resurrection, Jesus told them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.  Was it not necessary that Christ should suffer thee things and enter into His glory.  And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”    

In the text superscript the Johannine author or authors are remembering the day Jesus entered Jerusalem mounted on a lowly donkey to the acclaim of the Jerusalem crowd, some enthusiastic because He had raised Lazarus, but among whom there must have been those who hours later would shout, “Crucify him” before the Roman procurator.  Jesus’ entry into David’s city was to be located in the context of Zechariah 9:9: 

Your king comes to you. 
Triumphant and victorious is He,
humble and riding on an ass
on a colt the foal of an ass.,

The authors might have cited the Angel’s promise to Mary:  “God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign  over the house of Jacob forever” (Luke 1:32). Yet there is no doubt that the Johannine author, looking back, now understood that  what happened, remembered through the lens of Zechariah’s prophecy, made Jesus the heir to David’s throne and His entrance into Jerusalem an event pregnant with meaning for the future.  

Jesus must have known that it would end well only in terms of the divine promise, while seeming to human eyes an abject failure, the death of another revolutionary prophet.   But Jesus could not make the great sacrifice before staking His claim to be the King of Israel.  His success, especially His raising of Lazarus from death, had inspired the crowd and infuriated the Pharisees.    The end was now near, the hour toward which His life had been moving,   it remained only to assure the reader that the Greeks would be included in the great apostolic mission:   “Among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks.  So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to Him, Sir we wish to see Jesus. Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew went with Phillip and they told Jesus.  And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come  for the Son of Man to be Glorified.”     Then follows the passion narrative that occupies the last half of the book of John.

Having spoken of the disciples’  understanding of Jesus’ triumphal entry as the fulfilling of Zechariah, the text continues: they remembered what they had done with Him (or to Him). The exact meaning of these words  is difficult to capture.  The phrase might be translated idiomatically to refer to the things that had happened to Jesus but as the verb is plural and active it needs the disciples as its subject.  So this leaves the author reflecting on what the disciples had done at and after the triumphal entry:  Jesus ‘washing of the disciples’ feet, the last supper, the divine instruction to the apostles in chapter 14–17, the betrayal and trial and death.    If the phrase “what they had done” is taken extensively, it might refer to their role in the triumphal entry and in what followed, when the disciples played a less than noble part.   Jesus knew what would happen:  “The hour is coming  indeed it has come when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone” (John 16:31.)   From the time of His arrest, Jesus was left alone; there followed Jesus’ betrayal and trial,  and at the end, as far as we are told, only one disciple stood with His mother witnessing His death (John 19;26).  

A political failure: Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem signaled no successful revolution, and an eschatological disappointment as well; the Jewish expectation that the Messiah might suddenly inaugurate the supernatural end of history went unfulfilled, this event was still the greatest earthly, historical, representation of Christ’s eternal kingship, the sole occasion when Jesus, having previously counseled  his followers to tell no man, permitted publicity.  Jesus left this world in pain and shame, only to fulfill His promise by appearing in glory to Peter, Paul, John, and other disciples, sending His Spirit with life changing and confirming power at Pentecost.    

After the triumphal entry into Jerusalem there will be no other triumph in history until He returns in glory.    The spread of Christianity, the seeming triumph of the Church at times when it was culturally dominant, eucharistic congresses attended by tens of thousands, even the glory of the Eucharist when it is celebrated with extrinsic beauty, none of these, although they may sometimes reflect His glory,  is the triumph  of Christ, which is only realized perfectly in the lives of the saints.    Christ’s triumph will come when He returns in glory, bringing the saints with Him to live forever in His presence in the renewed creation, where, as Irenaeus says, we will ever have conversation with our Creator.   

What We Believe Is Who We Are

For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, 
so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish 
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, 
but that the world might be saved through Him.
Whoever believes in Him will not be condemned, 
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, 
because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
                                                           John 3:16–18

John 3:16 is arguably the best known and best loved verse in the New Testament, expressing as it so beautifully does God’s overarching purpose in the creation of humankind, His patience through the long years of disobedience catalogued in the Sacred Scriptures, culminating in the gift of His only Son, whose death and resurrection brought salvation to the world.  “World” in this text is not the world organized against God, as in First John 2:16: “All that is in the world is not of the Father,”  but refers to the created order, declared good in the beginning, that has been the object of God’s love since creation.    

Yet there is more to the story than God’s great all-comprehending  love, for the text goes on to say that our appropriation of this great gift  of life and blessedness is by belief in the Son, adding the harsh word that lacking belief or faith in the Son of God means being condemned already. Souls are not in the first instance lost by falling into sin but by skepticism in the face of God’s revelation: “This is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness” (19).  Near the end of the Gospel of John the author will tell us that as well as dying on the cross for love of God and us,  the Son came to teach us what righteousness is and what sin is.  When He comes, He will convince the world of sin and of righteousness, of sin because they do not believe in me.   And belief in Jesus is the author’s purpose.   As he says at the end of the book, apologizing for  abbreviating the account of Jesus’ signs:  “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples which are not written in this book, but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.”  

Belief, one of the too numerous capacities that distinguish the human person from our animal relatives. Every person lives within a texture of convictions that describe reality and informs behavior, a construct that is for that person reality.  This is as true for a skeptic as for a saint.  On a certain level these are assumptions born of day-to-day experience.  But beyond these lies faith, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1), the meaning of life in a future not yet known.  Belief that Jesus is the Son of God is the summary of that faith.  It affirms that there is one we know who the son of god in the loose sense is not that an emperor might have been so described but is rather the Son of the incomprehensible Glory who created this world, who rules nature and every heart through His divine providence, who condemned the world because of sin and saves it because of His indefeasible will that the conversation interrupted in the Garden may find fulfillment among His elect and in His coming kingdom.   

  It is not good works, not even fine character, but belief that Jesus is the Son of God that in the first and fundamental instance fulfills our duty toward God, being as it is the reality from which the actions that are our life flow.  The verb for “to believe”  in the present tense is found about seven times in Matthew, ten times in Mark, five times in Luke, and fifty-one times in John.  Unsurprisingly, we find in the Letters of Paul the reiterated claim that we are made right with God by faith, which means believing that God is who He is and that He will do what He has promised.   “Abraham believed the Lord, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” Genesis 15:6.  As the lynchpin of his preaching this text is quoted by Saint Paul the Pharisee with the explanation, “Now to one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a gift but as his due.  And to one who does not work but trust in  Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Romans 4:4–5).   And  to this the Apostle James adds the example of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son at God’s command as proof that faith issues in obedience:  “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?  You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works” (2:21-22).  And the apostle adds: As the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.”   

From its birth Christianity fought persistently against the tendency of some to find a fulfilling peace in a certain intellectual apprehension that imitated the gift of faith. These were called gnostics, “the knowledgeable,” “the insightful,” who argued that the redemption Christ offered could be experienced through what was, to use Saint Irenaeus’ word, invisible, transforming the soul through union with God but having no ability to conform the human will to the will of God in witness and behavior.   But when faith is real, when love is real, it issues in a desire to please God our Father.  Saint John is speaking of the common Christian aspiration when he says:  “No one born of God commits sin; for God’s nature abides in him and he cannot sin because he is born of God” (I John 3:9).    

Of course Christians do sin, sometimes grievously, but faith is not stamped out and the claim God has upon the baptized is not obviated.  The same Saint John who says that if we are born of god we cannot sin, writes in the same letter, “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:9).   And this requires belief, believing in God’s mercy, believing that Christ gave the apostolic mission the power to forgive sins, saying to the frightened disciples on the evening of the first day of His life in glory: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.  And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven.  If you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:21–23).