“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.'” -Mark 1:14-15
Earlier this week, as Christians throughout the world concluded the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity it is highly coincidental that last Sunday’s Gospel would highlight the themes of conversion and repentance. If anything else in the world should serve as evidence of the reality of sin, it would be hard to find a better example than the divisions and hostilities that have severed, and visibly divided, the mystical Body of Christ – which is the Church.
Pure arrogance coupled with a temporal desire for power and domination, drove fallible men to inflict these wounds upon the universal Church. The overreaching prerogatives that the Roman papacy adopted for itself gradually created a wedge between the Christian communities of the East and West which would eventually lead to the Great Schism – thereby creating the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church as they exist today.
A distinct church would be destined to spring up that would carry on forever the spirit of the sixteenth century reformer Martin Luther, whose ultimate desire was not to sever his own ties with the Catholic Church, but rather to influence its leaders to put an end to unbiblical practices; such as the selling of indulgences that promised those who purchased them eternal salvation or reprieved sentences in Purgatory.
The Anglican Communion has its roots in King Henry VIII’s dissatisfaction with the amount of power and sway the Bishop of Rome was allowed to have over his personal life. This would eventually drive him to eradicate ecclesiastical ties with Rome and establish the Church of England, which over the centuries has proven to be an inestimable contribution to the global People of God through its theology, collegiality, and even artistically, considering the many beautiful choral works of music that have been composed within the Anglican tradition. Although the events which led to its creation may seem political and trivial, the Church of England serves as a perpetual testament to the premise that our lives as humans are our own, and that no matter how much we may respect the spiritual authority of the prelates of our respective denominations, all of us must follow the dictates of our own consciences and refuse to allow popes, bishops, or pastors to carry out the faculty of cognitive rationalization on our behalf.
Since the Reformation, countless other Protestant denominations, each with legitimate grievances against the status quo or their own unique theological perspective, have been formed to serve as living testimonies and communities dedicated to the service of the Risen Christ. Unfortunately, Christendom today seems to be more divided now than ever before. A common celebration of the Eucharist is not even possible amongst numerous churches because the theological/ideological chasms are seen as being too great. Even more deplorable are the internal occasions of corruption and abuse (most notably the rampant phenomenon of the sexual violation of children within Catholicism) that continue to threaten Christianity’s credibility for the world at large.
How can Christians overcome such obstacles – internal and external – so that a more poignant and effective manifestation of Christ’s Body might be projected to the world?
The prescription of conversion and repentance given in Mark’s Gospel appears to be an apt remedy. However, applying such a formula is deeper than simply asking certain people to convert and plead for forgiveness of their transgressions. In his book The Heart of Christianity, renowned biblical scholar Marcus Borg examines how these themes were authentically understood in the Jewish culture of the time which shaped and cultivated the public ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.
When Jesus uses the word “repent” in the Gospels, most Christians immediately are filled with illusions of personal guilt and think of seeking forgiveness for one’s sins. While this is a correct interpretation of the word it does not embody the fullness that it originally possessed in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Jewish context, to repent means to return from a state of spiritual exile and ambiguity to a focused, committed relationship with God. In the New Testament, where the Gospels were written in Greek, a further depth of linguistic meaning is conveyed when this word is employed. To “go beyond the mind that you have acquired” is an additional flavor that is detected in the Greek composition of the word. Therefore, a truly biblical understanding of the word “repent” means not just seeking God’s forgiveness but heartfully returning to God and adopting a new way of seeing to bring lasting and genuine fulfillment to one’s life.
If such an effort was done on a collective level by members of the Body of Christ throughout the world, particularly those in positions of ecclesiastical leadership, imagine the results that could be reaped. Within Catholicism, instead of simply window dressing a response to the clerical abuse crisis, why not craft standards that would have “real teeth” (as the Pope is fond of saying about other matters) in terms of preventing further outbreaks of such heinous acts – committed by those to whom the world’s most vulnerable members have been entrusted in confidence. Enacting a zero tolerance policy worldwide for any member of the clergy who is confronted with allegations of misconduct would prove to the world that the institutional church in Rome is truly committed to the welfare of innocent children rather than the upkeep of its colloquial facade in public opinion. Moreover, a powerful message could be conveyed by making it mandatory for bishops to relinquish their offices who were discovered to have either turned a blind eye to instances of abuse in their dioceses, or who shuttled perpetrators of such vile acts from parish to parish. Doing so would not preserve the status quo, but would instead definitively chart a sincere path into the future.
It goes without saying that such an approach would also engender re-evaluating the question of clerical celibacy (which has always been acknowledged to be a human creation) to allow members of the priesthood to marry as well as broaching the necessity of including the voices and input of women among the church’s leadership positions.
The same principle could be applied to the Anglican Communion as it continues to be divided geographically by the subject of homosexuality. Essentially, when the prospect of Christian unity is examined, nothing can ever conceivably be accomplished before various Christian bodies look within themselves and see what wrinkles, stains, or wounds are preventing them from moving toward full communion with other churches. Even if all Christian churches throughout the world fully tackled the issues which were inhibiting their communities from being credible witnesses to the Gospel of Christ, external, theological divisions would undoubtedly remain.
Even if this is the case, hope remains. During a service which took place to observe the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at my parish here in Baltimore, a Methodist pastor shared some thoughts of John Wesley’s that would prove enlightening and encouraging when attempting to make a greater cohesion of all Christians a reality instead of a longed-for hope:
“But even though a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without doubt, we may. In this all the children of God may unite, even though they retain these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may help one another increase in love and in good works.”
Perhaps no one else’s words would prove more inspiring on this matter than those of Jesus of Nazareth, the humble Galilean peasant Whose passion for living and for spreading the Reign of God would give rise to countless bodies and institutions that would forever bear His name:
“If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” -Mark 3: 25-27
Time will only tell how much longer those who call themselves followers of Jesus continue to consent to allow themselves to be spiritually tied, gagged, and held captive by the corruption and arrogance that continues to divide rather than unite the flock of Christ in a spirit of love, peace, and justice.
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