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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Striking the Shepherd

That line from Matt 26:31 came to mind recently. I think I was contemplating the first sorrowful mystery, the Lord's agony in the garden, right after the Last Supper. During that supper, the Lord spoke about the coming chaos that ensues after he gets arrested a few hours later. "I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed." These words speak of two things: the coming blow directed at the shepherd, and the resulting dispersal of the sheep. The expert exegesis of this passage from Zach 13:7-9 is beyond my simple knowledge of Scripture. I do understand that this is God Himself who speaks, and of His plan to put His people to the test. My mind focused on the objective of scattering the sheep and a conversation I once had with an Evangelical friend (one of my best friends) about the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. She holds the belief that it was a necessary event, and because of human frailty, a reunification of all believers into one Church will not occur until the second coming of the Lord. I disagreed. Perhaps that passage in Zach 13:9 holds the key. The true objective of God in striking the shepherd is not to scatter the sheep. His true objective is challenging -- testing -- as silver is refined in fire, thereby forming the faithful through endurance. The dispersal is but a means to a crucial end, and I believe that the same method of refining His people applies to the divisions among Christians today. I agree that the uproar of Luther and the original Reformists was necessary. The resulting split in the Church, however, is something I cannot agree with. The dispersal was necessary but it must be followed by reconciliation and reunification, where the Church will emerge reformed and stronger for having addressed the issues raised. As with the dispersal of the apostles after the arrest of Christ, the dispersal of Christians into discordant denominations is not meant to be a necessary and semi-permanent state. In the Schism of the 11th century between East and West and the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, the sheep were scattered and the flock was divided. Who were struck if not the shepherds of the Church then, many of whom had been corrupted and were neglecting their ministries. Christ, the head of the Church, was also struck as it was His Body, the Church, that was wounded. One limb was telling another: "I need you not!" After the resurrection of our Lord, the apostles did manage to recover from their abandonment of Christ in that garden. What about us? Where now do Christians recover from the divisions of the Schism and the Protestant Reformation? Is it faithful to God's will for Christendom to be so divided? Is this the best, the first-fruits, that we can offer our God? The prayer of Christ in John 17 reveals His mind to us. As in the old testament, where the faithful people of God are to be a sign to the unbelieving nations, so too was the Church meant to be such a sign. The rifts that have not healed must confront that priestly prayer of Christ for Christian unity. Disunity compromises the integrity of the Mystical Body of Christ as a sign to the nations. God does not contradict himself. It cannot be His will for the Church to be in such a broken state that it will not function as He wills it to. Yes, conflict, disagreements and divisions are always possible. They will always happen. We can learn from them so we grow wiser, humbler and more aware of what can go wrong and what should go right. But what is there left to learn over these centuries? That the world turns against Christ and his Church time and again, and that the gospel is watered down by our divisions? Is it possible? Can the Church be healed so that all her members are in communion with one another through a communion with the Body of Christ? Which is easier: to tell a sinful man that his sins are forgiven and he is saved, or to tell him to get up and rejoin the Church of the those who are alive in Christ? If we believe that the grace of God is enough to save a sinful man, how can we disbelieve that it is also enough to unite him with others who were also saved by the same grace? For a Christian to deny the possibility of Christian unity on earth contradicts the absolute trust we have in our good shepherd, Christ our Lord. Ultimately, believing that Christian unity on earth is impossible means believing that God's power to unite is thwarted by our capacity for conflict. The effects of such disbelief can be seen today. Far too many Protestants, seemingly oblivious to John 17, feel that they must justify the state of Protestant Christianity today. Some embrace it: with thousands of denominations dispersed across the globe, more or less a single Church of believers, loosely held by common roots of faith, i.e., the Word of God. I find that this position is untenable considering how bitterly contested the differences between these denominations are on grave matters of salvation, justification, the sacraments, eschatology, teaching authority, human sexuality, marriage, divorce, abortion and euthanasia. Other groups dismiss history and claim that their church is the original, true Church that has been in hiding from the bigger but allegedly false Church that inxplicably held the episcopates of Jerusalem, Antioch, Syria, Egypt and Rome. But consider those positions in the light of this prayer:
 11 And now I am not in the world, and these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep them in thy name whom thou hast given me: that they may be one, as we also are. 12 While I was with them, I kept them in thy name. Those whom thou gavest me have I kept: and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition: that the scripture may be fulfilled. 13 And now I come to thee: and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy filled in themselves. 14 I have given them thy word, and the world hath hated them: because they are not of the world, as I also am not of the world. 15 I pray not that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from evil. 16 They are not of the world, as I also am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them in truth. Thy word is truth. 18 As thou hast sent me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. 19 And for them do I sanctify myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. 20 And not for them only do I pray, but for them also who through their word shall believe in me. 21 That they all may be one, as thou, Father, in me, and I in thee; that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. 22 And the glory which thou hast given me, I have given to them: that, they may be one, as we also are one. 23 I in them, and thou in me: that they may be made perfect in one: and the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them, as thou hast also loved me. 24 Father, I will that where I am, they also whom thou hast given me may be with me: that they may see my glory which thou hast given me, because thou hast loved me before the creation of the world. 25 Just Father, the world hath not known thee: but I have known thee. And these have known that thou hast sent me. 26 And I have made known thy name to them and will make it known: that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.
How many times did the Lord pray for unity? Some would argue that Christ was not referring to visible oneness. I would respond by pointing out that Christ gives us a most remarkable model: the oneness of the Father and of the Son. What can be more perfect and complete than the unity of the Trinity? Scripture says "Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter," but it does not end there:
 "And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined: and I will try them as gold is tried. They shall call on my name, and I will hear them. I will say: Thou art my people: and they shall say: The Lord is my God." (Zach 13:9)
God occasionally sends tough trials, like the dispersal of the the Apostles upon Christ's arrest. The aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, which resulted in chaos and too much bloodshed, was one of them. Yet God's tests are never ends in themselves, but are means. The divisions among us must end. There is a world out there that is losing its soul. We must ask the Lord to send workers for the rich harvest. God have mercy on us if those workers waste their time bickering amongst themselves instead.


Elle said...

If I read you right, I think I'm somewhat with you and somewhat with your friend. I'm a Protestant and I see the value in the different divisions, denominations, and practices since we are all unique people; one single set of approved practices and beliefs would not appeal to or sustain all followers.

However, I don't believe Christ intended at all for his followers to be divided against each other and condemn different divisions, denominations, and practices. While I was still in my original denom, I was taught a lot of divisive (mis)information about Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, and Lutherans. Attending a Catholic university, I noticed that my Catholic brothers and sisters also had been taught much divisive (mis)information about my previous denom.

Fortunately for us, the vast majority of us were able to discuss our beliefs, agree to disagree, and respect our differences. I'm now happy to say that we have Catholics and Protestants alike involved in campus ministry together. I think this is much more Christlike than fighting amongst ourselves! : )

Jeff Tan said...

Yes, having charitable disagreements is better than the the bickering. However, considering that with God, all things are possible, and knowing what Christ meant in that priestly prayer about Christian unity, we are still be better off aiming for dead center. We might miss the mark for a bit, but that's better than aiming for some "good enough" target. I don't think there's a good enough target here with Christ referring to the oneness he wants from us in terms of His oneness with the Father.

Don't worry, we aren't meant to become same-faced robots. We'll always have different practices and beliefs in many aspects of our Christian faith. But I believe we can and must be united in the most essential articles of Christian faith. This is what we now have in the Catholic Church, after all, where Franciscans and devotees/admirers of St. Francis of Assisi differ in their ministries (and charisms!) from those of the Benedictines. We have admirers of St. Thomas Aquinas' theology or that of St. Augustine of Hippo. We have folks more devoted to sacramental life and others more devoted to preaching. The Church is huge and all sorts of different people can shelter under it, but we have but one Christ, Lord and Savior. He is Truth and He is not ambiguous. What do we say when he asks "who do you say I am?" We may have varying answers, but they cannot contradict one another.