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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Breakers of the covenant

Psalm 88 from today's Office of Readings recounts the Lord's promises of fidelity to David and his house. In it is I think prefigurement of Christ, who is the faithful son and faithful king. But the Psalm also talks about those in David's house who might break oath. There are consequences, but the Lord is faithful beyond all graciousness:

  “But if his children abandon my law
and walk no more in the paths of my decrees;
if they profane my judgements
and do not keep to my commandments,
I will punish their transgressions with a rod,
I will punish their wickedness with a beating.

Even so, I will not turn my kindness away from him,
nor will I be untrue to my word.
I will not profane my covenant,
I will not go against the word I have spoken.
I have sworn in my sanctuary, once and for all:
I will not lie to David.
His seed shall remain for ever,
his throne firm as the sun in my sight,
just as the moon, stays firm for ever,
a faithful witness in the sky”
The Lord epitomizes faithfulness. To the Lord, covenant goes beyond a contract, which can breaks on the grounds of the other party breaking faith first. The Lord cannot be anything other than faithful forever. We know that even Solomon, and certainly his descendants later, and even David himself, broke faith through grave sin: idolatry, adultery, murder -- all serious crimes against The Law. Despite the consequences to these men, the Lord remains faithful to his oath, his covenant with David's house.

Something in this speaks to me also about the Lord's new covenant. In one perspective, this covenant is particular to each and every Christian whose baptism was his or her circumcision covenant with the Lord. At another perspective, this covenant is collective to the bride, the Church. This covenant is fulfilled in Christ's consummation on the cross when he declares "it is finished!" The Lord gives his life for his bride, and this new covenant in blood gives life to the bride.

Protestants sometimes tell me that the Bridegroom's promises of unassailability to the Bride do stand. Indeed, the Holy Spirit continues to guide each and every baptized Christian as a holy people, binding them mystically as a result of their rebirth in Christ. Some also state that this is true institutionally, in a sense, with their particular denomination (e.g., Baptist) or all reformed congregations collectively, being the remnant, faithful Church kept safe from the corruption of either the Orthodox or Roman Catholic Churches.

I suggest a different perspective (naturally). The Lord gave his word to Simon Peter in Caesarea Philippi. He named him Kepha (rock), a patriarchal tradition for anointing new leaders among God's people, e.g., Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel. Christ told him that he would build his Church on this rock (kepha). Christ promises that the very gates of Hades would not prevail against this Church. He promises to give Kepha the keys of the kingdom, which harkens to the Davidic monarchy's vizier, Shebna then Eliakim in Isaiah 22. With the keys, he receives authority to shut and open with the king's very authority. He is to be as a father to the household. As with Shebna and Eliakim, this is a public office, and there is an appointment of succession. This appointment is God's to make.

What I suggest is simple. God is faithful to his house. He gave oath to his Church, and his Church he already organized with a structure. He appointed the vizier, Kepha, with authority. Kepha is a first among equals who also share the authority to shut and open. But there will be occasion for Kepha to strengthen them. Kepha is to feed the flock, and the Lord's parable about the faithful steward comes to mind, who feeds the household with the right measure of food at the proper time. Now everything that can be said about stewardship and strengthening others can be said about every Christian in general. But the household needs more. It needs some structure. The Lord organizes them into Apostles and elders. After Pentecost, they organize into Apostolic bishoprics, e.g., Matthias for Judas Iscariot. The bishoprics are expanded with new bishops, e.g., Timothy and Titus, and they too have authority, and they too anoint successors with their hands. And they have Kepha, whose role was not entirely too clear, but insight into this became clearer in time, particularly when corruption tainted even most bishops, as during the Arian crisis.

We have had and continue to have sinful and erroneous bishops, including the pope. But the Lord is faithful, and will not set aside the offices he instituted. As in the case of Kepha, however, the Lord may rebuke -- and sternly so. As in the case of Shebna, the Lord may hurl down and thrust from his office. But the office remains. Papal infallibility does not mean that the particular man who is pope is infallible. It is the office that is invested with infallibility, and this is a teaching office. It is the Holy Spirit who preserves the integrity of the Church, despite the sinfulness and imperfection of the man who is pope.

It is shameful that the corruption of men who were pope, and those who were clergy or bishops around him, caused such scandal that made many fall away. But the Holy Spirit is more potent than we can imagine. Christ is more faithful than we deserve. This may sound fatalistic, but faced with a corrupt pope (as we mercifully have not been in the two popes I've known so far), the people of God can put their trust in God who saves. When Shebna sits in Rome, God will hurl him down so as to preserve his household. He will put Eliakim in his stead, and on him grant the charism of infallibility. Should Eliakim also break faith, then should he also be thrust out of office, and so on.

In this I hope, because the Word of God gave oath, and His Word never returns to him in vain.

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