Sunday, June 12, 2011

The structure of the Church is not man-made, but is of God. Pentecost, Sermon of June 12th

The Solemnity of Pentecost
June 12th, 2011

Acts 2:1-11
Then there appeared to [the Apostles] tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.

John 20:19-23
And when [Jesus] had said this, he breathed on [the Apostles] and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

I would invite you to imagine with me a playground in which children are running to and fro, enjoying themselves as they play. The children are happy and free. And, surrounding this playground, there is not merely a fence, but a tall and sturdy brick wall. This wall completely encloses the children and the grounds, but there is still ample room for games and for fun.
However, one day, a man comes and begins speaking to the children and tells them, “This wall limits your freedom, it stifles you, it constricts you.” Some of the children begin to listen to the man and he continues, “Moreover, this is no playground at all, but is rather a prison. This wall is the barrier that keeps you from true freedom in the outside world.”

And so, several of the children, though not all, join with the man and they begin to tear at the wall. And, as the wall comes tumbling down on all sides, the children are horrified to realize that their playground is on a small island that is surrounded by cliffs on every side, falling off into the sea.
As the walls crumble, several of the children who were tearing them down stumble and fall off the cliffs and drown in the sea. Likewise, several children who were playing and not paying attention also get too close to the edge and stumble and fall into the sea.
The children who remain, however, are now gathered in the center of the island, huddled together in terror. Indeed, now they have truly become slaves of fear.

This image is something of a parable for an aspect of modern culture and, specifically, for the manner in which many in modern culture approach the Church. The Church, they will claim, has set up this enclosing and restricting wall of doctrine, moral teaching, and tradition. “Let us tear down these old fashioned teachings and traditions. They are a prison to free thought! Get rid of all this antique notion of faith and moral discipline.”
However, as they reject the doctrines of the faith, they imitate the protestant reformers and, as one doctrine falls, so too many others follow. Suddenly, as they turn away from the traditions of the faith, these individuals fall farther and farther away from the truth – just as the protestants continue to divide amongst themselves, daily forming new sects each one in contradiction to the others.

Closer to our own times, there is the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 70s in the USA and the western world. Many individuals rejected the traditional moral teachings of the Church and of the natural law – “It’s too restrictive,” they said. “Let people be free and stop making them feel guilty all the time.”
And what is the fruit of their revolution? Tearing down the moral code, they fall off into the abyss of perversion. Alas, who can doubt the moral depravity of the modern world? How many souls have been lost because of these sins!

Underneath both of these radical notions – the rejection of the Church traditional faith and the rejection of the moral law – there is a fundamental misconception. These people fail to understand an essential point about the Church in herself.
The radicals will claim that the Church is made up of two separate realities: On the one hand, so they claim, there is the invisible, internal, charismatic spirit of the Church – this is good, and is given by God. This is what is essential about the Church. Then, on the other hand, there is the external, visible structure of the Church – this, so they claim, is man-made and is not usually very good. To these radicals, the visible structure of the Church is not essential, but is something added on by men.
And, when they say that the visible structure of the Church (I refer here both to the doctrines of the faith and to the moral teachings, as well as to the hierarchy of the Church and her liturgy), when they say the visible structure of the Church is “man-made” they mean two things by this. First and foremost, they intend to state that the hierarchy and the sacraments (as well as the doctrines and moral teachings) were not established by God, but were created by human beings. Moreover, and here we see just how radical their ideologies are, these individuals mean to say that the visible structure is “man-made” in the sense that it is made by males as opposed to females – apparently they think that anything made by God or by women is good, but if it be made by males it will necessarily be oppressive!

This radical view, even if it is extremely popular today (both outside and, sadly, even inside the Church), this radical view is directly contrary to the vision of the Church presented in the Scriptures.
Today, the feast of Pentecost, the feast of the birth of the Church, we recall that the Church is one reality – both in her visible hierarchical structure and in her charismatic spirit, the Church has been created by God, established by Christ during his life on earth, and confirmed by the Holy Spirit at the feast of Pentecost. The Church, both visible and invisible, is united as one and there can be no division or separation, nor can there be any contradiction, between the visible structure and the invisible spirit of the Church.

In the Gospels, we see quite clearly that Christ established his Church as a hierarchy. Recall that he did not make everyone who followed him an apostle. Rather, from among his disciples, the Lord chose twelve men. And he ordained these twelve men as his apostles and priests. And from among these twelve men, our Savior chose one (namely, St. Peter) to be the prince of the apostles and their visible head and ruler. Our Lord himself, during his earthly life, established the hierarchical structure of the Church – the Pope (that is, St. Peter), the Bishops (that is, the other apostles), and the lay faithful (that is, the crowd).
It was to the apostles that he appeared after his Resurrection and, as we heard in the Gospel reading, he breathed upon then and said Receive the Holy Spirit. Christ did not give the Holy Spirit immediately to all his followers, but rather he chose to entrust the gift of the Spirit to the ministry of his apostles.
Moreover, he did not give the power to forgive sins to all his disciples, but solely to these chosen men – it would be through the ministry of the apostles (that is, through his priests) that the sins of the world would be forgiven. Therefore, we see that Christ established, together with the hierarchy, also the sacramental life of the Church.

This visible structure which was established by Christ was also confirmed by the Holy Spirit on the feast of Pentecost. On the very day in which the Church was born, the Holy Spirit chose to confirm the hierarchical structure of the Church – for he did not descend upon everyone in Jerusalem immediately, rather he came down first upon the twelve apostles (for Matthias had already taken the place of Judas the betrayer). Having filled the apostles and inspiring them with the gift of tongues, the Holy Spirit then worked through the ministry of the hierarchy to bestow his blessing upon the crowd. For, as those present began to believe in the doctrine of the faith which the apostles proclaimed, they came to believe and received the Holy Spirit through the sacrament of baptism.
The miraculous events of Pentecost happen entirely within the hierarchical and visible structure of the Church! These two elements within the Church – the visible, external structure and the invisible, charismatic spirit – work together in perfect unison.

And so, as we consider the mysteries which the Scriptures themselves present to us on this feast, we recognize that the Church is not a man-made structure, but that this visible hierarchy (together with her teachings and her sacraments) is given from above by God himself. As there is only one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, so too there is only one Church, founded on the one Rock, which is Christ the Lord.