Catholicism, Fundamentalism, and the Presences of Christ

Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 22/23, 2009
Dignity NoVA/DC

Readings: Jos 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Eph 5:21-32; Jn 6:60-69

I won’t ask for a show of hands, but was anyone just a little bit uncomfortable when we listened to that passage just heard a few moments ago – the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians in which he says that wives are to be subordinate to their husbands? No doubt that is one of those passages in Scripture that can offend the sensibilities of many of us. In the Gospel passage from John, which continues the long “Bread of Life Discourse” that we have been hearing these past weeks, and in which Jesus previously said his followers must eat his flesh and drink his blood, we hear these followers today saying that these words are hard to accept. For those of us in 21st century America, Jesus could well be speaking about the passage from Ephesians when he asks his followers, “Does this shock you?” While we may not be shocked by more conservative societies around the world displaying their very rigid social norms about how wives and husbands, men and women – as well as young and old, parents and children – are to relate to one another, we are I think just a bit shocked when we hear scripture passages such as this one – and many others like it – which on their face can seem very much out of step with the norms and values that we seek to uphold in a free, democratic and open society, a society which claims to see equal human dignity present in every person.

By drawing our attention to this passage, I intend not to raise for our reflection the particulars of how husbands, wives, spouses should relate to each other; but rather I’d like to say a few words about a bigger issue about who we are as Catholics and how we understand and hold together some of the basic and formative elements that define us as Catholic Christians.

In 1963, the Fathers (and yes, they were all men) of the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI approved and promulgated the first of 4 “Constitutions” of Vatican II. This first constitution—Sacrosanctum Concilium – was The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Early on in the text, the document identifies four ways in which Christ is present in the Sacred Liturgy. Specifically the document states:

“To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. [Christ] is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of [the] minister, …but especially under the Eucharistic species. …[Christ] is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. [Christ] is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20)”

These four presences – the minister, the Word of Scripture, the Bread and Wine of Eucharist, and the Gathered Assembly – these all speak to the richness of who we are and what we do whenever we gather together “in word and in sacrament.”

Why is this important? Why does it matter that we are conscious of these various ways in which Christ’s presence is known and experienced? Well, I think it’s important – especially in our own day – because we are constantly surrounded by and bombarded with declarations about “what Scripture says” and “the authority of God’s word” and “the Bible says…” Such declarations claim that Scripture is the final authority on all things, and they come very close to home when people claim they are just adhering to “biblical precepts” when they make pronouncements about the sinfulness of homosexuality, or about justifications for war, or about the distribution of the wealth and the world’s resources that keep so many millions in poverty; … and yes… we still hear Scripture used to justify the oppression of women and so many others.

Perhaps you’ve seen that bumper sticker or t-shirt that reads: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” This sort of fundamentalism, a fundamentalism that leaves no room for the assent of faith, no room for the human person struggling to balance faith and reason, doubt and certainty; a fundamentalism that in effect denies the presence of Christ in the Gathered Assembly – such fundamentalism is foreign to us as Catholic Christians, and truly foreign to the most traditionalist understandings of Christianity.

Earlier I mentioned Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. In that document’s opening paragraph, it states that one of the constitution’s purposes is, “to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change.” Let me read that again: “to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change.”

Fundamentalists thinks that when it comes to God and religion, nothing is “subject to change.” They dismiss adaptations to the needs of our times as being unfaithful at best, and heretical at worst. And yet, throughout the history of the Church, faithful Christians have struggled with how to live out the truly fundamental, the foundational beliefs of Christianity, the ones that transcend time and place and culture, giving them concrete expression in the context of the times and circumstances in which they found themselves. We saw an example of this just yesterday as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – the largest Lutheran denomination in the US – voted to lift a ban that effectively required gay and lesbian ministers to be celibate. Their action affirms the loving, committed relationships that gay and lesbian people can and do form and recognized that our understandings about sexuality and human relationships have grown and evolved with the passage of time. As one man quoted in the today’s Washington Post story about the ELCA’s action put it, “We are responding to something that the writers of Scripture could not have understood.”

Applying this same approach to this passage from Ephesians about husbands and wives, isn’t it possible to understand that, even though there may be suggestions of male dominance, influenced by the context of the first-century in which Paul was writing, the real and enduring meaning of this passage is that spouses are to put each other first? Of course it is.

When Jesus saw others leaving because they were not able to hear the deeper meaning of his words within the depths of their hearts, he turned to the Twelve and asked if they were leaving as well. Like Peter and the others, we have come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that Jesus does have the words of eternal life. We believe that Jesus is present not only in the Words of Scripture and the Bread and Wine we bless, but that Jesus is also present in each of us and in our community, gathered as we are in His name. Although there may be some who might want us to leave, let us today make our own the words of Peter. Peter said, “Master, to whom should we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Put another way, our response might well be: “You know, Lord, we’re staying with you; we’re not going anywhere.”

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