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"Christ is the head of the Church"

Eph 5:23

"But see that you keep to the teaching you have been given and have been entrusted with, conscious of who has been your teacher"

2 Timothy 3:14

Jesus's Church

Much is said about having faith in Jesus, and being saved by faith in Him.  But how do people get that faith?  And how exactly does it save you?  On the about page, I suggested that Christian belief has two dimensions, one was knowledge - in order to believe something, you have to know what it is you're believing in - pretty obvious! The other however, was that it's a supernatural gift from God.  The gift we call 'grace'.  You can't give that gift to yourself, but you and others can pray for you to get it.

Christians who have a vibrant relationship with God, often present a similar background: typically they tell of having had a 'spiritual experience'.  Quite often at a time when they had a minimal knowledge about Jesus.  The experience may have been gradual or sudden, but either way, was so convincing that rather than simply coming to terms with the experience, they actually adapted and changed aspects of their lives in response to it.  This change is a learning process, and if embraced generates a thirst to know God more closely.  Over time, the relationship with God grows deeper, and both trust and understanding increase.

So while the need for at least some basic knowledge seems obvious, it is the spiritual gift that tends to really drive things.  For many people, who haven't really "got it" yet, the spiritual aspect seems rather esoteric, sometimes hard to obtain, sometimes scary, sometimes uncomfortably challenging.  When we start to look at 'getting faith' as a task, we easily overlook the fact that God actually wants to give it to us freely and out of love.

Christian communities wise to this response often concentrate on helping adults come to faith precisely through a spiritual approach, asking God to grant the gift of faith to the newcomers, and helping them receive it by providing a supportive environment.  The styles of support vary and aren't always to everyone's liking, but the underlying principle of stimulating faith-first is a common one.  With this approach, it is usually assumed that deeper knowledge will follow once people have come to Jesus.  I won't knock this approach.  It's quite wise, and us Catholics could do it better.

But just because for many adults who have a strong witness of faith, knowledge comes later, doesn't mean that's the best way.  Knowledge isn't meant to play the minor part in the faith relationship with God, and the two aspects are not meant to be separate.  St Paul says that the time will come when knowledge will end 1Cor 13:8.  But just a few lines on Paul talks about when we will know God fully forever.  So there's 'earthly knowledge' (that ends) and another kind: 'the knowledge that comes when you love'.  That latter kind is never far from a loving relationship with God.  That kind of knowledge doesn't have to end - ever!  It will be as mature as our ability to love.  Just as a baby trusts their mother completely, so too an adult can truly love the spouse they know intimately.  And just as the lover who is infatuated lacks knowledge of the one they love, so too, there can be an imbalance in our faith relationship with God.  If we enthuse about Jesus, without really taking the effort to know him properly, things can get rocky.  And just as an infatuation might end in disappointed separation, so too might a shallow encounter with God.  That's not God's failing, but human nature.

Knowing our nature God made provision for us.  He ensured that we can know him in a way that our heart doesn't rush too far ahead of our head, nor our head deny our heart its full expression.  Being the light of our earthly life, God also enlightens the knowledge that we need in order to live our lives well.  So in our earthly life we need both kinds of knowledge: that of loving God and of knowing how to follow his ways.

So when parents raise children to have both kinds of knowledge, they give them a great gift.  Those children are then better able to receive God's free gift of faith, whenever and as often as He gives it to them.  That's not brainwashing, because without the spiritual dimension of grace, it'd come to nothing much at all.  Whereas the opposite: raising children to know nothing of the super-existance of God, and of the super-abundant love on offer - that's deprivation!  Such children miss out on vital opportunities for spiritual growth.

Similarly, as we grow past childhood, we need to continue to deepen our relationship with God.  And that includes our knowledge of Him.  Trusting simply like a child was fine when we were children, but now we are grown up, God deserves our understanding and personal constructive input too.

To grasp this better let's take a closer look at the knowledge aspect.

Collective knowledge

First of all, I'd like to suggest that at an individual level, we Christians, whatever our denomination, often take our collective knowledge too often for-granted.  Now you might say 'oh no, not-me", but allow me to outline a couple of common observations and see if none of it applies:

So rather than pop up theories for what God might want, let's look at what God has told us already, using the evidence of those who witness to His work.  As always, the Bible provides a good starting point.

Paul

You're probably familiar with the Bible account of how Paul was zapped by God on the road to Damascus.  Pretty instantly, Paul turned from persecuting Christians, to being an eloquent preacher of Christianity.  You might presume that God gave Paul both aspects of faith at once: knowledge and grace.  But is that right?

All that the Bible tells us Paul knew at this stage, was that Jesus was alive in some mysterious way, impressive and being persecuted by Paul, oh and Paul was to go to Damascus where he'd be told what to do next.  Beyond that Paul didn't really know Jesus.

Being an educated Jew, Paul could figure out a lot from this little bit of information.  Also, having persecuted Christians he presumably had some knowledge of their faith already.  But in Palestine at that time, there were many views about the messiah.  And a persecutor rarely holds the inside view.  Would Paul's inferences, now that he's been confronted to make a U-turn be correct?  Could Jesus rely on Paul figuring it all out for himself?

It may help if I mention that Paul is made totally helpless by the experience: blinded he has to have his assistants lead him by the hand.

Acts 9:9 For three days he couldn't see, and he didn't eat or drink anything.

Even though he had been personally zapped by the presence of Jesus, and has a lot of knowledge of scripture, Paul (at that time still known as Saul) remains ineffective as a witness to Christ.  It is not until one of the disciples lays hands on him that his sight returns:

17 So Ananias left and went to that house.  He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were travelling, has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

18 All at once something like scales fell from his eyes, and he could see again.  He got up and was baptised.

So just imagine the two of them there: Paul, who just had the most amazing life changing encounter with Christ, and Ananias, a Christian insider who understands what it all means.  Do you suppose that Paul said: "Oh it was amazing, but I'd rather not talk about it"?

The expression in the Bible: "All at once something like scales fell from his eyes" (upon being baptised) suggests more than just Paul's sight returning, it suggests some new understanding, like pieces of a jigsaw falling into place.  Yet..

Acts 9:20 says "And he was with the disciples that were at Damascus, for a few days." ..before he began to preach

And we read in the Bible that Paul learnt more from Jesus later on.  Scholars of the Bible point out how Paul's teaching of Jesus developed over time.

So I think it is reasonable to assume that God didn't zap Paul with full knowledge right away.  And on that basis I think it fair to assume that Paul would have shown some enthusiasm to learn what Ananias and the other disciples at Damascus knew, and Ananias would have been keen to hear from Paul.  Perhaps their emotions were so strong they couldn't talk, I don't know.  But I think it is notable, that it's only after this encounter with a Christian, that Paul was empowered and felt able to begin to preach.

At the start, Paul preached about Jesus being the Son of God.  This was what he'd learnt so dramatically.  But as for more refined teaching, Paul has to pick up and formulate things gradually.  It is only after Paul is well grounded in his understanding, both from his prayer life with Jesus and confirming with the other Apostles (Galatians 1:18-19), that he is fully confident in pushing the boundaries.  But even then, Paul takes care not to act too independently and checks back with the other Apostles to preserve consensus (Galatians 2:2).

The experience of the other Apostles, is a little different.  Unlike Paul who was plunged into his life of Christian teaching so suddenly, the Apostles had a longer time of preparation, having been Jesus' students for some years.  Jesus had given them lots of information up front, and of course He'd set them many examples by his own life.  But as students, they hadn't been able to understand much of what Jesus had taught them.

It was only when they received the Holy Spirit in the upper room (Acts 2) at Pentecost, that the Apostles could preach and teach.  The information that Jesus had given them, was suddenly transformed by the power of grace, into understanding!

I think the fact that Jesus had primed them with information in advance, meant that the sudden flowering of the Church under the influence of the Holy Spirit was more effective.  Not because the Spirit alone wouldn't have been powerful enough to do it all in one instant, but because this way, the Apostles were able to co-operate, in the fullest human sense.  Certainly the Spirit gave them the words to preach, but their conviction and sincerity of witness were built upon a foundation of their own experience and knowledge of Jesus.

Perhaps there's a parallel here with ourselves too.  It's as though Paul represents, in an extreme way, the convert who discovers Jesus in adult life.  The Apostles on the other hand represent the cradle Christian, brought up to know the faith, but still needing to grow in understanding and love of God.

Looking more closely, we might notice another difference between the two examples here.  On the day of Pentecost, God gave the Holy Spirit to the disciples in the upper room, directly from Himself, to them.  But Paul gets the Holy Spirit not directly from Jesus in the vision on the road, nor in some other independent way 'from above', but rather via the hands of Ananias, a disciple who'd already received this blessing.  God does this to make a point I think.

To understand that point let's consider what Paul gets out of the arrangement.  First of all, he gets grace (supernatural help) via the Holy Spirit.  Secondly, he gets the opportunity to spend time with other disciples, sharing one another's experience of Jesus.  Whether Paul takes up this opportunity, to talk and to learn, is up to him of course.  We don't really know what he did for sure.  But being put in touch with existing Christians, he gets the opportunity to understand Jesus' teaching in the way that the Apostles had come to understand it.  Did he make the most of the opportunity?  I wonder...

Jesus had appeared dramatically to Paul, not to sort Paul out there and then, but to redirect him to His Church.  It seems it was God's plan that Paul would acquire what he needed, both spiritual and intellectual, in the context of the Church.  It's true that Jesus taught Paul personally and directly, through visions or the like.  But most of this teaching only occurred after Paul became part of the Church: that body of believers that Jesus had set up.  Paul was clearly part of the Church, even though he had a special role there, often out on a limb, but always connected with the trunk (which was in Jerusalem at the time).

So God's point here, is surely that He wants to give us not only grace, but through the preaching and teaching of his witnesses, knowledge of His ways as well.  Knowledge how to walk in his ways - how to live as a Christian.  God wants to pass us both these elements, knowledge and grace, through the disciples - through the Church He established.  Jesus sees value, not only in having us all together in one convenient place.  That much would suit any shepherd of sheep, making it easier to feed and protect.  No, Jesus wants to involve us in each other's faith relationships with Him.

If like me, you're quite a private person, then tough.  Faith-living is to some extent a communal matter.  Actually, it's not that bad, you can still do the community bit in your own reserved style, but Jesus set up a Church-community and we should all be in it.

Church community

Of course, this is my own conclusion.  Naturally, you're free to disagree.  But if you think I might be onto something here, which one of the many church communities is right? Is it mine, yours or is there some broader answer?  Well let's take stock.  Certainly we know that Jesus set up a body of disciples who preached the gospel, but what happened next, and where can you find Christians that are true to the origins today?

I am lucky to have a number of friends who are convinced Christians from a number of denominations.  They all clearly love God, and without doubt, receive grace.  One of these is a Methodist, I don't mean to single her out here, but on a number of occasions, she's said something that I find useful here.  She has said that personally she's relaxed about there being so many Christian denominations today.  I don't know whether that's typical of most Methodists, but I think it is common enough among a wide range of Christians.

My friend considers that there is strength in diversity, she says that all Christians worship Jesus in their own way.  So having lots of denominations isn't a problem.  I agree that diversity provides a rich range of worship and approaches to evangelisation that can enrich us all.  But you only have to look at the secular media, who often point to there being divisions between denominations about various ethical and even faith based principles, to see some problems.  I believe the secular world today, has a dire need to hear an authentic version of what Jesus teaches, about how to live life well.  Actually, we Christians need to hear it too.  But how are they /we to discern it if Christians in general propose various contradictory notions of right and wrong.  Nobody knows where the truth lies.  Yet God is truth, and He is near.  My conclusion is that division matters a lot, and it weakens the work that Jesus is doing in the World today.  No Christian reflecting on this should be satisfied with the status quo.

So if you agree, that division matters, and find that the differences are not easily reconciled, but aren't sure where the truth lies, what can you do to find it?  Well, there are a number of approaches that you could take, ranging from assessing each denomination in detail (time consuming), to simply sticking with the one that originally earned your trust by introducing you personally to Jesus (assuming it all makes sense to you).  While it's possible to follow any such method with sincerity, the Christian way is to consult Jesus, both in prayer, and by taking a broad look at what others have found, starting with the Bible.

Lots of groups have tried to go back to basics, and rediscover the original Church that Jesus built.  And they've often come out somewhat differently from one another.  So we need to apply a little logic too.  Let's start with what Jesus actually taught on the subject of unity itself (you'll have to do the prayer part yourself).  I've identified two key texts that might help.  Both of these refer to the arrangements that Jesus made for what was to happen after His death:

The first is John 16:13, concerning the arrangements for the Holy Spirit, to come and be our counsellor:

John 16:13 "But when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will teach you all truth."

If the spirit is teaching 'all truth', and has been for over 2,000 years, who's been listening?  Jesus knew human nature, and the propensity for his followers to argue amongst one another.  Did He send us the Holy Spirit just so that we'd ignore what the Spirit taught?  Did God fail to deliver the clear truth.  Did God fail to deliver the unity, for which (as we'll see in a moment) Jesus prayed?  If the Apostles at Pentecost lived out that unity, did the Spirit that gave them it, rest on His laurels and let subsequent followers lose it?

I for one believe that God didn't fail.  That there is not only truth, but a unity of Christians in that truth, and one that is open to all.  There is consistency between denominations whenever they genuinely listen to the Spirit's authentic teaching.  But our problem is that where denominations differ, you can't easily tell who's listening correctly and who's mixing in their own ideas (however sincerely).  So to my mind, a useful reference point is a denomination's attitude to unity itself.  At one level, that means are they reaching across to others.  But at another level, I'd say that any denomination that has a habit of splitting to start new sub-denominations each time there is a difference of opinion, is either not pursuing unity, or failing to deliver it.  Each time a new sub-denomination starts up, hoping that this time it has got the formulas right, it builds on a foundation of failing to pursue unity itself.  If you trust God has delivered, then you can't succeed in joining in the unity that God provided by starting your own denomination!

The second set of texts I'd point to is also in John's Gospel.  It's fairly pivotal I think, but it'll take a little more telling than the first extract above, so I'm going to give it it's own section here.  You might want to get another cup of tea before you read on..

One-ness with God

The key part is in John chapter 17, and things are going to warm up a little.  Bear with me while I lead you into the text.  Not only is this about unity, but in part it also explains how it is that we can be saved by faith!  There's real drama too, Jesus is praying - just before His arrest and crucifixion.  This is God's own prayer, Jesus is talking to the Father about it being time for Him (Jesus) to die.  Like anyone facing death, He wants to make sure He's made arrangements for His nearest and dearest.  He prays referring to himself as "the Son"..

17:02 "..you (the Father) gave him (the Son) authority over all humanity, to give eternal life to all those who you have given to him."

17:08 "..they have faith that you sent me."

The reference to 'those who you have given to him', is to the Apostles.  The full text shows that their faith qualifies them, precisely through Jesus' prayer here, for eternal life!  But the fact they have faith, is not yet enough.  Jesus knows their faith will fail when He dies on the cross.  So Jesus has to arrange for their faith to be supported and sustained through trials that are yet to come, so that they will succeed in coming to remain at one with God.

17:09 "My prayer is for them: my prayer is not for the world, but for those whom you have given to me, because they are yours"

Not for the world?  Is someone being excluded here?  That's fine for the small band of Apostles, but what about us, you and me?!

17:11 "And now I will be no longer in the world, but they are in the world and I come to you.  Holy Father, keep them in your name which you have given to me, so that they may be one even as we are one."

(my emphasis)

"Keep them" is a reference to sustaining their faith.  Jesus paved the way for the Apostles to be one with God forever.  But what about everyone else?  Are we part of the 'world' that seemed to be excluded above?  When I first read this I grew concerned that I was being left out of the picture.  But I needn't have worried as it all comes right at Jn17:20:

17:20 "My prayer is not for them only, but for all who will have faith in me through their word"

(my emphasis)

At risk of your thinking me a longstanding religious nutter, let me add that when I first read this (as a much younger man), I'd been praying quite sincerely for a minor miracle.  In my prayer, I had a particularly strong sense that God was hearing me.  Yet at the same time, I'd got so drawn into the immediacy of Jesus' words above that I was getting rather anxious to see where I might fit into its future promise.  A promise which I understood mattered more than what I was praying for to start with.

I can only tell you that when I read John 17:20 I rejoiced.  So much so, that the memory of this has stayed with me for over 28 years now.  And not just because the minor miracle I was after, was granted for me only moments later.  That could, after all, have been just a huge coincidence.  Yet the experience of reading these words had left a strong conviction that God loved me.  The verse means that anyone the Apostles pass their faith to, can receive that same gift of God forever.

Now it's easy to miss a vital detail here.  So let me point out once again that Jesus' prayer was in the first place only for the Apostles.  Jesus clearly excluded the 'rest of the world'.  If Jesus had simply meant to include you and me then He would hardly have excluded 'the rest of the world'.  So against this foundation, it might seem strange that Jesus then expanded his prayer to include everyone else after all.  Strange that is, until you notice the criteria on which Jesus expanded the scope.  The critical link that gets you and me into the prayer, is whether we get faith, through the Apostles' words.  In other words, Jesus has pitched our salvation, yours and mine, on our getting it from the Apostles!

That should probably leave you wondering why?  The text doesn't say, but it's Jesus' own prayer so we have to take note.  And anyway, we have a more pressing matter:  even assuming our faith comes from the Apostles, will I, will you sustain your faith to qualify through to the end?  I said Jesus had made arrangements for the Apostles, here's the detail on that:

Luke 22:31 “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has got his wish to sift all of you like wheat"

32 "but I have prayed for you (Simon) that your own faith may not fail.  When you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers.”

Jesus knew that the Apostles would lose their direction and faith in Him as their saviour when He died, so He arranged for one of them to recover his faith first: Simon-Peter.  And in his turn, Peter was to guide the other Apostles back to faith.  That way the Apostles would be there on the day of Pentecost, ready to spread both word and grace.  By the same pattern, some time later Paul was able to get the gift of grace through the disciples.  And so both word and grace continue expanding to this day, even on to ourselves.  God is amazing.  He 'pitched' our faith-salvation, for which He - Jesus, gave His life, on the reliability of one unreliable fisherman!  Just as the Father, 'pitched' the plan to give us Jesus, on the simple say-so, of one young woman - Mary!

When it comes to eternal life, we say 'Jesus is the vine', and we are the branches.  But for the purpose of rallying His followers in common faith and directing them back towards the truth, in the absence of Jesus being here on earth in a fully revealed form, stood Peter.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter formed the trunk from which the branches of the Church reached out, orienting us to God.  In this way, we the branches may be primed to receive the graces that flow from God, through His Church, where we can be nourished through the actions of the Apostles of our day with no less than the bread of life.

John 21:17 He said to him the third time: Simon, son of John.. ..Feed my sheep.

Remember that we were talking about denominations?  And how the divisions affect questions of how to live a Christian life?  Well Satan's wish to sift Jesus' followers, applies not only to the 12, but to all, you and me included.

Just as the Apostles needed Peter's encouragement and guidance once Jesus had died, so later followers needed a tree-trunk or rock like Peter, once Peter had died.  Remember that it was Jesus' idea to provide a rock for the others, and not their own.  For this reason, Peter's special role will have passed on, following Peter's death, to another Peter (or rock) of that day.  This preserves the special role given to Peter, to guide the Church away from failings of faith.  In the Apostles' day, it was the failure of faith itself, in our day it is against the distortion of Jesus and his ways that the rock provides so sure a reference point.

And so it will continue: the Holy Spirit does guide us in all truth, but not every individual gets the full download.  Only collectively can we do that, and only on the rock of the Chruch can we find a guarantee of interpretation.  The Church helps each one of the faithful, by the grace of God, recover from our sins and find the true faith that Jesus offers, whatever the circumstances and challenges of that day.  But the 'pitching' by God, on so frail a people as Mary, or Peter, or any successor of Peter, is no gamble, for in all this we can surely detect the steady hand of the Father.

Conclusion

Knowing that people can and do get anxious over the question of 'who will be saved', I suppose I should add, that I'm not saying that the non-Catholic Christian or even a non-Christian can't get to heaven somehow.  Just that the further you get away from the Catholic Church, identifying the way that salvation is to come via Jesus, through His Church, gets harder.  The extracts above are just part of the big picture of Christian life and the way in which Jesus makes salvation possible.  But clearly Jesus intended for the Apostles to be part of the teaching method.  Think of them as highly recommended!  The danger I think outside the Catholic Church, is that the journey gets harder too.

Now God is great and God is good, and people sometimes point out that the Holy Spirit will bless whoever He chooses, even those outside the Christian faith where through no fault of their own they never knew about Jesus as their Saviour, but co-operate with the graces that come their way.  But as you can see from Jesus' passion: He paid a price for our lack of faithfulness.  I'd encourage everyone who reads these pages to 'do it by the book'.  Now you may not agree with me, but as a convinced Catholic what would you expect me to say?

 

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