Recently it came to my attention that one of the local ministers here in Portland was being honored for revitalizing the faith life of his people and making a difference as a church leader. It’s always good news when a colleague is honored, especially when we are neighbors. But I was disappointed, to say the least, when I learned that this man of God was singled out for recognition because, as was stated, he was reinventing Christianity in post-religious Portland. My friends, that was a troublesome mouthful.
We don’t reinvent Christianity. This faith and church of ours, ever old and ever new, is a treasure that has been handed on to us by previous generations, with a history tracing its way back all the way to a small country in the Middle East some 2,000 years ago and an itinerant preacher named Jesus. He touched hearts, forgave sinners, healed the hurting and paid the ultimate price for his good, but not always well-received, intentions by dying on a cross. But his story did not end on the day of his death. We know that he rose again three days later and commissioned his disciples to carry on his work of building the kingdom of God on earth. Certainly the strategies for building that kingdom will vary from age to age and place to place, but this is not a reinvention of Christianity. It is the proclamation of the good news and a call to conversion, carried out in the times and circumstances of the people. What’s right is still right. What’s true is still true. What’s good is still good. There has been no reinvention of the virtuous life to which we are all called.
Even the expression “post-religious Portland” was off base in my judgment. In so many ways we live in pre-religious Portland. Those of you who are familiar with the history of the great Northwest know very well that the evangelizing mission of Christ carried out by his disciples has only begun here. It is far from completed and far from ever having made the Northwest truly religious, let alone “post-religious.” Many of our fellow citizens keep a distance from the church and even from God, through no fault of their own. They simply never have had a significant encounter with the truths and values of Christianity. It’s hard to reject what one doesn’t really know or understand. Some folks reject what they observe about the behavior of some Christians. That, of course, is a matter of shame for the church. But we are a group of sinners and saints, graced but wounded, all in need of the healing and compassionate touch of Jesus which is most effectively delivered through his church. This was his plan, not ours.
Sometimes in prayer I marvel at the fact that I have been blessed with the gift of faith, a strong and meaningful relationship with my loving God. Why me? Why not others? I don’t know. But I have come to appreciate the fact that faith is truly a gift freely bestowed by God. It is not something I have earned or something that necessarily makes me better than anybody else. Doctors don’t become doctors to heal themselves. Teachers don’t become teachers to teach themselves. Nor do Christians become Christians to save themselves. We are called to church membership and Christian faith to assist Jesus in his evangelizing mission of proclaiming the good news and calling people to conversion. You and I, amazingly, have been blessed with the gift of faith so that we might help the Lord save all his people.
The final commission of Jesus to his disciples was that they should go forth and baptize all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. That’s why the work of evangelization is the lynchpin of everything that we are as Catholic Christians. Yes, faith is something that moves hearts and lifts spirits. But it is not merely a matter of good feelings. Faith is reasonable and points to plausible testimony from credible witnesses and intelligent reasons for all that we believe and all that we hold true and dear. The challenge of faith, of course, is that it involves, in the end, a surrender to the Lord, His way, His will, His mission.
When you stop to think about it, everything that we do as a Catholic Church really flows from the gift of the faith we all share. All the ministries and services that we are called upon to deliver have been established by our predecessors because of their faith and their desire to share that faith with others. I myself remember some of those personal figures of faith who deeply influenced my life and drew me closer to the Lord and to ordained ministry in the Catholic Church. I think of parents, pastors, teachers, neighbors and friends. Now I think of many of you who clearly are holier, more prayerful, more generous and more compassionate than I and many others called to servant ministry. These are the people through whom this gift of faith impacts the lives of many and brings about the evangelization of the godless culture which is widespread in today’s world.
After the events of that first Christmas, Scripture tells us that Mary pondered many things in her heart. We too need to ponder the experiences of our lives as believing Catholic Christians and to see the ways in which the Holy Spirit has moved us along the path to glory, even though at times we have been reluctant, stubborn or simply sinful. Being people of faith does not guarantee us that we will always walk in the light. As the Lord himself was led to that dark night of his passion and death, so too faith pulls you and me at times into a personal dark night of the soul. That dark night becomes very real when it results from sinfulness, our own or that of others.
We now live in very secular times, a world estranged seemingly from the God who made us, loves us and desperately wants to save us. It is in precisely such dark moments that some may feel there is a need to reinvent Christianity or that the era of religious belief may well have passed. Those are the times when catchy slogans and clever oxymorons beguile many and lead them astray in their pursuit of the better life, one they believe can only be achieved in the here and now because there is no tomorrow on the horizon.
The old Irish saying that “sooner or later the world will break your heart” is true. We all know it. We all have experienced it. But because we are people of faith we still yearn for better times. We know the Lord walks with us. Hence we continue unafraid, in spite of all the darkness and difficulties and putdowns. Jesus is alive. He is with his church. We people of faith continue to show up, not seeking to redefine Christianity and not fooling ourselves that all of God’s work has been accomplished. We show up, not for ourselves, but for others. Our presence and our witness, even in the darkest times, are precious signs of hope for others.
Why us? Why not somebody else? Only God knows. For his own mysterious reasons, God chose us to be his disciples and friends, not so much for our own well-being, but for the well-being of all whose lives we are privileged to touch.