So Our Church is the Greatest. Now What?

The Roman Catholic Church unapologetically makes the claim to be the One True Church that Jesus Christ founded with all the other Christian churches in some way being incomplete or in error.

Before I go any further I want to make it clear that this post is not intended to offend my Protestant brothers and sisters. It's just me thinking out loud about how a Catholic teaching I live under affects me. The challenge component is directed at Catholics, especially me, though I welcome all Christians to take it to heart if you so desire.

This is a post I've been thinking about for months. Then this morning I spent an hour in a courtroom attending the bail reduction hearing of a good friend who got involved in the Occupy movement and then got arrested for allegedly deliberately setting a major fire a block away. After I got home the first post I saw on Facebook was mocking the people involved in the Occupy movement. The post author and at least one of the commenters were Catholic, and I felt truly angry. Why are they mocking those who they should be fervently praying for?

There is a growing group of Catholics who passionately desire to share the treasure store of riches that is the Catholic faith with the rest of the world, including those Christians who are not Catholic. In general I think that is a positive development. We are called by Jesus to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth and at the very least we should be openly sharing our faith with the people we interact with in our normal lives. What I am disturbed by is the snarky way I see people often going about it, especially online. Case in point: a Facebook page I recently started following (it does have some decent information on it) is called Give back the Sacred Scriptures to the Holy Catholic Church, Its Our Book. Um, a title like that just screams “I'm holier than thou!”

And maybe it comes with being the greatest, which is essentially what the claim to be the One True Church established by Jesus Christ amounts to. We claim to be the greatest Church. Of all the Catholic teachings that is the one I have struggled with the most. I do submit to it, however, and now I ask myself what does this mean for my own life? I have heard much said about what the True Church believes. Now I feel compelled to delve into how the True Church (and I as a member) ought to behave.

It turns out there is much in Sacred Scripture to guide those who in any way would set themselves above others and I have taken great comfort while at the same time being challenged to my core in what I have read.

Judgment begins with the house of God

The first part of 1 Peter 4:17 says “For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God.” What is the Church but God's household? The greater our claim to being the household of God, the more quickly God's judgment will fall on us. It is very easy to lament the state of our world and the state of our nation and desire for God's justice to come and set things right. Jesus calls us blessed for hungering and thirsting for righteousness and some Bible translations use the word “justice” in place of “righteousness.” But we tend to think of God's judgment as falling on those people out there who are really evil. God's judgment will fall on everyone, but first it will fall on His people. This gives me pause. In my own hunger for righteousness am I willing to present myself before a just God and accept that He will judge me first?

God's people are held to a higher standard of righteousness I remember learning about the Spanish Inquisition in Catechism class and I kid you not, one of the arguments that was made to me in defense of the Catholic Church's role in it was to say that in comparison to all the other Inquisitions going on, the one chaired by the Church was the least harsh. People who had the misfortune of appearing before any Inquisitors hoped and prayed it would be the Catholic ones. Ever since then I have called this the “My Inquisition is better than your Inquisition” argument and it's amazing how often it comes up.

As God's Church we are not called to settle for being a bit better than the world. We are called to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect, to be holy as Jesus is holy. Jesus demands nothing less of us than complete righteousness. He tells us to let our light shine before men so that they may see our good deeds and glorify our Father in Heaven. Slightly better than the unrighteous does not cut it. Rather than defending our historical and personal failings, let us place ourselves at the mercy of Jesus who gave us everything so that we could not just be declared righteous but actually be made righteous.

The greatest is called to be the servant of all

Jesus' disciples had this uncanny ability to completely blow off some profound statement Jesus had just made by starting an argument over which one of them was the greatest. In one of those cases, Jesus had this to say: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” Luke 22:25-27.

I have my work cut out for me. I have not made any personal claims to being the greatest, but my Church has. Therefore my responsibility is to count others as more important than I am and roll up my sleeves and serve them. This includes those who do not know Jesus at all; this also includes my non Catholic Christian brothers and sisters. And for this calling, I have no greater role model than Jesus Himself…

…who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross.

Jesus literally poured out His life in service to mankind, and in the end it cost Him everything, even His very life. And He calls us His people to do the same. He even calls us to suffer in the process. 1 Peter 2:21 says “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in His steps.” I find no room for either pride or feelings of superiority in a calling like this one.

We are called to love sinners

This pretty much means everyone, but it especially includes those who do not yet know or serve Christ. Yes, that includes all the people who are out there trying to undermine our Christian way of life, those wanting to legalize all sorts of things the Bible tells us are wrong, those who seriously annoy us. We don't wait for them to convert to begin loving them. Romans 5:8 says “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” We love them now.

My husband's Evangelical pastor put it best in a sermon he preached a few months ago when he said those who are lost need our prayers, not petulance. There is absolutely no place or excuse for Catholics to mock, belittle, shame or ridicule any sinner no matter how unrighteous they might be, no matter how much they might annoy us. The correct response is to pray for them. Why? Because Jesus loved sinners enough to die the worst kind of death imaginable for them. To mock or in any way abuse a sinner is to mock Jesus Himself. No one who claims to be part of Jesus' True Church should ever do that. Ever. Ever!

Living as we ought to live

I am becoming more and more convinced that the reason the Reformation, which Catholics for the most part view as a tragedy, took place was because many Catholics in the day were seen not living as the True Church of Christ ought to live. It's relatively easy to go around claiming to be the greatest Church, and to argue the various points of doctrine that indicate this. What's not so easy is to live out our calling to be the greatest ambassadors for Christ. In fact, that is a calling that shakes me and challenges me to my core.

I'll be honest. I continue to struggle with this teaching of my Church. It's not something I readily go around declaring. But I am finding I don't need to. I need to instead quietly live it. The greatest are called to righteousness, holiness, self sacrifice, service to the point of being a slave, emptying of ourselves including all claims to greatness, to a love for humanity that even welcomes suffering and death, to judgment. This claim to greatness is definitely not intended to be a tool for Catholics to lord it over other Christians or the world at large, nor should it be our primary evangelistic tool. Rather, it is a great calling to live as Christ has called us to live and to lead others to holiness primarily by example. And that example of our lives is challenging and costly. To paraphrase a line from Spiderman, with a great claim comes great responsibility.


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