“A World Without the Cross Would be a World Without Hope”

The Cross Speaks of Hope

And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.

John 3:14-15 NLT

I have to admit it, I have become real fan of Pope Benedict XVI. (No, I am not converting to Roman Catholicism. Far from it.) His homilies are grounded in Biblical theology, his preaching is crucicentric, and his writing is provocative and insightful. Of course, we disagree as a Roman Catholic and an Evangelical would, nonetheless I am powerfully touched by the Holy Spirit’s ministry in and through him. This weekend, Pope Benedict preached in Cyprus, a small country with a small Roman Catholic population torn apart through ethnic strife. However, Benedict reached out to the “remnant” by preaching true hope. Only the Cross of Christ can change the situation in Cyprus–only Christ brings all the nations to their knees in humility and worship (Rev. 5:9-10).

The Cross is not just a private symbol of devotion, it is not just a badge of membership of a certain group within society, and in its deepest meaning it has nothing to do with the imposition of a creed or a philosophy by force. It speaks of hope, it speaks of love, it speaks of the victory of non-violence over oppression, it speaks of God raising up the lowly, empowering the weak, conquering division, and overcoming hatred with love. A world without the Cross would be a world without hope, a world in which torture and brutality would go unchecked, the weak would be exploited and greed would have the final word. Man’s inhumanity to man would be manifested in ever more horrific ways, and there would be no end to the vicious cycle of violence. Only the Cross puts an end to it.

While no earthly power can save us from the consequences of our sins, and no earthly power can defeat injustice at its source, nevertheless the saving intervention of our loving God has transformed the reality of sin and death into its opposite. That is what we celebrate when we glory in the Cross of our Redeemer. Rightly does Saint Andrew of Crete describe the Cross as “more noble, more precious than anything on earth […] for in it and through it and for it all the riches of our salvation were stored away and restored to us” (Oratio X; PG 97, 1018-1019).

Pope Benedict XVI, “Homily of Pontiff at Mass With Priests and Religious of Cyprus,” June 5, 2010.

Priests/Pastors After God’s Heart

As Jesus Was Dependent on the Father, the Priest is Dependent on the Son

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.

John 5:19

Pastoral ministry is the overflow of the Life of God in us. We spend time with Christ, Christ reveals himself afresh to us, that illumination is brings insight, conviction, and transformation. The overflow of the Spirit’s illumination into Christ is Life and that Life encourages others to trust God and forsake sin (2 Cor. 4:7-12).

Life is walking with God in unending communion, enjoying his unlimited blessing, unconditional love,  and undeserved grace (John 10:10). Life is eternal, it is living in the realm where God lives. Life is salvation of the whole being including new birth, conversion, and sanctification. Ministry is can be lay or clerical if that ministry is grounded in Christ as its source of Life.

For the priest/pastor, ministry is not a profession, but the dynamic service of Life to others. A priest spends time with Christ, he receives from him the blessings, gifts, and anointing of the Holy Spirit (John 3:34). The priest then relies on the Holy Spirit in communicating and releasing the ministry of the Holy Spirit to the congregation. The priest is completely dependent on Jesus to bless him with the Holy Spirit for the encouragement of others. In the same manner that Jesus was dependent on the Father, the Priest is dependent on the Son (John 5:19, 15:4-5). Our pastoral ministry is effective in as much as it is dependent on Jesus.

In order to be pastors after God’s heart, we need to be profoundly rooted in a living friendship with Christ (not only of our minds, but also of our freedom and will), clearly aware of the identity we received at priestly ordination, and unconditionally ready to lead our flock where the Lord wills, not in the direction which seems most convenient and easy.

This requires, first and foremost, a continuous and progressive willingness to allow Christ Himself to govern the priestly lives of clergy. No-one, in fact, is truly capable of feeding the flock if they do not live in profound and authentic obedience to Christ and the Church; and the docility of the people towards their priests depends on the docility of priests towards Christ.

Pope Benedict XVI, “The Priest’s Mission as Guide” May 26, 2010.

Advent and the Presence of God

Pope Benedict XVI and the Cross
Pope Benedict XVI and the Cross

Advent Is an Invitation Into the Presence of God

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy,

Jude 24

In this sermon, Pope Benedict XVI encourages the faithful during the season of Advent. He defines Advent as a visit from Christ: he came to Bethlehem, he will come in glory, and he is present in our hearts now. During Advent, God invites us into his personal presence: his presence transforms our vision of the world in which we live. Advent waiting is transformative, the season reminds us that this fallen world is not our home. “The joy of waiting makes the present richer.” Advent hope is not a false hope for we know by God’s faithful promise that Messiah will return again.

In the Vatican Basilica this evening, Benedict XVI presided at first Vespers for the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new liturgical year for the Church.

In his homily the Pope reflected upon the meaning of the word Advent which “Christians used”, he said, “to express their relationship with Jesus. … The meaning of the expression advent also includes that of ‘vistatio’, … a visit, which in this case means a visit from God: He enters my life and wishes to address Himself to me”.

“In daily life we all know the experience of having little time for the Lord, and little time for ourselves. We end up becoming absorbed by ‘doing’. Is it not often true that it is activity itself that possesses us, society with its multiple distractions that monopolises our attention? Is it not true that we dedicate a lot of time to entertainment and leisure activities of various kinds?”

“Advent, this potent liturgical period we are entering, invites us to remain silent as we come to appreciate a presence. It is an invitation to understand that the individual events of the day are signs God addresses to us, signs of the care He has for each of us. How often does God make us aware of some aspect of His love! To maintain what we might call an ‘inner diary’ of this love would be a beautiful and rewarding task in our lives. Advent invites us and encourages us to contemplate the living Lord. Should not the certainty of His presence help us to see the world with different eyes?”

The Holy Father went on: “Another fundamental aspect of Advent is that of waiting: a wait that is, at the same time, a hope. … Hope marks the journey of humankind, but for Christians it is enlivened by a certainty: the Lord is present in the events of our lives, He accompanies us and will one day dry our tears. One not-far-distant day everything will reach fulfilment in the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of justice and peace.

“Yet”, he added, “there are many different ways to wait. If the present time is not filled with meaning, the wait risks becoming unbearable. If we await something, but at this moment have nothing – in other words, if the present is empty – then every passing instant seems exaggeratedly long and the wait becomes an over-heavy burden because the future remains too uncertain. When, on the other hand, time has meaning and at every instant we perceive something specific and valid, then the joy of waiting makes the present richer”.

The Holy Father encouraged the faithful “intensely to live the present, where we already obtain the gifts of the Lord. Let us live projected towards the future, a future charged with hope”. The Messiah, “coming among us, brought us and continues to bring us the gift of His love and His salvation. He is present among us and speaks to us in many ways: in Sacred Scripture, in the liturgical year, in the saints, in the events of daily life, in all creation, which changes its appearance depending upon whether [we see Him] behind it or whether [we see it] shrouded in the fog of an uncertain origin and uncertain future”.

“We in our turn”, Pope Benedict concluded, “can address Him, present Him the sufferings that afflict us, the impatience and the questions that arise in our hearts. We are certain that He always listens to us! And if Jesus is present, then there can be no meaningless or empty time. If He is present we can continue to hope, even when others can no longer offer us their support, even when the present becomes burdensome”.

Pope Benedict XVI, “ADVENT INVITES US TO PERCEIVE THE PRESENCE OF GOD” (Vatican City: November, 28, 2009).

The Message of the Cemetery

Death and Eternal Life

Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.

John 5:28-29 (NKJV)

The resurrection of the dead is the final work of God in applying Christ’s work on the Cross to our lives and to creation (1 Cor. 15:50-57). When Christ returns, he will raise from the dead the bodies of all believers who have died since the beginning of time (1 Thes. 4:15-18). Jesus will reunite these bodies with their souls (spirits) which have been residing in heaven (Phil. 1:21, Dan. 12:2-3). Also, He will change the bodies of all those believers who are alive, giving them glorified bodies. Therefore, all believers from all time will have perfect resurrection bodies just like their Savior. [Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 828].

So the message of the cemetery is manifold. It reminds us of death and of eternal life. But it speaks to us, also, precisely of our present, everyday life. It encourages us to think of what passes and what abides. It invites us not to lose sight of standards and the goal. It is not what we have that counts but rather what we are for God and for man. The cemetery invites us to live in such a way that we do not leave the communion of saints. It invites us to seek and to be in life what we can live in death and in eternity.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “All Saints Day: At the Feet of Saint Peter’s Basilica”, Images of Hope: Meditations on Major Feasts (Ignatius Press, 2006).

HT: Ignatius Insight

What is Faith?

Faith

For we walk by faith, not by sight.

2 Cor. 5:7 (ESV)

Faith is a response of the heart which receives what God the Father has already done for us in Christ. Faith is relying on God’s character, standing on God’s promises, believing God’s Cross, and obeying God’s Spirit with a certainty that surpasses physical sight and human reasoning.

Faith is above all a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, and to experience his closeness, his friendship, his love; only in this way does one learn to know him ever more, and to love and follow him ever more. May this happen to each one of us.

Pope Benedict XVI, “St. Bernard of Clairvaux,” October 21, 2009

Resurrection: An Event of Love

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An Event of Love

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is by his great mercy that we have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

1 Peter 1:3 (NLT)

The astonishing event of the resurrection of Jesus is essentially an event of love: the Father’s love in handing over his Son for the salvation of the world; the Son’s love in abandoning himself to the Father’s will for us all; the Spirit’s love in raising Jesus from the dead in his transfigured body. And there is more: the Father’s love which ‘newly embraces’ the Son, enfolding him in glory; the Son’s love returning to the Father in the power of the Spirit, robed in our transfigured humanity.

Pope Benedict XVI, “Christ Cures Humanity’s Festering Wounds,” Easter Address, March 23, 2008, Zenit: The World as Seen Through Rome website, available from; http://www.zenit.org/article-22147?l=english.

Did the Pope Really Say What I Think He Said?

Sola Fide

On Wednesday, November 19, 2008, during Pope Benedict’s general audience in St. Peter’s Square, the Pope made the most remarkable statement:

That is why Luther’s expression, sola fide, is true if faith is not opposed to charity, to love. Faith is to look at Christ, to entrust oneself to Christ, to be united to Christ, to be conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence, to believe is to be conformed to Christ and to enter into his love. That is why, in the Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul develops above all his doctrine on justification; he speaks of faith that operates through charity (cf. Galatians 5:14).

Read whole document.

In the Roman Catholic Church, this is the Year of the Apostle Paul. Pope Benedict XVI during this weekly audience is teaching the faithful about Paul’s life, mission, and theology. This particular Wednesday audience focused on the Apostle Paul’s understanding of justification. Simply, justification is the biblical teaching on how we are made right with God.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him, we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Rom 5:1-2 ESV).

In a most extraordinary declaration, Pope Benedict XVI not only expounded the Apostle Paul’s understanding of justification, but also, he agreed with Martin Luther’s interpretation of that doctrine.

Martin Luther’s views have long been a point of conflict between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Luther’s focus on sola fide, faith alone (as opposed to faith and works) as the instrument by which we are granted right standing with God has long been a source of contention between these two great bodies of believers.

Baptist theologian, Wayne Grudem explains:

A right understanding of justification is absolutely crucial to the whole Christian faith. Once Martin Luther realized the truth of justification by faith alone, he became a Christian and overflowed with the new-found joy of the gospel. The primary issue in the Protestant Reformation was a dispute with the Roman Catholic Church over justification. If we are to safeguard the truth of the gospel for future generations, we must understand the truth of justification. Even today, a true view of justification is the dividing line between the biblical gospel of salvation by faith alone and all false gospels of salvation based on good works.

[Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1994), 722.]

Justification by faith alone is the seminal Protestant doctrine: Luther stated that it is by this great doctrine that the Reformation stands or falls. Justification is God’s acceptance of me, a believer to be in right standing with him by the righteousness of Jesus Christ being credited to me a sinner. Christ’s righteousness is accounted to me by faith when I trust in the finished work on the Cross. To be credited as righteous is to be conferred the legal standing of Christ’s sinlessness. This theological truth is called imputation. This imputation is twofold: we receive Christ’s holiness and forgiveness and Christ takes upon himself our guilt and judgment. The imputed righteousness of Christ is a gift; it cannot be earned. Christ’s righteousness can only be received from a grateful heart by faith alone.

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Gal 2:15-16 ESV).

I recognize that Roman Catholic and Lutheran theologians officially signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification on Sunday, October 31, 1999, which agreed between the two great churches to a common understanding of justification. The official signing ceremony was held in Augsburg, the date that Protestantism annually observes as Reformation Day. However, I was never impressed by this document: several important theological problems were not addressed and many of the key terms used in the document could be defined differently as each signing party desired. Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. brilliantly analyzes these concerns in his essay, “Two Languages of Salvation” which was published in First Things journal shortly after the signing. My observation is that two parties agreed to the document, but they meant two different things when writing the same words. “The Joint Declaration, helpful though it is, has not overcome all difficulties. More theological work is needed” (Avery Cardinal Dulles).

This is why last Wednesday was theologically important-Pope Benedict XVI stated clearly that he agreed with Martin Luther’s understanding of justification by faith alone and he said so without ambiguity. Yes, here is a small caveat about faith alone not opposing charity. However, Martin Luther’s favorite verse was, “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Last Wednesday was a theologically significant day for me and for all believers who desire to observe once again the visible unity of Christ’s Church (John 17: 20-21).

Yes, the Pope really did say what I think he said.


“The Risen One Is Always the One Who Has Been Crucified”

Pope Benedict XVI on St. Paul and the Cross

A selection from Pope Benedict XVI’s teaching catecheses delivered yesterday, October 29, 2008, in St. Peter’s Square.

The Holy Father continued today the cycle of catecheses dedicated to the figure and thought of St. Paul:

In the personal experience of St. Paul, there is an indisputable fact: While at the beginning he had been a persecutor of the Christians and had used violence against them, from the moment of his conversion on the road to Damascus, he changed to the side of Christ crucified, making him the reason for his life and the motive for his preaching.

His was an existence entirely consumed by souls (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:15), not in the least serene and protected from snares and difficulties. In the encounter with Jesus, he had understood the central significance of the cross: He had understood that Jesus had died and risen for all and also for [Paul], himself. Both elements were important — the universality: Jesus had truly died for everyone; and the subjectivity: He had died also for me.

On the cross, therefore, the gratuitous and merciful love of God had been manifested. Paul experienced this love above all in himself (cf. Galatians 2:20) and from being a sinner, he converted to being a believer, from persecutor to apostle. Day after day, in his new life, he experiences that salvation is “grace,” that everything descended from the love of Christ and not from his merits, which in any case, didn’t exist. The “gospel of grace” thus became the only way to understand the cross, the criteria not only for his new existence, but also the answer for those who questioned him. Among these were, above all, the Jews who placed their hope in works and hoped to gain salvation from these; the Greeks as well, who opposed their human wisdom to the cross; finally, there were certain heretical groups, who had formed their own idea of Christianity according to their own model of life.

Read the entire message here.