Tuesday, November 27, 2012

CP198 Two unforgiveable sins?

CP 198 Two unforgiveable sins?

The Federal Government here in Australia has announced a Royal Commission into abuse crimes by people working with children. Calls for a Royal Commission became a clamour and rose to a crescendo. Terrible things happened to too many children who were in the care of representatives of religious and secular organisations. One of those organisations is the Roman Catholic Church. Its leader, Cardinal George Pell, has consequently been much in the news. He has become possibly the most vilified figure in Australian public life. Within and without the Church there is opposition, criticism and condemnation which veers toward mockery and loathing.

All abuse of children is horrible. Sexual abuse is ghastly, and the consequences for the victims are devastating and, invariably, lifelong. The next few years will no doubt reveal an ugly and hugely uncomfortable underbelly of Australian life. More than a few Roman Catholic clergy will rightly be called to account through this judicial investigation. The Church itself will be in the dock. As the head of the Roman Church in Australia, Cardinal Pell will therefore be under relentless and unwelcome scrutiny. He is under enormous pressure, and this will increase as the calls for ruthless accountability hammer home.

How all of this unfolds remains to be seen. One thing is certain. On behalf of the Church, the Cardinal will defend the sacredness of the ‘seal of the confessional’. It is Canon Law in the Roman Catholic Church that a priest may never, ever, reveal what was confessed to him. Cardinal Pell will be required to uphold this stance in the face of many calls for change, even by many Catholic political leaders.

What I have just written is background for an almost unnoticed slip of the tongue by Cardinal Pell. Surely it was a slip. It must have been a slip. At least I hope it was a slip. The Cardinal represents the teaching of the Church on repentance and forgiveness, and, under pressure, I believe he said something he should not have said. How so? Here is part of a SMH report (14/11/2012) on what the Cardinal apparently said during a press-conference:

“What of the protocol for priests who might confess abuse to another priest? Well, you know (the answer) to that as well as I – the seal of confession is inviolate. So if a priest confesses to a crime? The seal of confession is inviolate.
But Cardinal Pell would advise priests not to take the confession of a colleague if they had an inkling of abuse. I would never hear the confession of a priest who is suspected of such a thing.

It is that last sentence which floored me. “I would never hear the confession of a priest who is suspected of such a thing.” Catholic teaching ties forgiveness to the absolution by a priest. But if no priest is allowed to hear the confession of a brother priest who is guilty of child sexual abuse, (let alone be under suspicion), it means essentially that he is refused the forgiveness of God. The Cardinal’s statement appears to indicate that child sexual abuse is a sin unforgiveable by God. He has no right to indicate that, or even to imply it. Something is wrong when forgiveness is tied to the type of sin rather than to genuine heartfelt repentance.

Jesus spoke of only one unforgiveable sin. That was the sin of attributing to the devil the healing, cleansing and miracles Jesus did in the power of the Holy Spirit. Here is Matthew 12:24, 31-32:

“But when the Pharisees heard this they said, “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons… And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or the age to come.”

Apart from the sin against the Holy Spirit, any sin, no matter how awful or vile, (and there are many, quite apart from abhorrent sexual sins,) is able to be forgiven by the Lord God Almighty. If it were not so then the Calvary sacrifice on Good Friday is not a death ‘once for all’. For my part, I sincerely hope the Cardinal ‘misspoke’ in the pressure of the moment. I also hope that such priests, who must face the legal consequences of their crimes, may know that there is a Throne of Grace where the truly repentant can find the forgiveness and mercy of Jesus the Christ, anytime. Yes, anytime. Yes, even if ‘The Church’ refuses absolution.

Be blessed in Him.  Fred

PS on two things.

First, Andrew West of Radio National’s religion and ethics report wrote about this same matter in the SMH on 23/11/2012. He describes Cardinal Pell as a Vatican Man “who believes that one cannot truly exercise faith without the intermediary institution of the church…”

Second, if a chap by the name of, say, Eddie Obeid, confessed to his priest that he had used inside information to enrich himself from the public purse by, say, $100 million dollars, should the priest be required to divulge this revelation to the appropriate authorities?

Monday, November 19, 2012

CP197 A Tax on Holy Communion?

CP 197 A Tax on Holy Communion?

My first Call (Pastor Appointment) was to Eudunda in South Australia. This was a country parish with around 900 members. Back then I was young and had boundless energy. I flew into the work with gusto. When an Elder mentioned that one of my duties was to give Holy Communion to those who could no longer get to Sunday worship I set aside a day to attend to it. All up there were 8 or 9 of these elderly Eudunda ‘characters’. As I left each house a $5 note was offered to me. I received it each time and all of it was in the offering plate the following Sunday.

A month later, in March, I did the rounds again and the same thing happened. Then around Easter, in April that year, all of them received Communion at home a third time. It was important to me that the elderly and shut-in had access to the sacrament on at least a monthly basis. However, when I came to give them Communion in May some of those folk openly grumbled that it was costing them too much. Upon enquiry it turned out that my predecessors had seemingly had a set fee for such private Communions and that was to be available four times a year. I was shocked, and then angry. Not because they grumbled. Angry, because they had been given to understand that there was a charge whenever Holy Communion was brought to the house.

From that day to this I have point blank refused to accept any money when giving Holy Communion. And when families ask about the fee for a Baptism I’m pretty blunt about saying there is no fee. There should never be a fee or charge for Baptism or for Holy Communion. Not ever! The very idea is abhorrent. Why?

Why? We believe that forgiveness and life in Jesus the Christ comes to us FREE. That it what we mean when we are saved by grace. Yes, it cost Jesus his life, but it costs us nothing. There is nothing we can do to earn forgiveness and grace, and there is no way we can buy it. What did Jesus say? “Freely you have received. Freely give!” It’s my Call to do this. The congregation attends to my needs. We exist together to freely offer the grace and forgiveness of Calvary, the foundational rock of the Kingdom of Christ. We do it through the spoken word, and also through the visible word of the sacrament of Baptism or of Holy Communion. The idea that we might have a fee or charge for the Sacraments is repulsive and obscene. Look, if anyone wants to offer a gift in relation to a wedding or a funeral they are welcome. Those gifts are valuable as discretionary money for various causes. The Sacraments are different. They come at no cost.

With that as background you might understand why a newspaper headline and article (New York Times on 6/10/12) caught my eye and interest. Here it is, at least most of it. The author was Melissa Eddy.

German Catholic Church Links Tax to the Sacraments
“Last week one of Germany’s highest courts rankled Catholic bishops by ruling that the state recognized the right of catholics to leave the church – and therefore avoid paying a tax that is used to support religious institutions… With its ruling the court… dodged the thorny issue of what happens when a parishioner formally quits the church, stops paying taxes, but then wants to attend services anyway. The court said that… was a matter of religious freedom, a decision that so rankled religious leaders fearful of losing a lucrative revenue stream that they made clear, right away, that taxes are the price for participation in the church’s most sacred rituals: No payments, no sacraments.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Germany issued a crystal clear, uncompromising edict, endorsed by the Vatican. It detailed that a member who refuses to pay taxes will no longer be allowed to receive communion or make confession, to serve as godparents, or to hold any office in the church…”

There it was again. No payments, no sacraments. No pay = no grace. Really. Something is rotten here. Yes, I’m aware that much of the way these things have worked has a long history. And yes, one can understand the consternation of the German churches which ‘inherit’ huge amounts per the tax system.($6.3 billion RC 2011 and $5.5 billion Protestant – Lutheran 2011.) And yes again, one can understand the desire to escape the tax which is about 8.5% of taxable income. Dazzling figures are they not?

What’s my problem? I think it’s the linking of performance / payment with forgiveness. Whenever we link mercy with money in such a way we no longer have Gospel. Forgiveness tied to finance is of the devil. Forgiveness made dependent on performance in any way is law as distinct from Gospel. Jesus simply isn’t about law that way. He’s about freedom. He is about the free response of a forgiven soul to Calvary-won grace. The only precondition for forgiveness is a repentant heart… and which of us can read that in someone’s heart anyway.

More next week… the seal of the confessional is very much in the spotlight.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

CP 196 When God gives you a lemon...

CP 196 When God gives you a lemon…

Sometime ago Rosemarie was doing the Sunday School. When the time came around for the offering I realised that our weekly offering was in the envelope in her handbag. At the last moment I found it, popped it in the bowl… and noticed there was ‘inspirational’ writing on the envelope. All I managed to see was the first line. It read, “If God gives you lemons…”

For the rest of that service I was, sad to say, distracted by that phrase. I tried to guess its ending and couldn’t get anywhere near how it might have finished. All I could think of was dud cars, especially the British Leyland P76 which was quickly and universally scorned as a ‘lemon’ when it was first introduced to the market. It was ‘blessed’ with all manner of design faults and failings… it had promised so much… expectations were high… the marketing had been forceful… here was a vehicle to take on the Holdens and Fords. In the event, it was a dismal failure, a genuine true-blue, ridgy-didge ‘lemon’. And then Jesus popped into my thoughts.

Jesus a lemon? Jesus the Lemon? That was an unexpected twist and certainly an unexpected title fit for a King! Yet many of those who experienced his time on earth came to exactly that conclusion, that he was a lemon, a failure and a pretty hopeless one at that. From the moment Jesus began his ministry there were hopes and expectations about his prophetic and messianic possibilities. He did wonderful things and had miraculous powers. He could hold large crowds. He taught about a coming Kingdom, and he taught with an authority no Pharisee or scribe could match. But the thing about Jesus is that he never ever pandered to anyone else’s expectations and hopes for the Messiah.

Look at the wilderness crowd after Jesus had fed 5000. Let’s make him King! Surely he can rid us of the hated Romans and restore Israel to former glory. The man from Galilee would have none of it. His Kingdom agenda was not their kingdom agenda. Think of the Baptist. He started with, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” He at least expected a different Messiah and a different kingdom. But he expected ‘full-on’ judgement. “The axe is laid at the roots… branches without fruit… thrown into the fire… His winnowing fork is in his hand… chaff into an unquenchable fire.” But Jesus didn’t appear to deliver and he begins to wonder. “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?” Translation: “Was I wrong about you? I fear you’re going to turn out to be a lemon.”

James and John also expected fire and brimstone. Peter just couldn’t see a suffering dying messiah. No one thought a messiah could come from Galilee, especially not Nazareth. He was ejected from his own synagogue. The Jewish leaders couldn’t buy the idea of a mere human messiah who claimed to be equal to God. Nobody around him could match what they were expecting with what he was actually saying and doing. Those around him had to deal with the sinking feeling that Jesus the hoped for Messiah was, well, a lemon.

Eventually Thomas chose to go to Jerusalem with him, fully believing he himself was going to die. The crowds first welcomed him and soon after shrieked for his blood. Judas betrayed him. The Jewish leaders disowned him, and renounced their God in the process. “We have no King but Caesar!” Peter denied him. The other disciples fled in the face of murderous hostility. Pilate washed his hands. The soldiers mocked and then nailed. The women wept. Jesus died. “He saved others but he couldn’t save himself.” Behold Jesus the Lemon.

He failed. Hopes crushed. Dreams shattered. Dreamers scattered. The futility of daring to believe. Unfulfilled promises. Much outline but no outcome. Pointless waste of a good man’s life. A Friday too terrible to forget. All of these emotions and conclusions of the faithful followers were succinctly captured in one phrase spoken just 2 days later. A stranger encountered a pair of Jesus’ followers heading home out of Jerusalem late on Sunday afternoon. He asks about their downcast faces. They tell him about Jesus of Nazareth, his words and deeds, the hope he had inspired, and his death by crucifixion. And then these words… “We had hoped…” We let ourselves believe… trust… but it turned out he was a lemon.

Now comes the great reversal. Jesus asks, as the RSV so beautifully has it, “Was it not necessary…?” He delivers the best big-picture bible study anybody could ever receive. Read it yourself in Luke 24:25ff. And reveals a demolishing truth. The Rejected and Unwanted One was never a lemon at all! Was it not necessary? What happened had to happen. It was planned to happen. It was timed to happen. The Almighty One made it happen. The suffering, mockery, rejection and death was the ‘without which nothing’ of the Lord God’s plan to redeem humanity. Its central requirement was complete, total and free forgiveness. That was the only way to skewer and smash the accuser’s power to condemn the sinful ones before the Holy One. Such forgiveness required blood. It demanded such a death.

I leave you with 3 scripture verses:
  • “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” 1 John 3:8
  • “…he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is the devil…” Hebrews 2:14

The third one says it all. Jesus the Lemon? No way! Never. Ever. Speak these words to each other. Shout them from the rooftops. Use them to comfort the sorry, broken ones:
  • “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead… but now… I am alive… for ever… and ever. And I hold the keys of death and the realm of the dead!” Revelation 1:17-18

So, if God gives you a lemon… and his name is Jesus the Christ… receive him and never let him go. And remember, anything but Jesus the Christ is a lemon.


PS One of my good members, (on a bad day,) completed the phrase this way: “If God gives you lemons… suck it up!

The envelope? “If God gives you lemons, take heart. He wouldn’t give them to you unless he thought you could make some great lemonade.” Corny, huh.

Monday, November 05, 2012

CP 195 My heart is black

CP 195  “My heart is black”

I was once out visiting an old bloke of ‘European extraction’. While we were standing by the veggie garden a family relative, who lived there, happened to come home. We exchanged pleasantries and the said relative went into the house. My elderly companion turned to me and spoke, with more than a little venom, from his heart. “I hate him, I hate him. He’s lazy, lazy, lazy. He’s useless. He never does anything around the house. Freddy, I tell you he’s a bludger.”

This was high-level passion. But even as he said it, I felt the ugliness of his hatred in his voice. And I couldn’t miss the way that ugliness was revealed on his face. There was nothing hidden because he simply could not hide what he felt. In fact he was so powerfully distressed that he walked a little way away from me. Then he came back and spoke words that grabbed at my heart. “Freddy, my heart is black!” And that was both a cry of sadness and a plea for help..

Sadness? Yes. He knew he was in a terrible place. He knew he was being consumed by the ‘thinking of his heart’. The resident bitter spirit was his constant companion, and seemingly inescapable as well, because the object of his venom lived under his nose, (or feet if you prefer.) There was a daily reminder, not only of the perceived failures of his relative, but also of the bleakness become blackness of his own spirit. His judgement-call had become hardened in his heart. Eventually it became full-fledged bitterness and hate. And he knew he was trapped. He was miserable.

I’m sorry if you think/hope that I have a miraculous healing story to share. I don’t. It may yet come. But it is a cautionary tale, the story about the poison which paralyses a heart when forgiveness muscles are no longer exercised and the human spirit gets fixated to the point of unrelenting bitterness.

There was nothing in his traditional religious understanding and experience which would confront and challenge his own sin and call him to repentance. Therefore he could see no way out. He told me he would be happy to be dead rather than live with the pain of hopeless hardness. I guess you also know the flip side of what was going on. For the rest of his family he was a difficult, if not impossible, man to live with. Any love he had was soured by this invasive and ugly spirit. What does that book called Hebrews say about this type of situation? “See to it that no-one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” (12:15)

I still converse with him. I want to be his friend. Why? Among other things, because it is only a friend who will be able to be close enough to speak the truth. Only a friend will be able to be close enough for him to receive the truth and respond to healing that only the Christ can bring. Only Jesus Christ can set a person free the personal prison of a hardened heart. I pray for him that the Holy Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of love, compassion and grace, will move into the centre of his heart and allow that new heart to be created. It is that new heart which is the dwelling place of God in the Holy Spirit.

Please pray with me for this old bloke… lets call him Alby… his heavenly Father knows who he is. And pray the Lord’s Prayer with the awareness of temptation and the daily charge to guard your hearts. Look in the right place for help!

“And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Phil. 4:7