Back to Church: “The Peaceful Weapons of Charity and Prayer”
St. Paul, L’Amoreaux, September 26, 2021
On what is ordinarily our “Back to Church Sunday,” I offer these humble reflections, rising from St. Paul’s call to endure in a time of persecution, and from the astonishing act of our Lord: “You are the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27), “temples of the Lord” (Eph. 2.21), heirs of God’s great work begun in Israel: “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” (1 Peter 2:9)
It is important to be prepared for the trials that will come. And through the trials to remember who we are. “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.” (1 Peter 2:10)
So in a season of discouragement and decline, here are seven things I see and offer.
First, the good seed of the Gospel makes us members of Christ, his bride in the world, his body alive and active, whose universal society anticipates the destiny of the world.
As Bishop Charles Chaput writes, faith in Christ and the future of the Church are one and the same:
. . . why do we need the Church? We need the Church because Jesus Christ founded her to be his witness, and to continue his work in the world. We need the Church because she's the living body of Christ in human affairs. She's our mother and teacher in what it really means to be a Christian . . . she's the living memory of our redemption, our identity, and our purpose in whatever time God gives us.1
The Church belongs to Jesus Christ. She is his body. He will keep his promises.
Secondly, the future of the church must not be confused with the future of individual denominations. The signs are not hopeful where denominations have drunk too deeply from the secular faith of our time.2 They fail because they lose their critical distance from the nation, unable to distinguish the goals of the state from the goals of the Kingdom, to be harshly and rightly judged when the state shows itself to be wrong and inhuman. Even in the short-term, such churches fail because they become redundant, a pale imitation of the political parties they imitate.
And yet, as the prophet Jeremiah assured Israel at the onset of its occupation and exile, the Lord remains faithful.
In 2020, New York Times columnist Ross Douthart wrote The Decadent Society. Its focus is not personal indulgence so much as about exhaustion in modern society. In it he reminds his readers about what G. K. Chesterton called the “five deaths” of the church: the fall of Rome, the challenge of Islam at the time of the Crusades, the crisis of the Reformation, the crisis of the Enlightenment, and the march of Darwinism (p. 227). As serious as those challenges were, not only did the church survive, in many ways we see now how it matured and grew.
Thirdly, a question. Is the church’s historic teaching on sexual morality, and its insistence on the sanctity of every life the liability in western societies that so many believe it to be?
A great deal of kindness and understanding needs to envelop this subject, the kindness of our Lord himself who protected and forgave the woman caught in adultery. Nevertheless, back to the path he pointed her. Similarly, this is a humble finger, that seeks to do no more than point to that path. For these reasons.
First, both Christian freedom and identity need an anchor.
Christian freedom is not the freedom to do whatever we want. It is, by grace, the freedom to offer our lives to Christ so that he might live through us to the glory of God and for the sake of the world he loves.
In similar fashion, Christian identity is bound to Christ (1 Cor. 6.19) and is not whatever identity we discover within ourselves. This is the slippery slope down which the modern transhuman movement leads.
One of the reasons for the alarming increase in mental illness is to be told that we are whatever we wish, free to mold and re-mold ourselves each day.3 That is a “monstrous” freedom, Benedict says.4 Our identity needs an anchor and the Church invites people to union with Jesus Christ, with utter confidence about the road down which he will lead every person. Our identity is in Christ and for Christ (Phil. 2.5-11).
Secondly, the historic teaching on marriage is modest. Which is one of the reasons that we speak modestly. Even by our language, we protect and cherish what is tender and precious.
But it is modest in another sense because we are not to make of it more than we should. The intimate act has a purpose, rising from the objective differences between male and female, known across the generations in families where children are raised, formed and protected. Within these tested boundaries, its joys and tears have proven to be among the most precious in life.
It is modest in this sense because the church teaches immodestly - with all its heart and strength - that the greatest good in life is union with Christ. We are taught and shown that fellowship within his body, and service in his footsteps is the highest calling of every person. By grace, all share in the gifts of God and its responsibilities. For every Christian is the fellowship of the church to which all are called, the outpost of the kingdom and the true destiny of every Christian united to Christ.
It may seem counterintuitive to say this, but in an unbalanced and hyper-sexualized society like our own, this modesty, purpose and self-control shines brighter with each passing day - especially among young people. In the church’s eye, nothing less than the glory of God shimmers within.
Fourthly, no other institution has the advantage and opportunity of the church as well as the proven capacity for self-reflection and reform. Bound to Christ we are bound to the truth, wherever the light may shine. The Prayerbook collect “For the Church” gets it right. Where the church “is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where any thing is amiss, reform it; where it is right, strengthen and confirm it; where it is in want, furnish it; where it is divided and rent asunder, make it whole again.”
And so, a little exercise the next time you hear someone writing off the church. What is the alternative in mind?
Right now in Canada there’s enormous - but entirely unfounded - confidence that life can be lived as if there is no god. But if we depend on our citizens to respect each other’s dignity and humanity but scorn the reasons for dignity and humanity itself, if all our grandest cathedrals are monuments to money and competition - the business towers and sports stadiums we proudly erect - ours is the foundation for an inhuman, dog-eat-dog world.
Ask yourself - how is it a cultural achievement to abort and euthanize with ease and flee reality through hallucinatory drugs? It looks more like a people who have lost the hope and will to live.
By contrast, the Christian Gospel holds in creative tension both the uniqueness of every life, weak and strong, and, by implication, the glorious variety of sex, race and nation, under One God, to whom all are accountable, to whom all will one day be united in harmony, righteousness and peace.
Every life matters. Every prayer is heard.
But all lives matter and God’s ambition is nothing less than the peace of the world.
And at the centre of the universe is not a nameless, faceless fury of power, but rather the love of God, revealed in Jesus Christ.
Fifthly, while secular forces may be exerting a weakening force in Europe and North America, it is not the case in Africa and Asia where the church thrives, often as a foil to secular and technological regimes in the west. So imagine, Douthat says, “a religious landscape remade by African and Chinese Christianities.” (p. 228) Is that something to fear or to welcome? Here at St. Paul's, where the Lord in his wisdom has gathered the world, the answer to that question is filled with hope.
Ross Douthat quotes the surprising call to arms of Cardinal Sarah of Africa:
“Christian families everywhere,” he summoned, “must be the joyful spearheads of a revolt against this new dictatorship of selfishness!” And not “Africa alone, but also African Christians and European Christians together.”
“When will you rise,” he challenged his audience, “with the peaceful weapons of prayer and charity to defend your faith?”5
Sixthly, set aside the caricature for a moment. What is the real relationship of Christianity to science? Not only was the church and its schools the place where science began and grew: “It’s also that scientific and religious experiments proceed from a similar desire for knowing, a similar belief that the universe is patterned and intelligible and that its secrets might somehow be unlocked.”6 For all that science uncovers, ours is the duty to give that picture meaning and purpose.7
Finally, one mark of decadence which Douthat emphasizes is the stagnation of art. You can tell when a society is exhausted when art starts repeating itself and when everything is measured by materialistic standards.
In his book “Memory and Identity,” St. Pope John Paul II describes how the enrichment of culture is our sacred task of applying the truth to all things so that the creation itself is handled responsibly and shared with all. Art reflects this truth whether it be through music, painting, architecture or sculpture. It is a powerful force. Using the example of his own homeland, the strength of Polish culture fortified a nation for the trials they have endured.8
Because without a strong culture - a particular danger in a relatively young country like Canada - we risk being overwhelmed by the forces of business and materialism. Our responsibility is to let the light of Christ shine on all creation, the One whose ambition is the peace of the world, whose calling is demanding and glorious in every generation.
As Pope Benedict puts it, the most persuasive proof of the truth of the Christian message are encounters with the saints and experience of the beauty of Christ.9
So is it still not a thrilling time to be a Christian here at St. Paul’s - where the Lord in his wisdom has gathered the world, where in simple but profound ways our reach is around the world.
With a hand extended to a refugee couple from Iran, now in Turkey, who, God-willing, will soon be reunited with their family, making a new home in Toronto.
With hands reaching across the Bridge of Hope palliative care program in northern Sri Lanka - the only one of its kind - where friends find comfort and relief for the last season of life.
With hands outstretched to an orphanage in Jamaica where children are protected and loved.
And does it not lift the spirit to hear this harmony ring from St. Paul’s?
Where a Canadian composer wrote and directed music for a Caribbean steel band composition in honor of American Martin Luther King, Jr..
Where a Chinese composer trained in Toronto wrote, performed at St. Paul’s, capturing both eastern and western themes.
Where our talented David McCartney directed a medley of Christmas Carols, writing the music for a choir and full orchestra whose members were from around the world.
In a parish whose ancestors, against the odds, rebuilt the church after it burned to the ground, whose dedication made possible the great outreach of our time of the seniors’ residence and services, where now the life-and-death courage of Sri Lankan, Chinese and African Christians fuels our prayers and our praise of God.
Where is the great adventure of our time?
Well, kick the robot to the corner and consider what the Lord has seen fit to do in our midst.
Turn off the devices for a moment and look at the vast human and spiritual frontier still to be explored.
Shut down the computer and let us open our hearts for this glorious calling, where “the peaceful weapons of charity and prayer” are the tools to be employed, for a purpose gallant and humane, for which nothing less than the whole of our life is summoned for the glory of God and for the sake of the world he loves.
1.Things Worth Dying For, Charles Chaput, Henry Holt and Co., 2021.
2.“The primary common denominator is theology. Those trimming faith to fit in with culture have tended to shrink, and those offering a “full-fat” faith, vividly supernatural, have tended to grow.” https://livingchurch.org/covenant/2021/09/03/whither-the-church-of-england/
3.“The more people feel themselves adrift in a vast, impersonal, anonymous sea, the more desperately they swim toward any familiar, intelligible, protective life-raft; the more they crave a politics of identity.” Alan Bloom, quoted by Mary Eberstadt, Primal Screams. Templeton Press. 2019.
4.“This means that man is condemned to a monstrous freedom; he must discover for himself with no norm to guide him what he will make of himself and of the world. At this point, the nature of the alternative with which we are confronted in the first article of the Creed should be growing gradually clear. The question is whether we accept reality as pure matter or as the expression of a meaning that refers to us; whether we invent values or must find them. On our answer depends the kind of freedom of which we must speak, for two completely different freedoms, two completely different fundamental attitudes toward life, are involved here.” J. Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, p. 72.
5.The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, by Ross Gregory Douthat Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, 2020.
7.The Big Question: Why We Can’t Stop Talking About Science, Faith, and God, St. Martin's Press, 2015.
8.Memory and Identity, St. Pope John Paul II, Rizzoli Press, 2005.
9.Joseph Ratzinger, On the Way to Jesus Christ. Chapter Two - “Wounded by the Arrow of Beauty: The Cross and the New ‘Aesthetics’ of Faith.” San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005.