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Which Jesus are you following?

By: Fr. Dwight Longenecker November 4, 2010 No Comments

Even though we were in the country my parish was full of lively, committed Christians from a wide range of denominational backgrounds. We had regular Bible studies, a warm and uplifting form of worship, and a strong emphasis on evangelism and spiritual renewal. People were growing in the faith and the church was doubling in size.

Naturally, the people were shocked when I told them that I had decided to resign from the Anglican ministry and be received into full communion with the Catholic Church.  Some had been listening closely to my preaching and had seen the whole crisis coming. Others were angry and accusatory: “You are being disloyal to your own troubled church, and even worse, you’re challenging the validity of our own Christian lives.” Still others were confused and frustrated. One faithful Methodist lady, who came to our church with her Anglican husband, summed it up nicely: “Surely the only thing that matters is how much we love Jesus!”

Her question was difficult to answer, not because there was no answer, but because there were too many. In a sense my Methodist friend had expressed both the right question and the right answer. How much do we love Jesus, and how can we be sure that we are loving Jesus and not just our idea of Jesus?

I had seen so many Jesuses amongst different Christians, and each one strangely resembling each particular Christian. Charismatics saw a Spirit-filled prophet of God.  People concerned with justice and peace saw a radical revolutionary who spoke for the poor.  Intellectuals saw a Jesus who was cleverer than anybody else and suffered for it. Tasteful Christians saw a Jesus who was a kind of persecuted poet. The list went on and on.

More importantly, I began to realize that my own Jesus was likewise a reflection of myself. By nature, I’m inclined to be intellectual, contemplative, and intuitive. As a result, the Jesus I followed pondered problems, went out to the wilderness to pray, and found crowds of people difficult. My Jesus was one who walked a lonely path to a distant cross because that’s how I was walking through life myself.

To follow Christ, however, means to lose yourself, not to worship yourself. More and more I wanted an objective Jesus—one who was not my own reflection. I wanted a Christ who was cosmic, not a Christ who was comfy.

Where was this Jesus to be found? The answer was crucial: in the incarnation. In other words, in his body, and where was his body to be found? The Scriptures were clear about this. The Holy Spirit had inspired Paul to say that the body of Christ was to be found in the Church.

I had been taught that the Church was the body of Christ in a symbolic way—that everyone in a particular congregation should work together like members of a body. But the emphasis in that teaching was on only one half of the image: it stressed ‘body’ — not Christ. When I put the two together and saw the church as the body of Christ a window opened.

As an Evangelical I had been taught that the different churches were all man-made organizations which were useful, but essentially un-necessary. Suddenly in my reflections, however, I saw the Church as the mystical body of Christ—a living, dynamic organism empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue the work of the risen Lord in the world. The Church was suddenly a sacrament of Christ. In my brothers and sisters I could find Jesus. In my service to the Church I could find Jesus. In our worship I could find Jesus. In obedience to the teaching of the church I could find Jesus. By immersing myself in the Church I was immersing myself into Jesus himself and transcending the limitations of my personal walk with the Lord.

But another shock awaited me. St Paul also had used the image of the Body of Christ to designate the Eucharistic bread and wine. The two parts of the Body of Christ—the church and the communion—were intermingled in St. Paul’s teaching: ‘The bread which we break is a sharing of the body of Christ. We are all members of one body because we all share in the one bread.’ The other objective and powerful way to meet the real Lord Jesus Christ in a personal way was through the Eucharist. There Church and Christ were one in communion. This experience of communion and Church was personal but not subjective. It was emotional, but not merely emotion. It was particular and universal at the same time. But it was also Catholic.

All of this new understanding took place while I was still an Anglican. For a few years I carried on believing that it was possible to remain  a good Anglican while being ‘catholic’ in my theology, prayer and worship practice. Then through various crises in the Anglican church I began to ask further questions about authority in the church. I was excited that through communion and church I could experience Jesus Christ in a way that was both particular and universal, but how could I be sure that I was sharing in as full an experience of this universal Christ as possible?

Along my whole faith journey I had wanted more, not less. I had wanted to affirm all the good things of my Evangelical upbringing, but also all the good things of Anglicanism. Increasingly I wanted also to affirm all the goodness within Orthodoxy and Catholicism as well.

As an Anglican with increasingly Catholic sensibilities, I began to wonder whether my experience of Christ within the Anglican Church was simply a larger version of the individualistic Christ I had experienced within Evangelicalism. In other words, if the Evangelical Christian was inclined to find a ‘Jesus’ who was rather like himself, couldn’t the same be said on the denominational level as well?

Sure enough, Anglicans worshipped a very Anglican Jesus—a refined, soft-spoken gentleman, tolerant, tasteful, and forgiving, who  eventually was persecuted by the barbaric, bigoted religious people. There was much that was good and true in this Anglican Jesus, but there was also a lot missing.

The problem with a Jesus who is only personal is that he becomes private property. There were only two ways around this problem of the merely personal Jesus. One way was the Anglican way in which every opinion is tolerated and encouraged. By allowing every personal Jesus — even heretical ones — the Anglican hopes to obtain a comprehensive Jesus.

The other option was to break away to form a new independent group where everyone shares the same vision of Jesus—one which considers itself the lone true one.

The first way is called latitudinarianism — or indifferentism. The second way is called sectarianism. In the first option every type of personal Jesus is tolerated; in the second, only one.

But surely both ways had an element of truth? All the different personal Jesuses reflect a dimension of our Lord, yet there had to be one that was the fullest, the most complete experience of Christ. Somewhere there had to be a Church that embraced all the varied portraits of Jesus while still holding up an objective Christ who transcended and completed all the partial portraits. If Jesus’ promise to be with us always was true, and if the Church was the mystical body of Christ, then there had to be a Church which presented an objective Christ to the world in a personal way.

To offer a universal Christ in a personal way the Church had to speak with an authority that was bigger than any one individual. That authority had to have certain traits to offer a Christ that was both personal and universal.

I began to draw up a little list to outline what traits such an authority ought to have.

First, such an authority would need to be historical. In order to give me a Jesus which was bigger than me this church’s teaching and experience had to be rooted in history. Through this I could share in a Christian experience which transcended my own personal feelings and background.

Second, this authority had to be objective. In other words, it couldn’t be subject to my personal whims, the whims of my local pastor or any local prophet or teacher. The authority had to operate above the interests and concerns of the church itself. To prove its objectivity, this authority had to be spread out over a large number of people over a long period of time while remaining consistent in its themes and purpose.

Third and connected with the previous criterion of objectivity, this authority should be universal. It cannot be the voice of just one person, one nationality, one theological grouping or one pressure group. This authority has to transcend geographical, cultural, and intellectual boundaries. It also has to transcend time. It has to be universal down through the age, connecting authentically with every age.

Fourth, if this authority was to be universal it must also be particular; it must be specified in a particular place and through a particular person. It could not be just a vague ‘body of teaching’ or some kind of ‘consensus of the faithful’. To speak to me personally it must speak with a clear, particular and authentic voice. If it is particular, then it also has to be able to speak to particular problems and circumstances. A particular authority will apply the universal truths of the gospel to particular problems with confidence.

Fifth, this authority should be intellectually satisfying. While it must be simple enough for every person to understand and obey, it must also be challenging enough for the world’s greatest philosophers. As St. Jerome said of Scripture, ‘it must be shallow enough for a lamb to wade and deep enough for an elephant to swim.’ This authority must be intellectually coherent within itself, and it must be able to engage confidently with all other intellectual religions and philosophical systems. Furthermore, if it is intellectually satisfying it must offer a world view which is complete without being completely closed. In other words, there must be both answers and questions which still remain.

Finally, this authority needs to be Scriptural. Since Scripture is a primary witness to the revelation, this authority should be both rooted in Scripture, and founded by Scripture. If it is Scriptural it will also look to Scripture continually as a source of inspiration and guidance. While this authority will flow from Scripture it will also confirm Scripture and offer the right interpretation with confidence, never contradicting Scripture but always working to further its illumination.

If an authority could be shown to fulfill all six of these traits, then this was a good confirmation that the authority was not ephemeral and merely human but of divine origin. If this authority could be found then it would be able to give my personal experience of Jesus Christ the universal depth and breadth to lift me out of worshipping the Jesus created in my own image—which, essentially, is the worship of myself.

In the midst of my pastoral responsibilities, I could not rest until I either identified this Church or accepted with dismay its nonexistance. And I did find it–and it was the Catholic Church.

However, I still felt that I could be a good Catholic while remaining an Anglican. According to my Evangelical view that denominations ultimately didn’t matter, one could subscribe to Catholic views while remaining in another denomination. But something still niggled at me. How could I claim to be “Catholic” while I was rejecting one of Catholicism’s basic principles — that being Catholic meant being in full communion with the head of the family of the Catholic Church, the Bishop of Rome? How could I be Catholic while rejecting the rock on which the Catholic Church was built?

I then came across a famous book by John Henry Cardinal Newman: “An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.” In a logically clear, yet dense passage he wrote:

If Christianity is both social and dogmatic, and intended for all ages, it must, humanly speaking, have an infallible expounder, else you will secure unity of form at the loss of unity of doctrine, or unity of doctrine at the loss of unity of form; you will have to choose between a comprehension of opinions and a resolution into parties; between latitudinarian and sectarian error… You must accept the whole or reject the whole … it is trifling to receive all but something which is as integral as any other portion. Thus it would be trifling indeed to accept everything Catholic except the head of the body of Christ on earth.’

In other words, if I wanted a Catholic fullness of the faith, I couldn’t pick and choose. How could have fullness if I’m still the one deciding what is “full” and what isn’t? To accept the body of Christ in its fullness one has to accept it all. That’s what fullness implies.

I was reticent to give up my ministry, our beautiful home, my churches, and congregations, so I decided to remain in the Anglican Church yet accept the authority of the Pope. It became clear, however, that I could not accept the Pope without submitting to his teaching, and his teaching was unequivicable: to enjoy the fullness of the faith I had to be in full communion with the faith.

St Paul’s word’s haunted me. There was one bread and one body. We who are one body share in the one bread. Eventually I became convinced that the only way for my personal vision of Jesus to be enlarged to a universal experience of the risen Lord was to be received into full communion and personal union with his Body on earth—the universal Church.

Once my family and I became Catholics, I felt like I was having an “overdose of reality.” There was something concrete and tangible about the Catholic Church I had never experienced in other churches. It wasn’t all nice, either. There were things I didn’t like and which I couldn’t do anything about. The sacrifices we had to make  brought hardships to our marriage and our financial situation. But there was also a crystal clear and beautiful hardness to the Church. I began to see that the mystical body of Christ on earth also has to have a physical and visible dimension. As Christ took a real physical body in the incarnation, so for his work to continue, his body on earth had to be real, historical, and physical. Docetism is the heresy which says Christ never took a real physical body, but only seemed to be incarnate. My Evangelical view that saw the Church as only invisible was a sort of ecclesiastical docetism. The new, and sometimes uncomfortable, reality I felt in the Catholic Church was a sign of its really being a sacramental presence of the risen Lord in the world.

We have now been Catholics for nearly six years. The other weekend I was asked to lead a retreat for a home fellowship group. The members were all young Christians in their twenties and thirties, many of whom were converts to Catholicism. We spoke at some length about the future of Christianity, and the great things God was doing in the Church today. At the end of the day I asked them what they wanted most of all for themselves and the Church.

After much thought, a young man named Tony said, “I want my personal experience of Jesus to be as wide as the whole universe. I want the cosmic Christ to be my personal Christ.”

Tony was expressing what I had found within the Catholic Church. While many churches have one or more of the traits of authentic universal authority, only the Catholic Church has all seven. She stretches through history not only back to the Apostles, but through the Jews to Abraham our father in faith. She is objective because her teaching transcends individual opinions and pressure groups. Her authority is universal, stretching across every continent as well as across time, and yet it is particular because it speaks through one person to the particular needs of real people at a particular time. Anyone who has dipped into the teachings of the Catholic Church will find them systematic, comprehensive, and yet challenging and open. If these teachings close doors, they also open windows. Finally, the Catholic Church is deeply Scriptural in all her worship, prayer and teachings. Because she also makes the scandalous (in human terms) claim to be a divinely founded body, she fulfils the seven traits which indicate a universal authority.

The Catholic Church offers individuals a personal experience of Christ which is truly universal. This wider experience can only happen as the individual submits and submerges himself into the vast experience, which is the universal Church. Through joyful submission to the authority of the universal Church the personal experience of Jesus Christ is enlarged beyond all our imagining. We thought we had it all and we realize that all we had was ourselves.

Becoming a Catholic is like being in The Last Battle, that last book of the Narnia series. After the children enter the real Narnia they find everything is real, and everything belongs to them. They run ever faster and with more and more joy they cry with all creation, ‘Further up and further in!’ Indeed, through the mystery of the Catholic Church everything in the universe becomes our own. This universal unity was expressed by St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians: “…everything belongs to you…the world, life or death, the present or the future, all belongs to you, and you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.” My own experience is the beautifully understated praise of the psalmist, “O Lord, you have placed my feet in a large room.”

In his highly influential book, Christendom Awake, the English Dominican, Aidan Nichols sums it up:

It is, then, quite false to regard submission to the Church’s public doctrine as a barrier to personal spiritual development. The contrary is the case. Rather, the acceptance of doctrine – as Chesterton indicated in Orthodoxy – ushers the self into a wider room where, in the words of St John of the Cross, ‘Mine are the heavens and mine is the earth; mine are the people, the righteous are mine and mine are the sinner the angels are mine and the Mother of God, and all things are mine, and God himself is mine and for me, for Christ is mine and all for me. What, then, dost thou ask for and seek my soul? Thine is all this, and it is all for thee.’

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