Concluding a set of pieces this week on the relationship between the individual and the faith, i want to underline the general message – which is that we see nowhere in the New Testament a form of the faith which now seems so common. There is no example of an individual being told he or she is ‘saved’ and going off to ‘save’ others. This does not happen in the Bible, and yet men and women who claim to be ‘Bible-based’ do it every day; we have our own example here. Of all the ways in which the powers and principalities of this world attempt to divert faithful souls to hell, this is the most pernicious. In an atomised society such as our own, where the importance of the family and the tribe are played down, and where individual rights are played up, it is an exceptionally good way of persuading men and women that they can create a relationship with Christ which is based upon their own psychological needs. Instead of the traditional route of being reformed by Christ, which we see so often in the New Testament, where the likes of St Peter, St John, St Thomas and St Paul, are wrenched from their old lives and made a new creation in conformity with the will of God, we witness a new phenomenon – men recreating God in their own image.
Jesus could, of course, have decided to write a book and then frop in, spiritually, on every one of us, so there is nothing inherently impossible about this model of personally ‘being saved’ – except that this is not what Jesus did. He founded a Church and he built it on a man called Simon-bar Jonah, whose name he changed to ‘Rock’ as he did so. SS Paul, John, Peter and Jude all warned about the dangers of ‘another gospel’ and false teachers. In cases of disagreement men were told to take it to the church.
It is easily possible to understand why people bridle at the Catholic Church. I doubt any convert to it was not, at one stage, amongst those who opposed it and its claims. But when Newman (another such convert, who once referred to the Pope as ‘anti-Christ’) said that it was impossible to be deeply in history and remain a Protestant, he spoke a truth many of us have learned. I would include the Orthodox Church, a body of which Newman knew little because of his own geographical and historical location; in his day the Orthodox church was either a branch of the Russian Empire, or a scattered remnant of past glories. Christ founded a church, and we see, in the house churches of Acts, that church in action. It resembles the Church we have today in the same way the acorn resembles the oak tree. As in every branch of human activity, we see in its workings, the good and the evil which mark our fallen nature, and it a strange form of gnosticism which attributes evil to it alone, ignoring that in the heart of the individual making the charge; it may indeed be that such individuals are, in their own eyes, so free of sin that they can cast many stones – goodness knows, two thousand years of human history have left enough examples of the capacity of men who claim to know Christ to go wrong. Oddly, those thorwing the stones seldom seem to wonder if they are not part of that tendency.
Is the Church perfect? In its workings on this earth, no, it cannot be because we are not. But it is the caravan in which mankind travels to its Promised Land. It is the place where we find Jesus’ promise redeemed – ‘this is my body, given for you … this is my blood, goven for you.’ At the heart of our faith is, indeed, the individual encounter with the Lord – and every Sunday, at the momimum, I meet him at the Eucharist. At that sipreme moment, I am lost to the world and it is lost to me; how could I not want everyone to know that moment?