Reforming the Church (Again!)

Luke 16:19-31
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would lick his sores. But the rich man gave him not even a crumb.

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I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to like the new Pope more and more. I mean when was the last time a Pope answered the question: “Who are you” with these words? I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech or a literary genre. I am a sinner.

And get this: he refused the pope’s opulent Vatican apartments in favor of a modest apartment. He rides the bus, washes the feet of prisoners, and, according to reliable sources, is contemplating elevating a female deacon to the rank of cardinal.

My only worry is that if Pope Francis keeps on like this he may end up excommunicated the way Martin Luther and “our own boy” John Calvin got the boot for trying to reform the Catholic church in the 16th century. But then they weren’t popes and Francis is which means real good job security.

So, yes, I’m starting to like Pope Francis more and more which takes a little doin’ for a Presbyterian. After all, the Presbyterian Church has not always held a favorable opinion of the Pope, the so-called Vicar of Christ.

For instance, take this citation from the 17th century Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), which served as THE definitive standard of all things Presbyterian for 300 years. And when you hear this, keep in mind that 17th century Presbyterianism was fueled by Scottish disdain for anything that smelled of popery. 

Listen to this from the 1647 version of WCF, Chap. 27, paragraph VI. There is no other Head of the Church, but the Lord Jesus Christ: Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense be head thereof. WOW.

That’s pretty blunt; point made. But, no, we’re not done yet. It continues.

The Pope of Rome, [is in fact] the Antichrist.

OUCH. Pretty nasty there. But we’re not done yet; it continues.

The Pope is the Man of sin and the Son of Perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church, against Christ, and all that is called God.

Ah, boy! You gotta love those 17th century Presbyterians! Or, maybe not!!

Even though American Presbyterians would eventually insert a conciliatory amendment in the WCF, now and then I still meet a Presbyterian or two who still breathe fire against the Pope and all things Catholic. Not many in the United States. But Northern Ireland is a different story.

In No. Ireland for more than 50 years, a certain fiery Presbyterian preacher named Ian Paisley breathed hatred against all things Catholic. He promulgated violence. The Rev. Ian Paisley was the face of Presbyterianism and Protestantism. He was seen by most Catholics as the incarnation of the devil.

In the 1980s Paula and I—along with several others from our church attended—an international peace conference at Correymela, near Ballycastle in No. Ireland. One evening—after a full day of lectures, workshops and dinner—Paula and I went out for a nightcap at a pub. It was small place with maybe 10 or 12 tables plus a bar.

We had heard that pubs in Ballycastle were either Catholic or Protestant. But we didn’t think it would matter since we were Americans. Besides, from the outside we couldn’t tell one from the other.

Unwittingly, we entered a Catholic pub. As we sipped our Guinness and chatted with the bartender I casually mentioned that I was a Presbyterian minister. I’m not sure how that slipped out but it did.

After an incredulous pause, the bartender exclaimed: You’re a Presbyterian minister?! Instantly a hush feel over the pub and I knew we’d made a mistake. We were in a Catholic pub. Remember: “Presbyterian” in No. Ireland at that time didn’t mean what it means here. There it meant: Protestant supremacists with guns to shoot Catholics.

So, said the bartender, what are you doing in Northern Ireland?

In the dim light of the pub I could see the weathered faces and rough hands of Catholic farmers and Catholic fishermen and Catholic grandmothers all waiting for a certain Presbyterian minister to explain his presence in No. Ireland. I wasn’t sure what to say. But on a wing and a prayer I whispered to the bartender: I’ve come over here from America to convert Ian Paisley to Christianity.

The bar tender straightened up, stood still for a moment and then loudly announced, this Presbyterian minister from America has come here to convert the bastard Ian Paisley to Christianity. And just like that the bar erupted in cheers and toasts and for the rest of that night all our drinks were on the house.

You gotta love those Catholics!

And that brings me back to Pope Francis who has set out to convert the Catholic Church back to Christianity. Not that it ever strayed completely away but, in the new Pope’s opinion, it has been obsessed with small things at the expense of the gospel’s big heart, namely love and compassion for the poor and marginalized of the world.

The church sometimes has locked itself up, locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.

The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol or about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. And you have to start from the ground up.

Those remarks are from a recent, extensive interview in the magazine America: The National Catholic Review. The piece is entitled: Big Heart Open to God.

And that brings us to the gospel lesson and a certain closed gate or we might say, a certain closed heart.

Jesus said, once upon a time there was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. At his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores. Lazarus longed to satisfy his hunger with the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs would lick his sores. But the rich man gave not even a crumb from his table.

The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, the rich man looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.'

But Abraham said, 'Child, remember something: during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus bad things; but now he is comforted, and you are in agony. Besides, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.'

There’s a little more to that parable, but that’s enough for now.

Indifference to the suffering of others is no small matter. It has serious consequences. You may think that “chasm” is about the “afterlife” but think again. It’s possible to see that chasm as something we create here and now.

It’s possible to see that “rich man” as a person but it’s also possible to see him as representing a society or even a church. It’s possible to see “Lazarus” as all those forgotten and neglected by society or by a church. It’s possible to see that chasm as a chasm here and now, the enormous and growing gap between rich and poor within our own nation and between nations—that gap and other gaps that destroy the community the Beloved Christ longs to gather, to gather as one—the lost and forsaken, the blind and the lame gathered together as one.

It’s possible that is what Pope Francis sees in the gospel of Jesus and thus longs with all his heart to reform the church again. “This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people.”

And if that’s the new Pope’s intention he deserves a shout out and needs our prayers. For we, too, as Presbyterians—in our better moments—echo his vision. You can hear it in our own Confession of 1967, which now supersedes that 17th century “Westminster Confession of Faith.”

Reconciliation of the world through Jesus Christ makes it plain that enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is an intolerable violation of God's good creation. Because Jesus identified himself with the needy and exploited, the cause of the world's poor is the cause of his disciples. The church cannot condone poverty. A church that is indifferent to poverty, or evades responsibility in economic affairs, or is open to one social class only, or expects gratitude for its beneficence makes a mockery of reconciliation and offers no acceptable worship to God. (Confession of 1967)

Today we and the Catholic Church have much in common. We have a common yearning. Once again the Spirit is gathering us all into a healing time and a healing place where peace and justice may blossom. This is a good day for us to celebrate with our Catholic brothers and sisters the new light streaming through the open gate of the church and the new light streaming through the big heart of Pope Francis.