What We Can Learn From Catholics
Today we’re jumping into a two-part series that has had a number of people around here on edge, because we’re going to be talking about Catholicism and Protestantism, and people have been wondering what I’m going to say. So as we get started, I want everyone to do something with me. I want you to take a deep breath on the count of three, and then let it out slowly. OK? Here we go: one, two, three—breathe in, and slowly let it out. And with that—let’s pray.
Now, just so you know a little bit about my background, I grew up in a very conservative, non-Catholic home, and I didn’t have very many friends growing up who were Catholic. So prior to going through seminary, I really had little to no interaction with Catholicism. And then while a young seminary student, I was exposed more to the history of the church, and I began to appreciate the richness of such catholic church leaders and authors as Augustine, Aquinas, Thomas a Kempis, Brother Lawrence, and Theresa Avila, just to name a few.
When we lived in New Orleans, I wanted to take a spiritual retreat at a monastery, and I found a Benedictine Monastery in Nevada where I could spend a week among the monks on a silent retreat. Now, let me tell you, for someone who likes to talk, taking an entire week where you don’t talk is quite the ordeal. But it was an incredible experience of living among these Benedictines and observing how they keep the Divine Office, as they call it—the eight canonical hours for worship, scripture, prayer and meditation. And I have a confession to make. In the middle of the week of this silent retreat, I drove into the neighboring town and called Laura. Other than that, I was silent. And I learned a great deal from these men who committed their lives to Jesus Christ to live, pray, and serve through their monastic community. And the Benedictines have been doing this for almost 1,500 years!
Well, through that experience and by living in New Orleans, we developed many friendships with some highly devout Catholics. In moving here, we discovered that this area also has a strong Roman Catholic community. But I’ve seen, both in New Orleans and here, a lot of misunderstanding, distrust, and divisiveness between family members, friends, and churches along denominational lines. So whether you consider yourself to be Catholic, Protestant, non-denominational, somewhere in between, or none of the above--then the next two weeks are for you. Building Bridges: Finding Common Ground for Catholics and Protestants.
Over the next two weeks I hope we can move a step closer to fulfilling Jesus’ prayer in John 17:23—“I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:23). Now, this is not a naive, utopian view of the Church--that we can all just hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” and everything will be fine. But it is an attempt for us to gain greater understanding of how we got to this point of Catholics, Protestants, and all these denominations in the first place, and, secondly, where do we go from here? So buckle your seats, because we’re going to take a whirlwind tour of church history!
History of the Church
1. Apostles and Early Church (AD 33-63)
Acts 2:42, 47—“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. . . praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved”.
The early church grew from 120 (Acts 1) to 3,000 (Acts 2) [pic 1a] and beyond. In the beginning stages of Christianity you were either a “Christian” or a “pagan.” There were no splits or denominations. There were differences of opinion, but they had no official divisions. They were all “catholic”—meaning universal. There was just one, world-wide church. That’s how we can say today, “I am a part of the “church-catholic” even if you’re not a part of the “catholic church.”
2. Patristic Period (AD 64—300)
Early on, Christianity was considered a weird sect that was birthed out of Judaism. Those who were willing to stand up for their faith were persecuted. Many were willing to die for their truth. On the night of June 18, AD 64 a terrible fire broke out in Rome, and it appeared that the wicked Emperor Nero may have started the fire to build a new city. The fire lasted six days. Ten of the fourteen areas of the city were utterly destroyed. This is where we get the old saying, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.” But Nero shifted the blame to the Christians, because two areas of the city that had the least damage from the fire were occupied by Christians. Historian Tacitus tells us that before Nero killed many Christians, he used them to amuse people by dressing them in furs to be torn by dogs. Others were crucified. Still others were set on fire at night to illuminate his gardens. For the next 300 years Christians were brutally persecuted and tortured. They were disemboweled and cut into pieces. Some had their heads cut off and put on stakes. Some were crucified upside down. Others were fed to beasts in the coliseum. Tertullian wrote this famous statement, “The blood of the martyrs became the seed of the church.”
3. Medieval Church (AD 300-600)
In AD 306 a man named Constantine became the Emperor of the Roman Emperor. What’s so significant about this is that he became the first emperor who was converted to Christ. When we read about it, we discover that the reason he became a Christian was not as much because of his love for Christ but because he saw this as a good religion by which to rule the empire. And so in 313 AD he issues what is called the Edict of Milan which marks the end of persecution against the church. Many blessings came to the church. Confiscated property was given back. Christians started to have positions in government. Huge basilicas or cathedrals were built. Constantine designated Sunday as a day for no work. So there were many blessings, but this also led to many problems. Christians became lax. People would say they were becoming Christians only to gain political favor and not because of faith commitments. When Christianity became the official religion of the state, it lost much of its meaning and impact. Soon you couldn’t tell any difference between the church and the rest of the world. (Sound familiar?)
4. Dark Times (AD 600-1500)
There was almost universal illiteracy during this time. So the challenge was to teach people the Bible. A way to help compensate for that was by the church introducing many symbols and images and icons to help teach people. But the church was also steeped in much mysticism during this time. So people began to worship some of these icons and images instead of what they represented. During this time the church became more centralized in its government with bishops all over the world, but the bishop in Rome, called the Pope (which means papa) became the “first among equals.” Not everyone received this news with equal enthusiasm, and there were many power struggles during this time, which had more to do with political alliances than any religious views. And so in 1054 AD, the church experienced its first major split where the churches in the East did not want to follow the bishop of the west, and became known as the “Orthodox Church,” and the church in the west became the “Roman Catholic Church.” There were many dark times for the church and world during this era. The atrocities of the Crusades came during this time. There was much corruption in the political structure of the church during this time. But in the midst of the darkness there were many bright lights; many faithful saints who followed Christ: Joan of Arc, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Patrick who was a missionary to Ireland, Thomas a Kempis, and many others. But during this time the church got intertwined with the politics of the Roman Empire.
5. Fanning into Flame (AD 1500-1800)
What started as a simple movement to return to the Bible and re-emphasize salvation by grace through faith, became a world wide movement known as the “Protestant Reformation.” Martin Luther put up his 95 theses on the Wittenberg Door protesting some of the problems he saw in the church at the time, and thus the term “Protestant” came into existence. Some of this was good, because it even helped bring reform into parts of the Roman Catholic Church through church leaders like Erasmus, but part of it was also bad—schisms, divisions, non-Christ-like attitudes on both sides of the issue. But as a result of this, the message of Christ spread more rapidly throughout the world. The Bible was held up as the rule of faith and practice. There is much more we could look at from the Protestant Reformation forward, but let’s jump ahead to…
6. E91’s History
Once people began settling in America, there were faithful preachers who came to spread the message of Christ—men like Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney. There was great revival, but there also was much division as various denominations were formed. Some church leaders in the early 19th century began to tire of sectarianism and splits, and so they began a movement that focused on three things 1) Returning to the Bible as the norm of faith and practice; 2) Uniting around the essentials of the faith in Jesus Christ; and 3) Reaching the lost with the Good News of Jesus Christ. Men like Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone preached this type of message. They never intended for another denomination to start but rather they wanted to unite Christians together around the centrality of the cross. This movement continued to spread rapidly and now has about 5,550 churches across America that are non-denominational like ours simply referred to as Christian Churches. According to one study these churches, like E91, were the fastest growing movement of churches across the country from 1990-2000 with 18.6% growth followed by the Assemblies of God with 18.5% growth. (Source: “Religious Congregations and Membership: 2000”)
So that brings us up to the present! That’s a brief overview of 2,000 years of church history. We covered a lot of ground!
Three observations about the history of the church:
First of all, To the Catholic Church: Thank you for such a great, rich history of the Church. We all have things in our history that we’re not proud of, but there are also those things for which we give thanks.
My second observation is this: To those who consider themselves Protestant, know that you should be more concerned about lifting up the name of Jesus than your particular “brand” of Christianity. Labels can oftentimes divide people more than unite them.
My third observation is this: For those of us at East 91st Street Christian Church, we are Christians only but not the only Christians. People ask me from time to time, “So what kind of Christians are you?” And my answer is, “We’re just Christians. We’re not Baptist Christians or Methodist Christians or Catholic Christians. We’re just Christians.” And as simply “Christian Christians,” we can appreciate and learn from those of different traditions and backgrounds. So...
What Can We Learn from the Catholic Church?
1. Gratitude for the preservation of the Bible
For centuries, each copy of the Bible had to be copied by hand before the invention of the Gutenberg Press. Monks stayed at their desks and worked laboriously at preserving the Bible. If it wasn’t for the Catholic Church, we wouldn’t have the Bible preserved from its original languages.
2. Gratitude for the preservation of Creeds
There can be some danger in creeds when they become divisive. But creeds—or statements of faith--were actually developed to help Christians learn biblical truth in a succinct way and to unite Christians in the face of heresies and false teachings. Sometimes in our day and age people make up and define what they believe and whole churches are born out of quasi-Christianity. So the creeds can help us keep our roots in historic, biblical Christianity.
3. Gratitude for a sense of awe and reverence for God
Roman Catholic worship emphasizes what’s called the “transcendence” of God—where He is holy and above all. Contemporary worship generally emphasizes more of the “immanence” of God—where He is near and present with us. But anytime the pendulum swings too far to either side, we will be out of balance in our understanding of God.
4. Gratitude for the communion of saints
The Roman Catholic Church has shown great appreciation for those who have gone before us. And that helps remind us that following Jesus is not just a private experience—it’s personal, but not private. We can have great appreciation for the fact that we are a part of something much greater than ourselves. We have a history—we have roots!
Do you know what the bottom line is in all of this? It’s not whether you were born Catholic or Protestant. The bottom line is what do you do with Jesus today. If you say, “Jesus is Lord,” then that means something. That means a whole lot more than just showing up for a worship service or mass once a week. It means that in the day to day—at work, school, at home behind closed doors—Jesus is the Center of your life.