The story is told of a man who fell off a cliff. On the way down he manages to grab a tree limb. Peering into a deep canyon, he calls out, “Help, please. Is anyone up there?”
After an unbearable silence, a voice answers, “Yes, I am here.”
“Who are you?” the man shouts.
“It’s me, the Lord!”
Greatly relieved, the man says, “Thank you. Have you come to rescue me?”
“Yes,” says the Lord. “Let go. I will catch you.”
The man thinks for a second, then asks, “Is there anyone else up there?”
Well, we can understand the man’s reluctance to let go, but, in reality, there is no one else up there. Jesus says it quite plainly this Sunday, “I am the way.” (Jn 14:6) He does not say a way, but the way.
I know a woman who has battled for years with alcohol. She told me she realizes it could ruin her life, but she just cannot let go. “If I didn’t have a drink to look forward to,” she confessed, “my life would be bland, empty.” For similar reasons others of us cling desperately to some branch rather than falling into the Lord’s arms.
It is a risk, but Jesus tells us we must take it. “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
A couple years back, the Congregation for Doctrine of Faith took flak for reaffirming that traditional teaching. They published a document on “the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church.” It hit many like a bucket of ice water. Still it should not have come as a surprise. For two millenia Christians have taught that salvation comes only through Jesus and his Church.
During the Easter Season, our Scripture readings underscore Jesus’ ongoing presence in the Church. We see this Sunday the institution of deacons. Like priests and bishops, they are fallible, weak human beings whom the Lord uses to teach, govern and sanctify his Church. Among the Seven were great saints: Stephen was the first martyr, Philip a powerful evangelizer. However, according to early traditions, a heretical sect originated from the deacon Nicolas. Writing at the end of the second century, St, Irenaeus says:
“The Nicolaitans (see Rev. 2:14) are the followers of that Nicolas who was one of the seven first ordained to the diaconate by the apostles. They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence . . . teaching that it is a matter of indifference to practice adultery, and to eat things sacrificed to idols.” (Against Heresies, 1.26)
As in early times, the Church today has some terrible sinners, as well as great saints – and a lot of people like you and me who are somewhere in the middle, trying to figure things out. The Church also has to deal with false teachers. Perhaps the greatest scandal in Boston was that a priest who had a doctrine similar to the Nicolaitans was allowed to continue teaching in the name of the Church.*
Protecting the Church from wolves (false teachers) is the primary obligation of bishops (episcopoi = overseers). What should the rest of us do when we encounter false teaching or scandalous behavior? After prayer, we might confront the person or even report it to the legitimate authority.
But we can also do what St. Francis did. Once he encountered a priest who was living in open concubinage. One of the Brothers Minor asked if the priest's Masses were contaminated beyond legitimacy. Francis said nothing, but went to the priest, knelt before him and kissed his hands.
"But Brother Francis," the brother said to him afterward, "those are the hands of a sinner, a man bringing terrible shame upon Christ's Bride, the Church."
"Yes, Brother," St. Francis replied. "And those hands also hold God." Francis' gesture so affected the priest he repented and went on to live a holy, prayerful life. (Please don't all come up after Mass and start kissing my hands!)
Brothers and sisters, there will always be scandalous sinners and false teachers - but the Church herself continues as Jesus’ presence in time and space. At this moment, we pray even more ardently for her cleansing, beginning with our own selves. When the curtain closes on human history, what will remain is Jesus and his spotless bride. (Rev. 19:7; 21:2) For that reason he tells us:
“I am the way and the truth and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me.” (Jn 14:6)
*About 215 A.D. St. Hippolytus wrote:
"Nicolaus, as one of the seven (that were chosen) for the diaconate, was appointed by the Apostles. (But Nicolaus) departed from correct doctrine, and was in the habit of inculcating indifferency of both life and food. And when the disciples (of Nicolaus) continued to offer insult to the Holy Spirit, John reproved them in the Apocalypse as fornicators and eaters of things offered unto idols."
Some two hundred years later, the monk John Cassian stated:
"We need never .... wonder that some bad and detestable men have secretly found their way into the number of the saints. If we bear in mind that Satan was chosen among the angels, and Judas among the apostles, and Nicolaus the author of a detestable heresy among the deacons, it will be no wonder that the basest of men are found among the ranks of the saints."
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