Monday, May 29, 2006

May another take his office

In my more than fifty-five years on this earth, I had never attended a Protestant Sunday service until today. My son, who was hired to be the organist at St. Luke United Church of Christ several years ago, will be graduating from high school this week. The congregation graciously wanted to make a presentation to him at their Sunday service, and their pastor invited us to attend.

Evan played his first Mass almost nine years ago to the day. It was Memorial Day, 1997. He was 9 years old at the time. He began taking lessons when he was five from the wife of a Lutheran minister. It seemed to come almost easy to him, and by the time he entered high school, he was a regular organist at our Catholic parish, and even directed the adult choir. All of this was done in service to the Church, so Evan would never take money for his work. Being a teenager in need of spending money, he jumped at the opportunity to make $50 per week for playing the organ at the nearby Protestant service, while continuing to play the Saturday evening Mass at our parish. Allowing him to play for a non-Catholic congregation was never an issue for us. He has become firmly ensconced in his Catholic faith, very knowledgeable for someone his age.

The people at St. Luke United Church of Christ were very friendly. We were greeted at the door by a couple of members of the congregation and their pastor. Living in a small community, we knew a few of them. They welcomed us and we felt comfortable.

The service began with the pastor at the ambo where he made a few announcements and then asked the congregation for "joys and concerns". A number of people got up to request prayers for certain friends and family members. One expressed joy at her daughter finding a job, and another man thanked God for helping him discern which job he should take. The pastor took notes and worked these joys and concerns into prayers near the end of the service where he mentioned each of the petitioners by name. It was also at this time that the presentation was made to my son.

Following the introductory prayers and an opening hymn (America, in recognition of Memorial Day), the congregation sang something similar to our Gloria. There was a "Litany for Memorial Day", another hymn (Battle Hymn of the Republic), followed by Psalm 33 and a reading from Acts 1:15-26, which became the topic for the sermon.

The reading from Acts and the sermon were of particular interest to me. We would have read that same passage from Luke's second volume had we not celebrated the Feast of the Ascension this Sunday in our diocese. It tells of the process of choosing a successor to Judas. The proceedings are lead by Peter who stood before the assembly of about 120 to express the need for filling the vacant office. Two candidates were presented and after praying for guidance, they cast lots whereby Matthias was chosen to be counted with the remaining eleven.

The pastor talked about the importance of filling that office vacated by Judas. He said the eleven probably could have continued to serve those 120 people, but that it was necessary to fill the office and all Christianity eventually spread from that ministry. As Catholics, we often cite this passage to support our belief in the existence of Apostolic Succession. Our Catholic priests and bishops of today can trace their lineage to those original twelve. We know from Scripture that Jesus promised to establish a Church, with Peter holding the keys to the kingdom. Jesus gave all twelve apostles the authority to bind and loose, and here in Acts, we see that office being passed down.

When Christians separate themselves from the authorized line of succession, they can no longer be assured of the truth. Hence we have thousands of Protestant denominations, each teaching their own interpretation of Scripture. Anyone who disagrees with this pastor's sermon can go down the street and find another pastor who teaches something more palatable.

I would like to question the pastor on the events depicted in Acts 1:15-26. If these twelve men were given the authority to bind and loose (Matt 18:18), and that authority was passed on as we see here, who holds that authority now? If the pillar and foundation of truth is the Church as we learn in 1 Tim 3:15, is it not important that we remain under the safe harbor of that Christ-given authority? In view of the lack of Christian unity we experience today, does he ever consider the possibility that many have rejected this Christ-given authority if favor of self-rule through personal interpretation?

In a discussion I was reading this week, someone asked why Protestants do not see the big picture? One person pointed out the tendency to take Scripture one passage at a time in order to prove a certain point. Another used the term cognitive dissonance to describe the ability to see what supports one's belief while ignoring that which does not. When one answers to no particular authority other than his own congregation, he is certainly free to preach whatever he believes and avoid anything which may be in opposition.

Following the sermon, the offering was collected. Up to this point, I was somewhat surprised how closely the service resembled the Liturgy of the Word in our Catholic Mass. The pastor apparently follows our Lectionary, as many Protestant denominations do, even though he omitted the seconded reading and the gospel. Were we in a Catholic Church, we would now begin the most important part of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, where we receive the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. Here in St. Luke United Church of Christ, what followed was the Closing Hymn. You see, outside the line of Apostolic Succession, there is no priesthood, and therefore, no valid consecration.

We departed the church amid handshakes and warm wishes from many members of their congregation. There is no doubt that they love Jesus and one another. In many respects, I wish our own Catholic congregation could express the warmth and friendliness we witnessed today. Despite all these good feelings, there was something very important missing. Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. (John 6:53) My prayer is that one day they can be reunited with us in the fullness of the faith.