The Lord did not accidentally permit those who came after him to teach with authority.
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On a friend’s Facebook page, a commenter launched a long, repetitive, not very coherent rant declaring Purgatory “unbiblical.” Along the way he said this: “Paul was a Jew who converted to Christianity, the letters written were to specific churches with specific prejudices. So having been Jewish he no doubt could not shake off all old tradition in his line of thinking, kind of like you. It is not important to us because it still is not what Jesus says. Paul doesn’t out rank Jesus.”
So: This man declares with certainty what is and is not “biblical.” Fair enough, from his point of view. Here’s the screwy thing. He considers St. Paul not only wrong, but basically untrustworthy. The Apostle writes from “prejudices” and “old traditions” he “could not shake off.” His criterion for deciding what in Paul is prejudice and tradition seems to be: Things Paul said that Jesus didn’t say already. I think it’s actually: Things Paul said that I don’t like that Jesus didn’t say already, but maybe that’s unfair.
Whether or not he knows it, he’s saying the New Testament outside the gospels doesn’t teach with authority. Paul and the other writers, they couldn’t shake off their upbringing. They said things with what they thought apostolic authority that weren’t true. Only Jesus speaks with real authority.
What that means isn’t “Jesus” but “my version of Jesus.” The trouble with using Jesus the way this fellow does is that he’s a vessel into which we can put pretty much anything we want. He came to preach the good news and to die and rise again. He didn’t come to tell us everything we need to know to follow him faithfully after he returned to his Father.
Separating Jesus from Paul and the rest of the New Testament, and from the Church his Body, lets us use him as the trump card that wins every argument. That’s a perennial Christian temptation. It’s one the Church protects us from and one of the things that attracted me to the Church.
Searching for Jesus
When I was a vaguely-Christianized young man, people tried to show me Jesus. Bless them for it. I still noticed that Jesus changed from person to person, and that none of the Jesuses presented to me quite fit the one I could read about in the gospels.
The ones people told me about were always nicer than the one in the Bible and a lot more predictable. Their Jesuses tended to be a type. The one in the gospels wasn’t. I didn’t have him pegged. That suggested to me, as dim as I was then, that the stories pointed to a real man. A writer would smooth out the story.
As indeed my friends did. Friends presented two different versions. Some presented what I came to think of as blond surfer Jesus, the mellow Jesus who just wanted to hang out and told me we were cool. Others presented the revolutionary Jesus. Now I’d call him social justice Jesus. He didn’t want to hang out, he wanted to lead us all onto the front lines, to stick our fists in the air and kick some establishment butt. I much preferred the second.
To be fair, some Evangelical friends presented a Jesus more like the one I read about in the gospels. But even theirs was another type. He was savior Jesus. He told us we had sinned and offered to save us, but not much else. Even their version wasn’t the complex and compelling but also baffling man of the gospels.
The effect on me was to feel that Jesus was in play. He called me, yet I couldn’t quite know who he was. Added to that was the fact that my serious Christian friends disagreed on some very important matters. I really didn’t know which end was up, but even I could see the great gulf between the Catholic Mass some friends enjoyed and the spare memorialist service other friends enjoyed. I took that difference as expressing many others. Both claimed to follow Jesus truly and fully, meaning the others didn’t.
Later, when I’d become a mainline Protestant Christian of the Episcopal type, I ran into another use of Jesus as a vessel and trump card. Modernizing Episcopalians disliked many of the classic Christian moral disciplines, especially those restricting what they could do in bed. St. Paul had provided those. They argued that he’d gone wrong. They had to, since they read his epistles in church nearly every Sunday. Paul didn’t understand the liberating gospel Jesus preached and imposed a set of rules on the new Christian community.
Now that I think of it, they combined surfer Jesus with revolutionary Jesus. Jesus is both cool with whatever we want to do and wants us to smash the structures of oppression. The effect on me was to feel that even in a Protestant body that stressed tradition, Jesus was in play.
To the Catholic Church
Both experiences pushed me toward the Catholic Church. They made me see that Jesus isn’t enough. The Jesus we read about in the gospels left a lot unsaid. He didn’t come to tell us what St. Paul and the other New Testament writers tell us, nor what the Church has drawn from that initial written deposit and from the unwritten traditions. (See sections eight to ten of De Verbum.)
This is a big problem, unless he meant to do it that way. As, being God, he surely did. He trained Apostles who’d fill out the story for us and tell us the mechanics of the thing. It’s probably safe to say that he intended us to have a New Testament with epistles as well as gospels. He left us his Body, a body that would move and grow through history that would spell things out in even more detail.
Jesus is not in play. He’s in the Church.