Monday, September 28, 2015

The Pope and the Presence of God

Last week, there were lots of angry Protestants in Washington--but mostly because of the traffic!

For the first time since his installation to the office, Pope Francis paid a visit to the United States, starting with our nation's capital.  Over 11,000 people gathered for his first public address at the White House, and his subsequent visits and speeches to the Council of Catholic Bishops, a joint session of Congress, and the United Nations were met with great fanfare.

Reaction to his visit has been as varied as the multiplicity of worldviews that exist in our nation.  Catholics and non-Catholics alike celebrated his positive influence on the Church of Rome and the world.  And on the other end of that spectrum, fundamentalists and prophecy-addicts who had apparently also broken a shoelace sometime in the week took every opportunity to promulgate their message that the end is near.  Some praised him for his environmental advocacy; others for his defense of the unborn.  But no matter how one feels about the pope, its obvious that Francis is a rock star!

Overall, I appreciated the pope's visit.  And as I've watched his behavior since assuming the papal office, I've been pleased to see a man who refuses opulence, cares for the poor, and is a true person of the people.  That's never a bad thing, and those dispositions were clearly and consistently seen during his time on American soil.

I also realize these are strange things for someone in my position to be saying.  After all, I'm Protestant for a reason.  I don't believe our differences are minor, nor do I believe that all that transpired in 16th Century Europe was just a big misunderstanding.  And if my Catholic friends are intellectually honest, they have to admit that their church says the same thing.  Just google the Council of Trent and see what the Catholic church has been saying about us for hundreds of years--statements that have never been recanted, even by Vatican II.  Trust me, its not very nice.

Moreover, I'm not just a Protestant.  I'm a Baptist.  If Protestant theology can exist on a spectrum, then my doctrinal ancestors could rightly be described as existing on the fringe of that continuum.  But we're OK with that.  After all, this global movement called Christianity started as a perceived fringe movement of Judaism by the man I worship as God.  Come to think of it, God seems to prefer doing His work from the fringes.  So I'm happy to carry that torch as long as my heart continues to beat.

So why would a guy like me express appreciation for someone like Pope Francis?  How could I possibly speak with admiration about a man whose church still officially pronounces me anathema?

Principally, I'm appreciative of the Pope's visit because it has reminded our entire nation that, no matter how hard we try to suppress our innate desires for something bigger than us, we can't help but long for the presence of God.

For many decades now, many among the cultural elite have insisted that an increasing secularism was and is the inevitable destiny of modernity.  Even Boston University's Peter Berger admits that to attend a state university in America today is to enter an environment dominated by a secularism that has been imported from Europe.  The decline of religion in America, we are told, is the inevitable conclusion to a path long-ago marked out for us--a path that ends with the realization that we don't need God.

But if last week didn't reveal anything else with clarity, it revealed that our society--even if subconsciously--is still acutely aware of our need for Divine presence.  Such is precisely why 11,000 people were willing to be packed like sardines on the south lawn of the White House, and why so many of my neighbors had to leave their homes an hour earlier just to get to work on time last week. When they see Pope Francis, they sense the presence of God, and they long to be in close proximity to that presence.  And even non-Catholics need to admit that when a religious leader keeps the President waiting so he can spend quality time with a kid along the parade route, there is something in those actions that is very much like Jesus.  People want to be around that.

Additionally, Catholic teaching insists that the Pope is nothing less than the priest of priests, and the vicar of Christ on earth.  If you believe that--if you believe in the possibility of that--wouldn't you want to get close to him too?  If proximity truly presents the possibility of having grace dispensed, its no small wonder so many people long to be around this man.

The Pope's visit demonstrated experientially, and with abundant clarity, that in spite of increasing secularism people are still desperately seeking the presence of God.  And if I may be so bold, I'd like to suggest that this is where my doctrinal ancestors' "wild, wild west" theology can be of help.

First, the reason we seem so desperate for God's presence is because--whether we are conscious of it or not--we are separated from Him.  Deep down, we know this, which is why entire populations of people go bonkers when a prominent religious leader comes to town.  Perhaps he or she can "close that gap" for us.   But at the end of the day, no matter how much another person seems to emulate Jesus, they just aren't Jesus!  And when we discover that like us, they put their pants on every morning one leg at a time, the desperate longing for a presence that is infinitely larger than us only increases.

And this is where we need those voices from the fringe--voices which insist that ultimately, there is no more human priesthood--no "go-between" from whom you can merely catch enough Divine droppings to somehow find your way into the presence of your Creator.  And that is good news!

Its good news because through the death and resurrection of Jesus, such mediatorial sacraments are no longer needed.  If you long for the presence of God, you can have it, and you can have it right here, right now!  Earthly priests just get in the way.  You don't need me, or any other religious leader of any kind.  You need only to be in close proximity to Jesus.  And here is even better news:  He is already right there--as close as the tips of your fingers!  And because through his death on the cross He has already paid the penalty for the sin that separates you from your Creator, turning to Him alone results in your experiencing the true presence of God.  Pretty radical, huh?

I'm thankful that the visit of a Roman Pontiff has reminded us of our need for God's presence.  But I'm more thankful for a Gospel that offers His presence to anyone who truly wants it.  Without Jesus, Pope Francis is just as cut off from God as you or me.  With Jesus, you can be as close to God as you perceive the Pope to be--perhaps even closer!

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