August 27, 2017

What It Means to Be a Christian

Christ with the saints

By Father Thomas Mattison

There is no such thing as a Church teaching that is not social.

Once upon a time the bishop of the Diocese of Burlington was named Robert F. Joyce. He was a native of Proctor and installed as bishop of Burlington in 1957. He resigned as bishop after 15 years at age 75.

He would not have been grateful to be called an ecclesiologist — an expert in the theology of the Church — but he was just that. At every Confirmation ceremony he gave the same sermon -- every one! And he would make everyone in church repeat the message after him: Don’t go to heaven alone; take someone with you.

RFJ clearly understood that there is in each of us a tendency — a temptation — to think of ourselves before thinking of anyone else and, even, to the exclusion of everyone else. But he understood, too, that such a focus on the single self was absolutely antithetical to Christianity.

Just being a Christian means being — at very least — connected to Jesus. We have no connection to Jesus except for the one that is forged by the evangelical work of making him known in every place and time; our connection with Him happens because others reach out to share their connection with us. Our Christian identity, then, is more than a creed or a morality or a style of worship. It is a series of interlocking and reinforcing connections between us and Jesus and all the other humans of every time and place who have believed, hoped in and loved the God he called Abba, Father. As soon as I decide to cast off one or another of those connections — one or another of those people — my relationship with Jesus begins to suffer.

It is misleading, then, to talk too much about accepting Jesus as my personal Lord and savior. The decision to become a Christian is personal and individual, but once it is made, remaining a Christian means involvement with all other Christians as well as Jesus; this is automatic and irreversible.

Sin is nothing more or less than decision and action motivated by and effective of a severing of myself from the connectedness that is the very essence of Christianity. That is why sinners have to go to confession individually, rather than hiding in the great collectivity of human sinfulness and imperfection. That is why such things as abortion and broken marriage vows and unforgiveness are declared mortal sins; they cut ties that bind the human family and the Church together. That is why long and willful refusal to attend Mass with the rest of the Christians in the community is treated as a sin requiring individual penance before a return to the sacramental Communion of the Mass. That is why those whose brand of Christianity is identified as refusing to accept the pope as part of their vision of the Christian community are asked not to take communion with those for whom his role seen as integral to the life of the Church.

Fr. Thomas Mattison is pastor of Christ Our Savior Parish in Manchester Center and Arlington Vermont.

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