We Are Not Bleating Sheep

The Father loves the Son and has given everything over to him.
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life,
but whoever disobeys the Son will not see life,
but the wrath of God remains upon him. (Jn 3:35-36)

The writer is telling the members of the Johannine Community that there are consequences for not obeying the Son who has been sent. Our choices, for better or worse, have consequences.

Eternal life comes from belief in Jesus and wrath comes from not believing and not obeying Jesus. Obediens means hearing and then acting accordingly.

Who is the Jesus we are to obey. Is he the saccharine blond haired Nordic One who died to atone for our sins? Or, Is he the dark skinned Jewish resister who was crucified as a common criminal because he lived a life that challenged empire and priestly domination? Our conception of Jesus colors our belief.

Obeying the European Jesus came to mean not eating meat on Friday, frequent confession, and pelvic morality. It was life in the Law and not in the Spirit. It was about externals rather than a commitment to a living person. It was about the individualism, rugged at times, of saving our own souls. “Belief” meant doing what the priests and bishops told us to do. “Believers” were sheep that went “Baaa” on command. The “believers” came to be known as “pay and obey” Catholics. Merton, commenting on the new Vatican II liturgy, wrote:

It is true that the Lord in the Gospel speaks of His faithful as “sheep,” but that does not entitle us to assume that the liturgy is merely the organized bleating of irrational animals herded together by constraint and trained by an ingenious discipline until they carry out seemingly human actions which they are not capable of understanding. (Seasons of Celebration, 5)

The Constitution on the Liturgy called for the active participation of the non-ordained in the litrugy. In liturgy, we proclaim the life and death of Jesus. We are not called to be docile sheep. Belief means a commitment to Jesus the Christ. Belief means that we hear the call and then take action to alleviate human misery. Belief means that we are disciples of the Man from Galilee who came to liberate the oppressed, set captives free, give sight to the blind, and to proclaim a Year of Jubilee debt relief. Belief means that we live in faith communities. Belief means that we hear the cry of the poor. Belief means that we focus on how Jesus lived rather than exclusively on how he died.

Belief for Merton means:

Hence the Christian has no Law but Christ. His “Law” is the new life itself which has been given to him in Christ. His Law is not written in books but in the depths of his own heart, not by the pen of man but by the finger of God. His duty is now not just to obey but to live. He does not have to save himself, he is saved by Christ. He must live to God in Christ, not only as one who seeks salvation but as one who is saved. (SC, 119-120)

Belief unto eternal life means that we must obey—we must listen. We have a responsibility to form our consciences. We form our consciences by listening to the scriptures, the teaching of the church, and respecting our consciences. Vatican II re-empowered the non-ordained members of the faithful. We will avoid a lot of heartburn if we remember that the faithful includes bishops, priests, and the non-ordained members of the body of Christ—commonly referred to as the laity. I prefer non-ordained to laity because laity came to means second class citizenship in the church.

In Lumen Gentium, the Fathers of the Council clarified the role of the non-ordained and conferred “infallibility in belief and indefectibility in right judgment” upon them (Ladilaus Orsy, Receiving the Council: Theological and Canonical Insights and Debates, 43) :

The holy people of God also share in Christ’s prophetic office: it spreads abroad a living witness to him, especially by a life of faith and love and by offering to God a sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips confessing his name. . . . The whole body of the faithful who have received an anointing which comes from the holy one. . . cannot fail in belief (in credendo falli nequit). It shows this characteristic through the entire people’s supernatural sense of the faith, when “from the bishop to the last of the faithful” it manifests a universal consensus in matters of faith and morals. (LG 12)

I wonder how many of John Paul’s bishop appointees have read this document. And, if they have read it, why the clericalism and paternalism and monarchy? Anthony Padovano reminds us that the Vatican Council affirmed the primacy of conscience. Yet, a bishop in Pennsylvania has denied access to announcing events in diocesan media to a group of nuns who came out in favor of health care.

We are not sheep. We are not second class citizens. We have been anointed and we cannot fail in belief. We have been anointed by the Spirit of the Man from Galilee. We are called to discipleship and full-fledged citizenship in the church.

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