What Have You Done For Me Lately? – The Pope Visits NYC

New York was flooded with excitement this past weekend as Pope Benedict XVI made his […]

Sean Norris / 4.21.08

New York was flooded with excitement this past weekend as Pope Benedict XVI made his first visit to the city. People came from all over the country to be a part of this historic event (and to possibly catch a glimpse of the Pope-mobile!). Benedict used the trip to encourage the Catholics of our nation in their faith, in an almost evangelistic manner. The thing that interested me, however, was the focus of his message.

The Times wrote:
Before a crowd of nearly 60,000 people at Yankees Stadium, Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday ended his first visit to the United States as leader of the Roman Catholic Church with a reminder to the faithful that “obedience” to the authority of the church is the foundation of their religious faith.

Obedience to the church as one of the foundations of Catholic faith is not anything new. For centuries the Roman Catholic Church has propagated this message. And let’s face it – it often comes as a breath of fresh air, for good reason, to those raised on the endless infighting and revisionism of American Protestantism. But what struck me most was the effect of this message on the people hearing it. The Times quotes some the responses. Here is one that stood out:

Efrem Menghs, a phone company salesman from Columbus, Ohio, said the experience had made him a better person. “I will look back and say I’m glad I came to this event,” he said. “I did something for God.”

I could say a lot about why I object to the Pope’s statement, but this response by Efrem brings up one of the most important reasons I disagree: it makes Christianity all about us. It is about our obedience, our action, our faithfulness, etc. The Law always casts its light on us. It, like Janet Jackson, asks, “What have you done for me lately?” The sad thing is our answer is never enough.

St. Paul writes, For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (Galatians 3:10). That is, the Law demands total and complete obedience. It demands perfection. So if it is up to us, as the Pope’s message implies, then the result will always be the same; we would be cursed.

Thankfully, St. Paul goes on to explain the true foundation of our faith. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Galatians 3:13).

In other words, obedience is the foundation of the Christian faith, but it is Jesus’ obedience, not ours. That’s where our hope lies. The rest is just details…


6 responses to “What Have You Done For Me Lately? – The Pope Visits NYC”

  1. John Stamper says:

    LOVED THAT. Thanks…

  2. Sean Norris says:

    But of course!

  3. Christopher says:

    only you could put the popemobile, Janet Jackson and the book of Galatians in conversation. Beautiful.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Dear Sean,

    Skimming through the Mockingbird blog, I came across your post commenting on Benedict XVI’s visit to Washington and New York and on the message he preached there. You quoted a New York Times article reporting on the Mass in Yankee Stadium as your source for what the pope said and how his audience interpreted the message. Since that account is all that you read, I can understand the conclusion at which you arrived.

    But if you had read the full text of the messages that the pope preached, you would have seen that Benedict did nothing except to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, a gospel of joy and hope and not one of legalism or obedience. You said that you objected to his statement on obedience to the Church. That statement was one of many in his entire homily, and was by no means the focus of his message or his visit, but here are the words to which the Times refers:

    “The first reading also makes clear, as we see from the imposition of hands on the first deacons, that the Church’s unity is ‘apostolic’. It is a visible unity, grounded in the Apostles whom Christ chose and appointed as witnesses to his resurrection, and it is born of what the Scriptures call ‘the obedience of faith’ (Rom 1:5; cf. Acts 6:7).

    “‘Authority’ … ‘obedience’. To be frank, these are not easy words to speak nowadays. Words like these represent a ‘stumbling stone’ for many of our contemporaries, especially in a society which rightly places a high value on personal freedom. Yet, in the light of our faith in Jesus Christ – ‘the way and the truth and the life’ – we come to see the fullest meaning, value, and indeed beauty, of those words. The Gospel teaches us that true freedom, the freedom of the children of God, is found only in the self-surrender which is part of the mystery of love. Only by losing ourselves, the Lord tells us, do we truly find ourselves (cf. Lk 17:33). True freedom blossoms when we turn away from the burden of sin, which clouds our perceptions and weakens our resolve, and find the source of our ultimate happiness in him who is infinite love, infinite freedom, infinite life. ‘In his will is our peace’.”

    The church’s unity being visible and apostolic, and obedient self-surrender to Christ out of love for him. In what possible way is that not the Good News of Jesus? As a recovering legalist myself, I could find nothing legalistic in any of Benedict’s messages that he delivered in the US. Again and again he preached nothing but the love of God, our surrender to him, and the hope that the resulting relationship brings.

    Next you accuse one of the Mass-goers of having bad theology. This may be entirely true. Protestants and Catholics alike have pews filled with people who do not understand the gospel, and God willing we will all continue to rectify their misunderstandings. But the pews are also filled with people who would say that they were glad to come to church because they “did something for God” or “gave something back to God.” That is not a sign that they are earning their salvation, rather it is a grateful sign of thanksgiving and love. When I was a protestant, I was taught that works were doxological. I find no reason to assume that this man meant anything else, least of all to think that his feelings came from a craven obedience to the Church. Catholic-protestant disagreements about works and salvation aside, wanting to give back something to God or to do something for him is not a sign of tyranny to the law or something “all about us,” but rather a sign of the abundant grace of God taking a self-centered sinner outside himself.

    Finally, you return to obedience and say that Jesus’ obedience is the foundation of the Christian faith. Nowhere in his homilies did Benedict ever disagree. But he, like any Christian, would say that our obedience to Christ’s commands is important, that, as the Bible reminds us, “faith without works is dead.” Our obedience is important, but the obedience of Christ is so much more. Because we know and love this risen Christ we can have hope. That is the message I heard Benedict preach in person on three occasions, and I saw a crowd of 26,000 young people cheer the name of Jesus Christ because of it.

    Again, I encourage you to read the actual text of Benedict’s homilies, and of his other books, for that matter. Of all the living authors I have read in my 22 years of being a Christian, Benedict knows the love and the joy of God the best. That love and joy radiate through his words and from his person in a way that could only come from deep intimacy with God. I came away from the three events at which I heard him speak praying that God would give me the love he gave Benedict, that I might radiate love and hope the way he does. It was such a blessing to hear and see that love again and again during the past week. I pray that reading Benedict’s words you too would better know Christ our risen Lord and our hope.

    Yours sincerely,
    Nathaniel Peters

    Links to Some of Benedict’s Speeches
    Mass at Nationals Park: http://www.ewtn.com/USPapalVisit08/words/Nationals.asp
    Mass at St. Patrick’s: http://www.ewtn.com/USPapalVisit08/words/Clergy.asp
    Rally with Youth and Seminarians: http://www.ewtn.com/USPapalVisit08/words/Youth.asp
    Mass at Yankee Stadium: http://www.ewtn.com/USPapalVisit08/words/YankeeStadium.asp

    • Paul says:

      Old but gold, I had to comment: well said!!! “Our obedience is important, but the obedience of Christ is so much more. Because we know and love this risen Christ we can have hope. That is the message I heard Benedict preach in person on three occasions, and I saw a crowd of 26,000 young people cheer the name of Jesus Christ because of it.” – me too. Thank you Nathaniel Peters, great words.

  5. Sean Norris says:

    Dear Anonymous,

    Thank you for your comments. They are very thorough:) I completely understand that the pope said far more than what the Times reported. The interesting thing was that the Times heard obedience to the church as the main thrust of Benedict’s message. It is perfectly possible that the reporter had an agenda and wanted to skew the point of the pope’s visit for all of the readers, but it is also possible that the idea of our obedience to the church was in fact the point Benedict was trying to make. I think the article was trying to be very favorable to the pope’s visit.

    The ideas of self-surrender and obedience are certainly not just Roman Catholic. You are very right to say that much of the Protestant Church holds to them as well. I take issue with both. I do not believe I can surrender myself to God. I do not believe that I can obey Him. Rather, I believe that God turns me to Him. He changes my heart. He gives me faith. He causes me to love Him. It is nothing that I do on my own. I bring nothing to the table except my sin. In fact, I don’t even want to be at the table. God seeks us out. He is the active one, and I am completely passive. This is the fundamental difference between the pope’s message and the Gospel that I have heard. The Gospel is about God’s one-way love through Jesus’ death and resurrection on our behalf.

    What I hear from the pope and read in your comments is that there is two-way street between us and God. We have something to offer back to him. I think most evangelical Protestants would agree with you here too. But, as I said above, I believe it is a completely one-way street. God gives us Himself. Jesus’ perfect obedience is imputed to us. He does everything for us because we cannot do it for ourselves. His work is complete; there is nothing left for us to do. “It is finished.”

    Our obedience can do nothing but condemn us because we can never be truly obedient from the heart except through His righteousness. This was the whole point of the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus is showing that even if our outward actions were good our inward motivations are flawed. We cannot help but sin because we are corrupt to the core. Our actions always fall short and therefore always lead us back to the cross where His obedience was made ours and our disobedience was made His.

    It is awesome when people truly want to serve God and want to love Him, but I believe that this is the fruit of the Holy Spirit. It comes out of what He has put in us. We cannot try to make it happen because as soon as we begin to make an effort we begin to rely on ourselves rather than relying on the righteousness of Christ. Any time our effort comes into the picture we are turning away from the fact that He has accomplished everything for us already.

    I do not think we have to worry about our works or good deeds because they will come naturally out of the new heart God puts in us. I am so glad that you see this in the pope’s writings. I do not doubt that he is sincere in his love for God. I never meant to imply that he was not. I just do not think it comes from his obedience or effort. Rather, I believe that it is a gift from God as you say yourself.

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