Faith That Works!

This reflection is for the 4th Sunday of Lent, Cycle B, 3/11/18.

I once had a Catholic High school student who, while smiling fromar to ear, told me that she finally understood how our life on earth corresponded to our future in heaven. She had just returned from the college counselor with exactly which courses must be taken in high school to get her into the college of her dreams.

She said, “Mr. Valgos, I finally get it! While on earth we’re supposed to do all the right things: receive our Sacraments, go to Church, go to a retreat or two, says our prayers, go to confession, and help out at the homeless shelter, and by doing all of those things–just like taking all my necessary classes for college–we get into heaven when our time on earth is over!”

I said, “Congratulations, Haley! You’ve got it exactly right with regard to college, and exactly backwards with regard to heaven! I went on to tell her and the rest of the class that salvation isn’t something earned and owed to us by God for all the work we do here on earth. I told Haley, that that kind of attitude would attempt to place a claim on God. God would OWE us! The Creator would be a debtor to the creature!

No, salvation is not something owed to us by God (as though we could ever do enough to earn it!) but is instead pure gift from a loving, generous, and merciful God. God is crazy about us, but because of sin, we owe a debt that simply cannot be paid. The debt we owe is indeed paid–though not by us–but rather by God himself in the person of Jesus Christ. Our only rule: to accept God’s offer, repent, and believe in this good news!

Today’s Gospel tells us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (JN 3:16-17)

I told Haley that in order to better understand salvation she might consider how amazing it would be if the college of her dreams contacted her during her 8th grade summer to give her not just acceptance into the school, but also free tuition, free books, and even free parking! The only stipulation is that she be willing to accept this amazing offer and then share with others how amazing this college is and how happy she is to be going there. That’s salvation!

We call the generous action of God “grace.” A priest friend of mine once explained to my 8th-graders that grace is “friendship with God.” We didn’t do anything to deserve it, but God freely offers it anyway. And our response to that offer of friendship is faith. St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians stands as a witness to these truths taught by the Church. Paul teaches, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.” (2:8-9)

Faith is the relationship we have with the invisible God. Like any relationship, faith can be nourished through spending quality time, reading stories about that person, getting to know others who know him, serving him, and communicating with him. The relationship of faith, like a mustard seed, may start out so totally small, but in time we discover that it is has grown so much that it provides comfort and peace not only to ourselves but to those around us as well.

I asked Haley about what she thinks she might do, in our scenario, with the time she was given between her having been accepted into the college of her dreams and her actually first starting the school four years later. She said she would work her butt off making sure she was ready when the day came to leave! She would show her appreciation for the generous gift by learning everything she could in the short time she had. She wouldn’t want to squander a moment that she had left. Exactly. And neither should we.

God gives us an amazing gift of salvation based only on his generosity and love–not based on anything we have done or could ever do. That’s amazing grace! We respond in faith by believing, repenting, and loving him and our neighbor. Love lived out toward God and neighbor is hard work! Prayer, fasting, almsgiving, obedience, and sacrifice is the work of salvation. Not the work that earns salvation, but the work we do because of the gift of salvation through Christ Jesus, our Lord.

St. Paul, in the very next verse in Ephesians 2 says this, “For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.” (2:10)

God has called us into his light by grace, through faith, to do good works. And therein lies salvation and the response. What an amazing gift. Sadly, however, as the Gospel clearly shows in its final verses of today’s reading, “this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil…But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God. (JN 3:19, 21)

So, it’s not a matter of works or no works, but what type of work will we do. We’ve been saved. Do good work. Don’t wait. You may be leaving for the college of your dreams soon. No time to lose.

God bless, Stephen

By Deacon Stephen Valgos

The Commandments: Heaven’s Runway

This reflection is for the 3rd Sunday in Lent,Cycle B, 3/4/2018.

Airport RunwayHow do you feel about laws? While that probably depends largely on how big of a hurry you are in and whether or not you’ve got flashing red lights behind you, most of us recognize, and rightfully so, that laws are an important and integral part of a safe, peaceful, and prosperous society. Clearly, even the terms “outlaw,” “lawless” and “in law” have some pretty negative connotations! Ha-ha, okay, not the last one!

To appreciate the law, we have to also reflect on what it would be like to have no law at all. What is good? How do we treat people? What do we do when others harm and do violence to others? Many people have a negative opinion of the law because they feel that the law impounds their rights and sets limits on their freedom–and to a degree, that is true. The law exists to set bounds on our freedoms to the degree that our desire impounds or undermines the rights of our neighbor. The law is not binding on those who love their neighbor! But if one’s desire is inordinate; if one desires to advance oneself at the expense of his/her neighbor, then the law is good and sets limits where none exist for lawless people.

The law, then, can be rightly seen as a gift for peaceful and happy living. When the Church talks about the Law, she speaks of it in a few different ways–starting with most vague to most concrete. You can read the C.C.C.1950-1986 and 2030-2051 for reference.

The “Natural Law” is the law of God written on the human heart. Humanity has been created in God’s image and has the law of God imprinted on its heart. If we “look down deep inside” then we know what is good and what is not. We do this all the time when we speak to our kids. We say things like, “Honestly, down deep inside, didn’t you know that what you were doing was wrong?” And if the answer is, “No,” we we say, “Well, you should have known better!” What we are alluding to is the Natural Law. The good is there to be done, and evil shunned, just as plain as day for the one who is willing at all to look. We call this our conscience. Our conscience is God’s moral compass placed within us that teaches us the truth about what to do in concrete circumstances. It is a compass that leads toward life, truth, wholeness, and happiness in this life and in the next.

However, because we we sin, live in a world of sin, and because often times we are raised in a community or family that may have a pattern of living outside the law, many of us may need a little more guidance than “looking deep inside.” Our conscience may be so improperly formed that we need something a little more clearly stated. Here enters the written law, or the Revealed Law. God does not abandon us to vague notions and slippery slopes. He provides the Israelites, once guided by the laws of Egypt, a sure way to remain in His love. He provides the commandments to ensure that they have life to the full. He says that if they would just follow these laws and teach their children to do the same (form their children’s conscience by them), then they will surely have life and be blessed in this life and the next.

The revelation of Jesus Christ in the fullness of time taught the Jewish people of his day a much fuller understanding, application, and realization of the law through the person of Jesus Christ himself. In Jesus we have the fullness and perfection of the law. In Jesus’ life, and especially in the Sermon on the Mount, we see that “The Law” is only the minimum standard and Jesus is not at all a minimalist, but is instead a maximalist! Jesus does not want us looking for the line that we might not cross it, but instead wants us to enter fully into the game of love! Jesus never abolishes the Law of God, but rather completes it. He teaches, “Although you have heard…(minimalism), I say to you…(maximalism). Just one example from the Sermon will suffice. Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna. (MT 5:21-22)

Jesus certainly did not intend to add more complexity to the law so he summed it up nicely and made it quite simple. He said if we would just love God and love our neighbor we would be following every law in the book! It’s simple really (not easy, but simple); love. Period. If we would just follow Jesus Law of Love we would experience joy in this life and the fullness of joy in the next!

Unfortunately, it is often not so easy to know how to love in this life, and Jesus establishes his Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, to help us apply the law of love in every generation with its new challenges. The body of Christ gathered in every generation gifts us with Canon Law or Church Law so that we might have the guidance we need to experience the fullness of joy in our lives, teach our children what is right and good, and help to ensure their joy and happiness too!

It should now be quite clear that we have been given amazing gifts by God–all designed to help us get through this difficult desert. We have his law placed in our heart. The revealed law given first to Moses and brought to completion in Jesus, and then the ongoing practical application and guidance through the ministry of the Church.

These guides are what I like to refer to as the lights on the runway to heaven. God’s desire is that we “land” safely with him. He wants us to have a peaceful life here on earth and to spend eternity with him in the next. He wants us to land safely for our sake and for the sake of those under our care–such as our children, other people’s children, community members, employees, citizens of the state, and persons in the world! The law exists for but one purpose–to help us get to where we want and need to go. How juvenile of us to outwardly spurn the guide that ensures our greatest joy! We’d not only be “shooting ourselves in the foot” if we were to reject the law, we’d also be putting those under our care in jeopardy as well!

This outright rebellion against the good would be tantamount to a pilot coming in for a landing, having the runway lights lit up for him, and then deciding to “do his own thing,” to land on a runway of HIS choice at a time that was right for HIM. Naturally, with so many planes in the sky, so many planes on different runways, and so many dangers to a safe landing, that pilot would lose his license to fly! The pilot’s goal is to arrive safely at his destination. He wants the lights. He needs the guidance. And if he uses them he and his passengers will arrive safely at their destination.

And if we do the same…so will we. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love, period. Use the lights.

God bless, Stephen

By Deacon Stephen Valgos

A Question of Authority

Peters keys.jpgHi. I received this question some time ago in the comments section and I’ve finally gotten around to answering it. I think it would be very instructive for everyone. What follows is the question and my response.

From Thomas: How much authority does church council have, from where does it derive that authority, and what do we do when Scripture and Church council appear to contradict? Certainly this is a question that Christians have wrestled with for centuries, and I would like to come to a better understanding of the subject.

From me: Hi Thomas! I’m so sorry that I’m only now responding to your question!  First let me recommend two very good and thorough books on the topic that will do so much more for your understanding than what I might deliver here. The first is by Mark Shea, and is titled, “By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition,” and the second is by Richard R. Gaillardetz, and is titled, “By What Authority?: Primer on Scripture, the Magisterium, and the Sense of the Faithful.”

To your question, there is only one deposit of faith. Period. Catholics believe that the fullness of truth that God desired to make known to mankind was revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Of course, those teachings/that truth was first transmitted by word of mouth, or what is referred to as the “oral proclamation,” (up to 30yrs after Jesus’ death) and eventually came to be written down (30-60yrs) to be used as a form of Catechesis for those who desired to follow Jesus. Those teachings about Jesus, and the letters written by others were eventually accepted (and some rejected) and then compiled into what we today refer to as the New Testament. Whether oral or written, it is all one deposit of faith. Naturally, then, councils do not contradict Scripture, as Scripture itself was born out of councils. Truth does not contradict truth. If I recall, the New Testament Canon was debated at the Council of Hippo in 393, Carthage in 397, and then finally approved by Pope Innocent in 405AD. Over the course of these years, books were debated, accepted, or rejected based upon their authorship, universality, and consistency with what was known to be true by the Catholic bishops and theologians at the council. For more about the books that were not chosen, see New This link will take you to both the Apocrapha of Jewish and of Christian origin. Apocrapha simply means, “outside the Canon,” as oppposed to the “canonical books” that were approved and make up the 73 books of the Old and New Testaments.

The Catholic Church’s claim is quite simple—we are not a Bible based church, but rather the Bible itself is anchored deeply within the Church. The Bible is ecclesial (churchical). Catholic theology cannot be “Bible based,” as that would assume that somehow Scripture preceded the Church and formed it. The opposite, of course, is true. Jesus formed the Church when he gathered those who would eventually become his herald and give witness to his resurrection. The Church, his herald and witness, shares the truth about Jesus and his teachings in every generation. This “passing on” of the teachings of Jesus is what we call tradition—from the Latin traditio, which literally means, “to hand on” or to “pass on.” A great example of this is found in 1COR 15:3-4 where St. Paul cites the Old Testament as evidence for what he has himself heard. He says, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,…”

When there appears to be a conflict between Scripture and Tradition, then it is only a matter of appearance of conflict as a result of an improper rendering of either sacred tradition or sacred scripture. The magisterium, made up of the college of bishops in union with the pope, is the official interpreter and teacher of the deposit of faith.

So, all of that to say, the greatest weight in the Catholic Church’s teachings come out of Ecumenical Councils where the bishops around the world gather in union with the pope. That’s a big deal, and the teachings that come out of that gathering with regard to the truths of faith and morals are therefore binding on the Catholic Christian community.

Finally, (and this is from the heart, I don’t have any ideas what Jesus said, or even less by what he meant with what he said. I was not there. I didn’t hear it, and he never explained it to me. There is no such thing as uninterpreted Scripture. The Bible doesn’t SAY anything. You and I have to believe either our own or someone else’s interpretation and teaching about what it “says” and what it means. That’s as close as we can get. With all respect, I rely not on my own holiness and scholarship with regard to Scripture. I have to trust somebody. That’s why I’m Catholic today. I don’t know who’s ultimately “right” in regard to Jesus’ teachings in total or those found only in Scripture, but the Catholic Church has the most claim to be right. The Bible didn’t fall from the sky. It was compiled by Holy men who sought to preserve for each generation what they knew to be true about their Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. The successors of those men continue to teach and guide the Christian community today, and they are the Catholic bishops of the world led by the vicar of Christ on earth, the Pope.

Many great evangelists and teachers have appeared and blessed us with their amazing giftedness, holiness, knowledge, and wisdom—but none of them individually trumps the collective giftedness, holiness, knowledge, and wisdom of 2,000 years of bishops and popes in the Catholic Church. And so, Catholic Christian I remain today and forever.

To conclude, the place of Scripture in the Church is one of great weight and authority because it came out of councils—and all councils since have pointed to Sacred Scripture to stand as a witness to the truthfulness of their teaching. So, while the Catholic Church cannot be Bible-based, the Bible indeed stands witness in every generation to the teachings of the Church. For Catholics, it’s not Bible OR Tradition (councils, encyclicals, theologians, etc.), but rather Bible AND Tradition, as authoritatively interpreted by the Pope and the bishops in union with him. And of course, the authority of the Pope to guide and lead the Christian community derives from Jesus himself, when he, in the Gospel of Matthew 16:19, Jesus says to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on Earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth shall be loosed in heaven.” So, the authority to teach in the name of Jesus comes from Jesus himself, and the teachings of Jesus make up the deposit of faith–safeguarded by Jesus’ faithful women and men for two millennia.

Again, sorry so long delayed in my reply. I hope this helps.

By Deacon Stephen Valgos