By Peter Oliver, Olive Branch Marriage and Family Ministry
Three lanky individuals in their early twenties make their way home from a basketball court. The sun is bright, the grass green, and they are young, excited about the world around them and charting their course into the future. It’s Sunday and their parents went to Church this morning, but they didn’t. Wouldn’t it be nice if these young people believed in the Church? On the face of it, this seems like a rather sentimental question, but it is actually a deeply theological inquiry with significant anthropological and sociological properties. The gospel from this past Sunday can help us explore its implications.
The late Dr. John J. Pilch’s commentary on Sunday’s gospel, found on the Sunday Web Site developed by St. Louis University, offers us insights into the worldview of the people of the Mediterranean during Jesus’ time. Dr. Pilch draws our attention to Mark 4:39 in which Jesus, “rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Quiet! Be still!” He observes that “Western readers of this story struggle to understand how a human being could control nature by word alone. Jesus’ Middle Eastern contemporaries had no such problem.”
The reality that Dr. Pilch points to is actually a lot more pervasive than our capacity to believe a person can influence the forces of nature by the power of their words. From our earliest formative years Westerners are challenged to analyze and dissect, to employ a scientific lens and to thoroughly reject anything that cannot be calculated or quantified. We live with a profound level of doubt concerning all things mysterious and divine.
A recent meditation found in Henri Nouwen’s book, Bread for the Journey, helped me think about some of the consequences of this kind of formation. Pointing to the statement of belief concerning the Trinity (I believe in God the Father almighty…) found in the Apostle’s Creed, Nouwen brought my attention to something I had not noticed before. “The Apostle’s Creed does not say that the Church is an organization that helps us to believe in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. No, we are called to believe in the Church with the same faith we believe in God.”
Nouwen’s testimony is quite dramatic and quite important. He is equating belief in the Trinity with belief in the Church. The Church is a divinely constituted reality. It is the actual Body of Christ. The real presence of God bringing about God’s transforming action in the here and now and it is instrumental in moving history toward its final culmination in the second coming.
Nouwen freely acknowledges that this is difficult for us to believe but he goes on to say, “… whenever we separate our belief in God from our belief in the Church, we become unbelievers.” That is a startling conclusion, but the situation is a bit more complicated.
Our uncertainty about belief in the Church and questions about the power of Jesus’ words to still the sea are echoed thousands of times in our lack of confidence in God’s power to affect the concrete realities of our lives. Before we ever give thought to our belief in the Church, we have ingested an extraordinary amount of doubt concerning our belief in almost everything – God, Church, leadership, meaning, other people’s motives, our capacity to know, the possibility of happiness and even reality itself. The reality is that we come to the Apostolic faith, the “I believe in the Church”, as unbelievers.
The trio mentioned in the opening sentence of this article did not go to Church but there is a good chance that their parents, who did go to Church, would be extremely uncomfortable with the kind of belief that came quite naturally to the people of Jesus’ time. It’s also probable that we share in this unbelief and likely that we do not believe that our faith, expressed in words, can do anything that would approximate Jesus’ power over the unruly waves. It follows quite naturally that a good number of us don’t really believe in the Church.
This Sunday it would be helpful to spend some time contemplating Jesus through the lens of the apostles in the unsteady boat. Their capacity to believe has not been thoroughly undermined so they can probe issues of faith that elude us. Their question is not “do I believe” he can do this? Instead, Jesus’ power moves them to ask, “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey? (Mk 4:41)”
Time spent contemplating people with an alternative worldview can move us a step closer to belief in the divine entity we call the Church. The confidence that this kind of belief inspires delights in the youthful energy of the homeward bound basketball players and that gives life to the same awe experienced by the disciples in the boat.
Madeline and Peter Oliver work with Olive Branch Marriage and Family Ministry at Queen’s House of Retreat and Renewal, providing programming and support for people going through separation and divorce. Contact Madeline Oliver for pastoral counseling: 306-361-9318.