How Shall They Hear or How Shall They Taste?

How Shall They Hear or How Shall They Taste? September 13, 2018

Now seems to be one of those teaching moments about the Reformation. Despite celebrations and commemorations of a year ago, no one seemed to go deep in the weeds about what differentiates Protestants and Roman Catholics. Now is a teaching moment because the Roman Catholic faithful, naturally upset with the bishops, cardinals, and pope over the sex scandal and questions swirling around who knew and when did they know it — the Roman Catholic faithful remain committed to remaining. No Prexit for them — as in, leave the Roman Catholic communion for a Protestant church or communion. That option seems unthinkable because these Roman Catholics understand their church to be special.

One aspect of that specialness is the Mass. George Weigel recently explained why he and many others could not leave Rome despite the very bad news that keeps circling the church:

…it’s entirely understandable that more than a few Catholics have choked on the word “holy” these past few months, when asked to affirm it of the Church during the Creed and the Offertory. But while understandable, it still bespeaks a misunderstanding. The reason why is given immediately after the defection story in John 6: 60-66, when the Lord asks the Twelve whether they, too, are going to bail on him and Peter answers, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Everlasting life is offered to us sacramentally at every Mass. That is what we believe; that is why we remain in the Church; and that is why we must all bend every effort, from our distinct states of life in the Mystical Body of Christ, to reform what must be reformed so that others may know and love the Lord Jesus and experience the life-giving fruits of friendship with him. The Church’s current crisis is a crisis of fidelity and a crisis of holiness, a crisis of infidelity and a crisis of sin. It is also a crisis of evangelization, for shepherds without credibility impede the proclamation of the Gospel—which, as the other headlines of the day suggest, the world badly needs.

What struck me in Weigel’s explanation is how subtly he elided the difference between “words of eternal life” and the Mass. Whether the sacrament — in the body and blood of Christ – is really “the words of Christ” is a serious question. A wafer is not a word. Sure, words accompany the bread and wine in the sacrament but the efficacy of those elements does not depend on the words. The Mass confers grace no matter what – ex opere operato (or “the sacraments confer grace when the sign is validly effected — not as the result of activity on the part of the recipent but by the power and promise of God”).

That is the Roman Catholic understanding of the church and worship. The Christian life revolves around the Mass — that is where you find Jesus “really present.”

But Peter did say, as Weigel quotes, “the words of eternal life.” The apostle Paul also emphasized the importance of words, and therefore of preaching, when he wrote:

14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, w“How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Rom 10)

And that is the Protestant view of worship and the Christian life. We do have sacraments and they are vital. But they do not have force apart from the word, which is prior and why Protestants talk about “word and sacrament.”

That difference still leaves unresolved why a Roman Catholic disturbed by the corruption in his or her church would not consider becoming a Protestant. Peter did say “words of eternal life” not “sacrament of eternal life.” Preaching the word matters. That’s how you come to faith in Jesus. Protestants do that.


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