As a born-and-raised evangelical, my tradition taught me to be a bit suspicious of “them Catholics” out there. Spooky people, you know? Believing in weird things like Mary-worship and cannibalism, they were best to be thought of as second-class Christians and perhaps people to be avoided. Same God? Maybe. Same Jesus? No way.
(Shame on us.)
In any event, I started to gain an appreciation for Catholic theology and practice in seminary, where I became friends with a guy who was part of a movement known as “Convergence”, blending the Catholic, Charismatic, and Evangelical streams of Christian faith. Cool guy. Also, I thought, weird. But man, the way he talked about Catholic theology … and specifically about then-Pope John Paul II … He really made me feel like I was missing out on something.
Those who are close to me know that I’m a big Dietrich Bonhoeffer buff. (I’m a nerd, okay?) Bonhoeffer, of course, was a German theologian and pastor who did his best work during the rise of Naziism in Germany, and as a VERY young man, actively led church resistance to the dogma of Naziism, going so far in one instance to call the Fuehrer an “idol unto himself” on national airways. (Ballsy, huh?) In any event, I’ve come to love Bonhoeffer for his reflections on Christian morality … the whole “how should we live?” question. Specifically, I love that Bonhoeffer thinks that “the good” is not really knowable apart from “God”, who is also not knowable apart from Jesus. Which is all to say that Christians don’t really “do” morality. They don’t know “good” and “evil”. They just follow Jesus. “Good” is not knowable apart from discipleship to the One who IS Good – Jesus, who makes manifest his Father.
Not long ago I listened to a series of lectures (nerd!) delivered at Wheaton College on the Sermon on the Mount. One of the lectures was on Pope John Paul II’s reflections on the Sermon, and I was really impressed. So, nerd that I am, I bought a couple of his books.
I’m not kidding … THEY BLEW ME AWAY
And what blew me away MOST was how downright … well … “evangelical” he seemed. Specifically, at points I felt like I was reading Bonhoeffer’s famous “Cost of Discipleship.” In one of them, entitled “The Splendor of Truth”, John Paul writes (reflecting on Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5 that the righteousness of the disciple must “surpass” that of the Pharisees):
“Jesus brings God’s commandments to fulfillment, particularly the commandment of love of neighbor, by interiorizing their demands and by bringing out their fullest meaning. Love of neighbor springs from a loving heart which, precisely because it loves, is ready to live out the loftiest challenges. Jesus shows that the commandments must not be understood as a minimum limit not to be gone beyond, but rather a path involving a moral and spiritual journey towards perfection, at the heart of which is love.”
So for JPII, “perfection” for the disciple is part of a moral and spiritual journey in which we learn to love in deep, sacrificial, vulnerable ways. This is how God, who is Good, gets ahold of the human soul; it’s how we “fulfill the Law.” But lest we think this whole thing can be divorced from Jesus and turned into some works-based, legalistic moral do-gooding, John Paul goes on:
“Jesus himself is the living ‘fulfillment’ of the Law inasmuch as he fulfills its authentic meaning by the total gift of himself: he himself becomes a living and personal Law, who invites people to follow him; through the Spirit, he gives the grace to share his own life and love and provides the strength to bear witness to that love in personal choices and actions.”
Unbelievable! There, in the place where I had once thought only dead legalism and rule-keeping could live (Catholic theology), John Paul calls us to recognize that…
- Christ is the fulfillment of the Law through his cross-work
- Discipleship is about following him in his “cross-shaped” life
- And all of this is possible ONLY through the enabling work of the Holy Spirit
I remember being in a New Testament theology class in seminary and hearing NT scholar Grant Osborne saying the EXACT SAME THING in reference to this piece of the Sermon on the Mount. “Good Lord,” I thought after reading this, “why hasn’t anyone ever told me to listen to John Paul II before?!”
In any event, I submit this piece to you as an encouragement (be you an evangelical or otherwise), to FOREVER DISAVOW YOUR SUSPICION OF CATHOLIC THEOLOGY first of all, and to READ JOHN PAUL II second of all. He’s good. DANG GOOD. You’ll find your soul enriched and your understanding of discipleship GREATLY expanded by this welcome, if unexpected, friend.
Thank God for the gift of John Paul II.