Last weekend I watched the departure of the Pope from New York and his Arrival in Philadelphia. I turned on the news with my morning coffee and found that all of the cable news networks were covering the same story as BREAKING NEWS. Representing more than 1 billion Catholics, he speaks with authority, an authority that matters to the whole Christian world and an authoritative voice that needs to be recognized by the Protestant world, Baptists included. Our congregational structure – bottom up authority– gives us enormous autonomy and power in the local church, but it results in us having no central power structure and no recognized leader that speak with one voice on the important social and moral issues of our day. In a fragmented, denominationally exclusive Christianity, no other Christian religious leader could command the air time, the BREAKING NEWS spotlight that accompanies Pope Francis.
Like Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II before him, his magnetic personality and his deep faith and personal piety enabled him to reach out not only to Roman Catholics but to millions of others: those rooted in other traditions, those spiritually questing for a source of meaning, and those curious to understand why anyone would care about his visit. His simple life in a small Vatican apartment, the sight of him on the streets of Rome, behind the wheel of an aging Renault, make him a “People’s Pope.” Hence the respectful and generally positive coverage. Yet, as cameras moved to a closeup of the Pope’s Fiat, one commentator couldn’t resist pointing out that it was the most expensive Fiat. Really? The 500 L MSRP is $24,695 dollars. Hardly a luxury model, not to mention it is one of the few models that will comfortably seat someone in the back seat. Why the comment? It is a distraction from the message, a need to discredit the messenger, however trivial the criticism. And I believe it comes from a deep, unconscious hostility, so prevalent in our society, to any prophetic voice.
There are times in history when a voice needs to call out into the wilderness to make straight the crooked paths. This is such a time; Pope Francis is such a voice. American Christians are deeply divided over social and political issues, seemingly consumed with the culture wars. We have forgotten the Great Commission. Pope Francis calls us back to the primitive church, to the church known simply as the Way. At a time when Christians are being beheaded on a beach for refusing to denounce their faith, when a Christian pastor and his children are set afire in their car, when hundreds of thousands are fleeing as refugees, fearing for their lives, when converting to Christianity is a death sentence in a growing number of countries, he calls us back to the center – to Jesus and to Him Crucified.
There is an irrefutable fact: Jesus died in history – on a Friday afternoon in early spring, outside the walls of Jerusalem, this man called Jesus, was crucified. Undeniable, historical fact. But what we do with that fact makes all the difference. From its earliest hours on that fateful Sunday morning, the church – the living witness to the risen Christ – has made one proclamation: Jesus died for my sins. And we are called to witness not only to the fact but also to the confession. We are called to that proclamation again and again, day after day, and there is no time in the long history of the world when the world did not need to hear us. And there is no other time for us, for you and for me – this is our age, our time for that bold confession.
And we are called to make that confession with one voice. As Jesus prepared to depart from his disciples he prayed “that they may all be one.” (John 17:21) The Latin: Ut unum sint, is the ecumenical call for unity, for one voice. There will not, in our lifetime, be organic unity, that is, one church. But there can and must be recognition of our mutual call to witness against the destructive forces at work in our world, recognition of our common membership in the priesthood of all believers, recognition of our common Lord. For there “is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6)
Agreeing to disagree on the things that divide us, Protestants, Catholics, and the Orthodox must proclaim with one voice: Jesus died in history; Jesus died for my sins. In this, at least, we can rejoice, that message was, for a few hours on cable news networks, BEAKING NEWS.