The Barrel

by The Rev. John H. Pavelko
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Year A - 2001-2002 | Year B - 2002-2003  | Year C - 2003-2004

Doctrinal Drudgery or Dogmatic Delight
Year C - 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time I Corinthians 15:1-11

Before his call to the priesthood, Fr. Scott played rock and roll and bantered on the airwaves as a disc jockey. He now approaches his faith and call with the zeal of a convert-deeply orthodox, deeply committed. His reverent faith captured the hearts of the young people of the parish. In her award winning article, for the National Catholic Essay Contest, Elizabeth Malone, called him "one of the most heroic Catholic priest she has ever known."1 She admires his eagerness to preach pro-life sermons and play football with the altar boys. But Fr. Scott's religious fervor created a great deal of controversy after a funeral eulogy.

The funeral was for a long time Catholic, former city councilman and bar owner, Ben Martinez. According to court documents, the family claimed that Fr. Scott caused them psychological pain, physical afflictions, anxiety, depression and humiliation by publicly announcing the Ben was the type of Christian that God spits out of his mouth into hell. Fr. Scott denies their accusation but admits that he did quote Revelation 3:16, "16So, because you are lukewarm-neither hot nor cold-I am about to spit you out of my mouth." 

A judge dismissed the case seven months after the funeral because of court should be in a position to determine church doctrine. A daughter expressed the family's disappointment to the Associate Press by stating, "It's sad that a priest can say whatever he wants."2

While I do wonder about the pastoral sensitivity of the priest, the daughter's comment reveal two questions that are often neglected by most people. First, are their particular doctrines and religious duties that are required for salvation? Secondly, what is the role and responsibility of the clergy to ensure that the people under their care adhere to those doctrines and religious duties?

On a day hike with another minister, we were discussing the obstacles ministers encounter in challenging people to reexamine their values, attitudes and beliefs. I lamented that sometimes it seems like people only want their pastor to reinforce their prejudices and affirm their biases. This is especially true at funerals. The judge in Martinez vs. the Roman Catholic lawsuit claimed that people should not be surprised by the church making judgments against people. She noted that since Dante's Inferno the church has been talking about sending people to hell. However, I have found the family are not only shocked but also become quite upset whenever a preacher questions the salvation of the deceased. That was one of my reasons for not pursuing a call as a hospital chaplain. The ecumenical role required me to preside at the funerals for people whose salvation was highly debatable. Rather than risk upsetting the family and damaging the hospital's reputation, by making emphatic warnings of judgment on the wayward and disbelieving, I chose to preface my assurances of grace with the conditional "If we believe...." This directs us back to the first question.

Are their any particular doctrines and religious duties that are required for salvation?

At this point, I would expect to see some heads to start nodding, indicating blissful slumber not heartfelt agreement. Most people find discussions of doctrine drudgery. Each week Linda produces five copies of my sermon manuscript and places them in the entranceway for people who would like to read the written text. Occasionally, she has to make additional copies when a sermon strikes a resonant chord with people. Those sermons, usually, focus on a very personal dimension of the Christian life or contain a particularly moving story. Messages that are heavy on teaching theological concepts just do not hold the listeners interest. I try to sprinkle theology throughout the sermon to avoid doctrinal drudgery but this morning's passage creates a formidable challenge. Paul's' words form the foundation of Christian dogma.

Most people also tend to avoid dogma. The word conveys a negative image. It is often used to refer to an unquestioning, inflexible, impractical set of beliefs that bind and restrict people from enjoying their freedom and creativity in Christ. The English scholar, C. K. Chesterton refuted this notion when he wrote, "Dogma does not mean the absence of thought but the end [result] of thought."3 Faith is strengthened and matures only as a person purses an honest inquiry and thoughtful examination of the Biblical account. Unfortunately, most Christians have abdicated their responsibility to studying the Scriptures and carefully thinking through their beliefs. This has created a theological vacuum in the minds of many allowing unorthodox beliefs from the secular world to fill the void. People who claim to be Christian do not realize that they may hold many views that are in direct contradiction to Biblical teaching. They may attend church, teach in Sunday school and even serve as elders and deacons without the slightest concern over the discrepancy between their personal beliefs and the teaching of their church or the Scripture.

In a secular culture that values pluralism, these misinformed beliefs may appear the accepted norm. The foundation of our country entitles each citizen the freedom of conscience in matters of faith and religion. We abhor imposed doctrinal conformity. We value ideas that allow for the inclusive of other viewpoints. Then when a priest or pastor challenges that assumption, people are offended and file lawsuits claiming emotional distress and mental anguish.

The apostle Paul considered dogma a delight and doctrine an absolute necessity. The faith was not fashioned from a free-floating ever-evolving collection of ideas, thoughts and pithy sayings. The historical events of Jesus' death and resurrection were announced in the historical record that every Jew consider as God's Word, Scripture. Working though the thoughts of men, God inspired their words and spoke his words. For Paul, the words of Scripture were the words of God. Luther also did not hesitate to establish this synonymous relationship: "You are so to deal with the Scriptures that you bear in mind that God himself is saying this."4 The written Word of God is the form by which God reveals his nature and love, announces his plan of salvation and teaches his people. 

We are not given the option of limiting the formulation of our beliefs to a few comfortable passages. The entire record, every passage, every phrase contains God's message to us and must be studied and applied to our lives. This is a formidable task. It requires intentional and disciplined effort but bears an abundant reward. Paul demonstrates this in his message to the Corinthians. Because of his knowledge of Scripture Paul is able to express the core of the Christian faith without hesitation.

Christ has died for our sins according to the Scriptures

Christ was buried and was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures

The controversy surrounding Mel Gibson's film The Passion would vanish if people would understand these powerful statements of Paul. The conflict centers on who is responsible for Christ's death. As we all know, Jesus did not die but was killed, executed as a felon. The Jewish leaders were outraged by his disrespect for their traditions and authority and the Roman considered him a political threat. Both groups considered him a menace to the status quo and were willing to enter an unholy alliance with one another to eliminate him. The Jewish court charged him with blasphemy and the Roman tribunal with sedition and sentenced to death by crucifixion. Since that Friday, the Jewish nation had been held responsible based upon the words of Matthew 27:25 when the people who have called for his death tell Pilot, "Let his blood be on us and our children." However, Paul understands the events differently. 

Why did Christ die? He died to bring forgiveness of sin. Who was responsible for that death? Every living creature who claims to be the son of Adam and the daughter of Eve. His death was necessary, voluntary, altruistic and beneficial. Without his death, you and I would be still wallowing in our guilt and shame. Without his death, we would not enjoy a relationship with the Father. Without his death, we would not be able to put aside are petty squabbling and build a friendship of mutual love and respect. Without his death, we would never be able to understand, appreciate or experience the wonderful incomprehensible love of God.

Once again, this is the core of tenets of the faith. This is the foundation upon which are relationship with Christ grows and matures, if, as Paul says, we hold it fast. Those four words contain a warning that is commonly neglected. 

The purpose of his caution contains two possibilities. The first addresses the eternal state of his listeners' souls. Our pleasure-oriented society cannot fathom the ifs of faith. We assume that salvation is an automatic; that we can leisurely walk through life believing and doing whatever and God will reward us with health, wealth and heavenly blessings. But we should wonder about the original sincerity of someone who later treats it with contempt or disrespect. What value is a dramatic conversion if the faith is later degraded when it becomes inconvenient. 

The Russian army private woke on his 19th birthday and 100th day of captivity expecting to spend another day in the small house that served as a POW dorm. The Chechen rebels surprised when they took him out of his brick room to a glade. They invited him to convert to Islam. The young Russian solider refused to forsake his faith. They ordered him to remove the silver crucifix that hung around his neck. He made it as a small born and had proudly worn it every since. Yevgeny Rodionov shook his head in defiance. His captors became enraged. 

The citizens of Moscow now recite a poem in his memory called "The Cross." 

Pure mountains in the distance, 
slopes covered in blooms of blue
Refusing to renounce Christ, 
the soldier of Russia fell. 
And his head rolled, 
blood flowed from the saber, 
and the red grass whispered a quiet prayer in its wake.5

Yevgeny Rodionov held fast to faith and suffered a martyr's death. What would have been his reward if he had gained his life but casually renounced his faith? Paul tells that Corinthians to hold fast.

The second reason for Paul's caution has more immediate consequences. The challenges of life constantly threaten to wear down our faith. A friend is tragically killed in an automobile accident. A relative is diagnosed with Lou Gherigs disease. A mother succumbs to the debilitating effects of Alzheimer's. Life offers problems that have no solution. It asks questions that will always remain unanswered. Life has its dark, lonely places. We will never be able to conqueror these challenges without a tenacious faith. Superficial faith collapses under the strain of these pressures. A hand-me-down faith cannot overcome the storms of despair, isolation and anguish that threaten with devastating ferocity. The faith that endures has studied the written accounts, pondered the mysteries of prophecy, meditated on the wisdom of the text and crafted a dogma that is a delight to the soul. 

1 Elizabeth Malone, Online:, February 5, 2004.
2 Associated Press quoted by First Amendment Center, Online:, February 6, 2004.
3 C. K. Chesterton, The Victorian Age in English Literature, (New York: Holt, 1913), 43 quoted by Charles Colson, Kingdoms In Conflict, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1987), 245
4 Luther as cited by Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, I:216 as cited by Clark H. Pinnock, Biblical Revelation, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), 68, 69
5 Seth Mydans, "Russians Revere Fallen Soldier," New York Times cited by "Russian Who Defended His Religion Becomes Unofficial Saint," International Herald Tribune, November 23, 2003, Online:, February 6, 2004.

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