The Catholic Church is not an endeavor of human origin but is the plan of God, willed from eternity and instituted by Jesus Christ.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
1 May 2014
The plan of God cannot be undone. The words of Gamaliel in reference to the apostles, their successors and their mission in the Church, continue to echo throughout the centuries: “For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39). The continuity and permanency of the Church cannot be explained in any other way but by her origin in her divine and human founder: Jesus Christ.
In our first reading today (Acts 5:34-42) we hear about a “Pharisee in the Sanhedrin named Gamaliel” (v. 34) who stood up among the infuriated Israelites and urged them to release the apostles. Earlier in chapter 5, we read about how the apostles, formerly jailed by the Sadducees and released by an angel of the Lord (v. 8-19), had gone early in the morning to the temple area to teach about Jesus. However, they were apprehended by the captain and court officers and brought before the high priest for questioning.
The high priest, motivated by jealousy over the popularity of the apostles among the people, admonished Peter, reminding him that he was given strict orders to stop teaching in the name of Jesus (5: 28). But Peter insists that it is God they must obey rather than men (v. 29), and rebukes the opponents of Jesus for crucifying him. Peter reminds those present that “God exalted” Jesus “at his right hand as leader and savior to grant Israel repentance and forgiveness of sins” (v. 31). Further, Peter insists that they “are witnesses of these things, as is the holy Spirit that God has given to those who obey him” (v. 32).
At this, the Sanhedrin “became infuriated and wanted to put [the apostles] to death.” It is here that Gamaliel urges those present to set the apostles free. He bases his persuasive argument on the temporary nature of human endeavors, while at the same time pointing out that if the activity the apostles are engaged in is of divine origin, it cannot be destroyed. In fact, should they seek to destroy it, they may find themselves fighting against God.
Gamaliel, then, bases his argument on both reason and Scripture. Given the omnipotence and omniscient attributes of God, it is reasonable, logical, to conclude that his plans cannot be circumvented nor thwarted. That man’s feeble efforts are but less than straw in the face of the Creator’s almighty, infinite power is self-evident. What God wills, is.
Consider for a moment the example of the cosmos: the vast majority of astronomers agree that the universe had a point of beginning. Reason, also, would support that conclusion. One might posit all sorts of theories about multiverses and so forth, but each of them must have an initial, primary cause. That Cause, who we call God, would indeed possess unimaginable, limitless power to have created something as magnificent and incomprehensibly vast as the universe, composed of perhaps over 100 billion galaxies, each containing about 100 billion stars and countless planets.
Examples from Scripture highlighting the power, supremacy and longevity of the plan of God are found throughout the Old and New Testaments. Genesis, for example, teaches us that God is Creator of the heavens and the earth, of all that is visible and invisible. In the Book of Daniel, we learn of the indissolubility and indestructibility of God’s kingdom (2:44; 7:14). The prophet Isaiah (9:6-7) announces the permanency of Christ’s governance lasting forevermore. Those are but a few examples.
Indeed, nobody nor any group of men, no matter how large or influential, could bring an end to the mission of the apostles for the simple reason that it was of divine origin. It was and is God’s plan. The Name the apostles preached was a Divine and Human Name: Jesus Christ. The gospel the Twelve sought to transmit to all nations was the divinely authored, saving message of Jesus, won at the cost of the death of the Son of God on the cross, planned and willed by the Father from all eternity and breathed into the minds and hearts of men by the Holy Spirit. That message can never be silenced.
Yet this saving message, this gospel of salvation, does not consist of merely words but also of deeds. When we speak of these deeds, we speak of the actions of Jesus Christ, each one sacred, each one infinitely meaningful, each one indescribably relevant to the lives of men everywhere and at all times. Among these actions is the institution of the Church of Jesus Christ (see Mt 16:17-19), the Catholic Church whose body is the body of Christ and whose life is, therefore, sustained and nourished by Christ. The Church is indeed Christ’s unending kingdom (Lk 1:32, 33; Mt 28:19-20).
When we look at the history of the Church, we can argue in favor of her divine origin using the same principles that Gamaliel used about two thousand years ago as he spoke to the Sanhedrin. That is, her existence down through the centuries can be attributed to nothing other than the finger of God. Her continuity and permanency is a reality because God himself has willed it to be so. Although men and nations have sought vehemently and bitterly to destroy her, they have found they are fighting against God himself. Their swords have fallen, their shouts of dissent have been swallowed up by the the transmission of God’s truth, their lives and plans of opposition have faded away like the grass of the fields. Yet the Church remains, flourishing, growing, infused with vitality and energy.
It is tragic that the continuity and permanency of the Church as evidence of her divine origin, while so obvious, is so often overlooked. Some would argue that, although the Church has continued to flourish for twenty centuries, she will soon wither in the face of the unrelenting advance of the modern world. Now, there is nothing wrong with modernity in and of itself, if we take those elements of it that are in accord with goodness and true, authentic freedom. But that modernity seeking to live by the darkness of rationalism, relativism and various other forms of atheism in denial of the Truth is opposed to God, in which case there can be only one winner, and that type of modernity will not be it. In any case, those who hope for the demise of the Church in the advance of modernity, hope for something that history has shown to be not merely unlikely but impossible. Should they continue to cling to such an idea, their lives will pass away along with that advance, while the city of truth and the home of humanity that is the Church will live on.
Others fail to recognize the Church because they allow their thoughts to be governed by the religious indifference so presently pervasive. That is, they are under the wrong impression that “church” is nothing but an abstract term used to describe a group of people (perhaps Christian or perhaps not) whose doctrines are nearly as numerous and diverse as the groups themselves. These people fail to see the Church because they fail to begin from the foundational principle that God is Truth. The last thing God wants is for his children to wander aimlessly about in religious uncertainty. Confusion, falseness, chaos, doctrinal dilution and loss, these are all human things, not the things of God.
Because God is Truth, his Church, too, would transmit the truth about himself because it belongs to himself. This truth, while developing over time in depth as the discernment and understanding of the Church grows, must nevertheless be changeless, certain, permanent, perennial. When we examine the doctrine of the Church, we find precisely these things: we find continuity throughout history; we find permanency and certainty throughout time. There is a wonderful and satisfying solidity about the Church that infuses the human heart with joy. After all, every person, universally across all cultures, thirsts for security in truth. The human intellect seeks truth, craves it in fact. That will never change.
Yet we can go beyond simply saying the Church belongs to God. We can say that, additionally, in a real way the Church is Christ because she is the body of Christ. This delightful and inspiring theological concept, revealed by Christ himself through the apostles and the Holy Spirit, is not simply metaphorical language. The Church is not merely like the body of Christ, she is the body of Christ. The faithful of the Church are individually members of Christ’s body (cf. 1 Cor 12:20-27 as one example). That the faithful, as the Church who is an organic, heavenly and earthly reality, are connected in an indescribably intimate way to Christ is indeed true.
In the midst of the chaos of the world, the Church is more than a home, it is the place for which we were created. We were made for God, and the Church brings us to him and makes us at one with him, in union with Christ as we become members of his own, sacred and holy, divine and human body. Within the Church Christ feeds us with the Eucharist, with himself, the sacrament of all sacraments in which we are transformed into him who we receive. O how we thirst for eternal, divine life! Christ gives precisely such life to us when we eat his flesh and drink his blood (cf. John 6:54).
Although the battle rages on, the Church remains undefeated. Nations have come and gone, peoples have arisen and fallen, but the Church continues. The fields of the Earth are soaked down through the ages with the blood of martyrs whose hearts were filled with joy in offering their lives for the sake of the truth of Christ and his Church. That, really, is the power of the love of the human spirit for the Spirit of God and his Truth. Once Truth is tasted and grasped, it is then cherished and guarded. It quickly becomes a way of life, a way of acting and being. It soon blossoms into a fiery, burning love that knows no end, that cannot be held bound by any boundary. It becomes a love of such power that it transcends the challenges of the world, and breaks the limits of even human nature as it shares in God’s own divine life of love.
The words of Gamaliel in reference to the apostles, their successors and their mission in the Church, continue to echo throughout the centuries: “For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39).
Photo Credit: St. Peter’s Basilica, Marcus Obal, wikimedia commons.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.