Sunday, June 27, 2010

Response to Tobe Witmer, Lighthouse Baptist Church June 20, 2010 Service - On the Catholic Mass, Romans 6

This post is one of an ongoing series of Catholic responses to Pastor Tobe Witmer's (Lighthouse Baptist Church, Newark, DE) series on Romans.  The original sermons can be listened to at Lighthouse Baptist's website.


Pastor Witmer begins by asking: "Would it be okay with you if Jesus returned to the cross, was recrucified, and rose again?"  He proposes this question a few times in a row.  I have heard non-Catholic preachers use this question so many times to critique the Catholic Mass that I figured Pastor Witmer might take this opportunity to do the same.

In this case, I was right.

Before answering his own rhetorical question and getting into his exposition of Romans 6, we get this bit of anti-Catholicism:

Clip 1 On the Catholic Mass  You can also watch the clip in context on YouTube (it begins at 7'47" and ends around 8'30").

Let's take a look at Pastor Witmer's claims:

"This is exactly what the Roman Catholic Church does in the Mass."

This is a false statement.  The Roman Catholic Church does NOT put Jesus back on the cross and recrucify him.  Jesus was crucified once for all, as Hebrews says.  However, Jesus's sacrifice did not end on the cross, because his sacrifice was a fulfillment of the Passover.  Thus, while Jesus finished the bloody part of the sacrifice on the cross, he completed that sacrifice by offering it to the father on the altar of heaven.  Heaven is the New Jerusalem, and its temple is Jesus himself.  John witnesses this very altar when he enters the temple of heaven on the Lord's Day in the book of Revelation.  In Revelation, we see John taken up into the heavenly liturgy taking place in the New Jerusalem.  In this liturgy, this banquet feast of the Lamb, Jesus offers his sacrifice once and for all ETERNITY, in a single eternal moment--a single "now"--before the Father. 

As Catholics, we enter into the New Jerusalem when we worship on Sunday mornings, and thus we participate in the offering of the once for all sacrifice of Jesus to the Father.  After all, the Passover not only demanded that the Lamb be killed, and it not only demanded that the Lamb be offered by the Father/Priest in the temple.  The family had to eat the Lamb (see John 6, which specifically takes place at Passover a year before the last supper when Jesus said "take...this is my body.")  Jesus invites us to commune with his glorified Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity by taking us up mystically during the Mass into the New Jerusalem.  He offers us His Body and Blood hidden under the appearance of bread and wine.  In doing so, Jesus perfectly fulfills the prophecy that he is a "priest forever in the order of Melchizedek" (see Genesis, the Psalms, and Hebrews).  He is a PRIEST (priests offer sacrifice) FOREVER (we see him offering himself as the "Lamb standing as if slain" in heaven) in the ORDER OF MELCHIZEDEK.  When we go back to Genesis and see this first and only unblemished Old Testament priesthood, what did Melchizedek offer?  Bread and wine!  Through the Mass, then, Jesus communes with us, and in communion with him, Jesus offers his sacrifice before the Father.

I hope the reader can see that Pastor Witmer's claim is a far cry from the Catholic Church actually teaches.  Which leads me to ask, where(!) did Pastor Witmer get this idea?  Did he consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church?  Did he consult a credible, official source such as a church council or papal encyclical?

"I took time to study this through again, because I knew this was true, and it is true that they, in the Mass, are saying that they are recrucifying Jesus Christ, that the atonement is being made again, that they are reenacting bloodlessly exactly what Jesus did THE FIRST TIME [Pastor Witmer's emphasis]."

This is such a vivid, strong, straight-forward point Pastor Witmer is making.  While I trust that Pastor Witmer did take time to study the issue, I'm confused about how he could claim that Catholic are saying that we recrucify Christ in the Mass.  The only place I have heard this claim made about the Mass is from anti-Catholic apologists.  Having read many books on Catholicism written by Catholics, I have never heard one Catholic even imply that we are recrucifying our Lord.

I am requesting (here on this blog and by email) that Pastor Witmer, having publicly, strongly, and harshly attacked the Roman Catholic Church (and by extension, the Orthodox churches as well), that he actually tell us the sources he studied before making this attack.  If he can show me an official source (Catechism, papal encyclical, church council, and the like) that says we "recrucify" Christ during the Mass, I will grant his point.  But in all of my studies, and in all of my reading of anti-Catholic materials, I've never actually seen someone produce a quote where the Catholic Church teaches what she is being accused of.

UPDATE:  Pastor Witmer informed me that he began by studying a Wikipedia entry on the Mass and Eucharist, and that this entry led him to the following quote from the Council of Trent:

 "The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different. And since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and offered in an unbloody manner... this sacrifice is truly propitiatory" (Doctrina de ss. Missae sacrificio, c. 2, quoted in Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1367). 

Notice, however, that the above quote does not speak of recrucifying Jesus.  In fact, it specifically identifies the offering that takes place during the Mass with the offering of Christ upon the Cross.  The offering is the exact same offering.  Only the manner is different.  There is only one offering, but as I explain below, this offering has an eternal dimension to it, not only a temporal one.  Through the Mass, we enter into the eternal offering of Jesus before the Father.  More below....

[end update]

Rather, as I explained above, we do speak of the sacrifice as being presented anew during the Mass, because from a human perspective (living in time as we do), we do enter into Christ's offering of the sacrifice at periodic intervals, either once a week, or as many faithful Catholics do, once a day.  But when we say the sacrifice is re-presented on the altar, we do so with the understanding that it is really WE who are being re-presented around the altar on heaven on which Jesus continually offers his one sacrifice, his one act of atonement, for our sins.

Because Pastor Witmer doesn't hold the mystical understanding of time and space that Catholics (and Orthodox Christians as well) bring to the Mass, he is virtually incapable of correctly explaining what Catholics actually believe occurs during the Sacred Liturgy.  (The reader may be interested to know that the early church actually patterned their liturgy on that cosmic liturgy found in the book of Revelation.  For the early church, as for the Catholic/Orthodox Church today, the liturgy always culminates in the wedding banquet of the Lamb, which we celebrate in anticipation of the final coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.)

Still, it is one thing to misunderstand what another Christian believes.  It is another thing to forcefully misrepresent the beliefs of another Christian with the claim that you have studied the issue.  I will share with the reader the books Pastor Witmer studied if he shares them with me.

Ironically, Pastor Witmer currently has in his possession two books by former Baptist preachers and converts to Catholicism that specifically discuss the Eucharist!  Both of these former Baptists recount how they had been taught errors about the Catholic Church's understanding of the Mass, and that when they learned what the Catholic Church actually taught, they found it to be MORE in accord both with the Bible and also with the students of the apostles, those early martyrs who learned the faith at the feet of those who wrote the Bible.

Sadly, there are many non-Catholic Christians who hate what they believe to be the Catholic Church.  In reality, the church they so vehemently oppose is only a figment of their imaginations.  Again, to show that Pastor Witmer's claims are anything more than a figment, I invite him to charitably back up his assertions with citations.  (Teachers--would you let your students make wild claims in written essays without providing a single footnote?)

Next, Pastor Witmer uses the word "reenacting."  This word does get used by Catholic theologians (though not with great frequency) because the liturgy is something that humans do--it is an act we accomplish over and over again.  We "do" the liturgy because Jesus commanded us to.  And the liturgy that we offer is the sacrificial liturgy that we enter into by "[doing] this in memory of [him]."  (The word "memory" here should not be read with the connotations provided it by our 20th-century English dictionaries.  Was this word written in the Bible with these dictionaries in mind, or with the centuries of Jewish experiences of Passover memorials in mind?  Turns out, the Hebrew word for memorial was rich with Passover connotations (connotations that very few Christians in the 20th century even know a thing about).  As any faithful, orthodox Jew could tell you, when you celebrate a memorial, you MAKE PRESENT (Catholics now say re-present, or "present again") the thing memorialized.  This is how God taught the Jews to understand the memorial of the Passover, and God's divine pedagogy was ultimately completed so that you and I today would know how to read the words "do this in memory of me."  To many people consult Merriam-Webster to understand "memory" rather than consult the Jewish undderstanding of the Passover.  Since the Lord's Supper, death on the cross, and offering of the sacrifice in heaven together fulfill the Jewish Passover, we have very good reason to ask how the Biblical authors who recorded the phrase "do this in memory of me" would have understood Jesus.  During the Mass, we enter into the one continual offering of Jesus before the Father, which constitutes the last part of the once for all sacrifice that began in the upper room.  Jesus wants to celebrate the Last Supper personally with every single Christian, and he loves us so much that he instituted a ministerial priesthood so that through these "priests in the priest [Jesus]," Jesus could sit at table with us--you and me--and say "take this and eat - this is my body given for you."  In Jesus's sermon in John 6, given at Passover time exactly one year before the Last Supper, Jesus told Christians that unless we must eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life.  The apostles had to wait a year before they would fully understand how Jesus planned to make his body and blood available for Christians.  As we know from reading the early fathers of Christianity who learned the faith from the apostles, the early church unanimously understood Jesus to be speaking literally in John 6.

Yes, there is only one sacrifice for sins: Jesus's sacrifice on the cross.  But that sacrifice began in the upper room and isn't complete until every Christian enters into the sacrifice both through the Mass (where we enter into the offering of the sacrifice in heaven) and through our suffering.  That is why St. Paul can say that "I rejoice in my sufferings because they make up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ."(Col. 1:24)  Our suffering gains meaning and spiritual efficacy when it is united through the mystical bride with Christ's own sacrifice.  Yes, Christ's sacrifice is complete, but the groom is not complete without his bride.  As the bride of Christ, Christians must "take up" their crosses.  We are made ultimately for the divine life, so the bride of Christ participates in the offering of the groom.

Finally, Pastor Witmer emphasizes three simple words that actually reveal the reason he fails to properly convey the Catholic position.  "...the first time."  Because Pastor Witmer only sees the Mass through the eyes of the flesh, it appears to him that we have a new sacrifice at every single Mass after "the first time" that Jesus went to the cross.  Since these Masses appear to be separated in time from the cross (as humans experience time), it seems that there are many sacrifices rather than one sacrifice.  Please know that I greatly appreciate and share Pastor Witmer's desire to defend (as he does later in the sermon) the absolute necessity and sufficiency of Christ's one sacrifice.  As we proclaim at every single Mass, "Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again."  That's it.  It is over, finished.  From here on out, all that occurs is the offering of the sacrifice on the altar in heaven, which Catholics mystically enter into during the Mass.

Ironically, even non-Catholics use the idea of offering God a "sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving" and offering themselves as "living sacrifices before the Lord."  In doing so, they are actually simply repeating the language used by the Bible without once fearing that these sacrifices are "another" sacrifice than Jesus's on the cross.  Jesus commands us to make these sacrifices because we make them in union with Jesus's sacrifice on the cross.  Yet, we as living sacrifices are ultimately imperfect.  Our praise is ultimately imperfect.  Only Jesus is perfect, and so, ironically, it is the Mass ultimately that allows us to offer to the Father, in union with Christ's own eternal offering, the only perfect sacrifice for sins that has ever existed.  It is also interesting to note that the Greek word for "thanksgiving" is "eucharistia."  The Mass is ultimately a sacrifice of Thanksgiving.  Before Christ came, there existed a saying among the Jewish rabbis that "in the coming Messianic age, every sacrifice will cease except the Todah."  The Todah was the the Jewish sacrifice of Thanksgiving, what Catholics call the Eucharist.  This is the perfect sacrifice--the only perfect sacrifice possible--prophesied in Malachi 1:11.  But this sacrifice, according to Malachi, will be offered in ALL TIMES and in ALL PLACES.  Only in the framework of the ancient universal ("catholic") faith does this prophecy not only make sense but also find its fulfillment.

Seeing the Mass with eyes of faith, it becomes possible to understand how thousands of Masses each day do not constitute thousands of new sacrifices.  It becomes possible to see how only through the Mass does Malachi's prophecy make sense--that after the coming of the Messiah, "a perfect offering will be made from east to west."  In other words, all day, every day, from sunrise to sundown, a perfect sacrificial offering will be made.  Catholics enter into that one sacrifice through the Mass.  There is only one perfect sacrifice, which is that of Jesus Christ.  In the Mass, time itself is "caught up in the clouds" with Jesus, our savior, in his sacrificial offering.  Oh, how I pray that Pastor Witmer's heart be opened to this amazing and wonderful truth!

If what Pastor Witmer says about the Mass actually was true, then the stream of invectives he utters would be entirely appropriate.  As Catholics, it is important to recognize when people make harsh attacks that these statements come from an honest desire to protect the truth from heresy.  We should be sure to commend the zeal of our non-Catholic brethren while at the same time, correcting their misunderstandings.  Some of the most effective defenders of the Catholic faith today are former Protestants who finally learned what the Catholic Church actually believed.

As a follow-up, readers may also be interested to check-out Pastor Witmer's own take on why Jesus is seen by John in heaven as the "lamb standing as if slain."

(Also, my apologies to all.  I wrote this completely off the cuff, so please excuse the absence of chapter and verse references.  I'll get them in sooner or later!  Feel free to email me if you can't find a reference.)

Stay tuned for more comments on this (and earlier) sermons in the Romans series.

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