Obadiah Slope: On great and small – when war rages, and what Catholics *really* believe about the Eucharist

Here is a story from the international author and speaker Amy Orr-Ewing

“As the Ukraine war began a few weeks ago, a great grandmother and her daughter packed a bag and started the long journey as refugees. Just before leaving, the older lady, who is a follower of Jesus, felt prompted to pack a small bag of seeds in faith. They were leaving their home of 60 years, their acres of land and their homeland as rockets were being launched by the Russians overhead.

“She hastily packed the seeds believing she would one day plant them in safety, and they set off.

“Here in the U.K. @stampwellfarm @latimerminster @missionalfrog and I were getting ready to receive Ukrainian refugees. We had a home ready for a Ukrainian family who had served as pastors and were known to friends of ours. At the last minute, they decided to stay in Germany.

“A home on the farm was ready.

“Then Frog heard of the plight of a Ukrainian mother and grandmother known to friends in a church in London nearby – who were praying for a place for these precious ladies to stay. The Lord had gone ahead of us all.

“Two days later, they arrived on a Red Cross flight.

“With no idea of where the Lord might lead them, they arrived to find a home prepared for them @stampwellfarm and specifically a place where those precious seeds could be planted.

“The Lord cares about the details.

“Today, my parents met this beautiful Ukrainian great grandmother and we thought about my grandmother and how she arrived in the UK from East Germany 74 years ago as a refugee with two children and barely a bag of clothes…

“The Lord weaves together the threads of our lives in beautiful ways and he takes care of the details.”

By now, many of you will have spotted the possible problem with this story.

I am not denying that God was at work preparing a place for these women to come to. But at the same time, there is a vast human tragedy – a war – going on. Women and men are dying, being tortured, and raped.

The trouble with saying that God has taken care of the details is that we might sound like we are saying he looks after the small stuff, but he lets the big things happen.

It is another version of the problem many of us have with sportspeople claiming God gave them their personal triumph.

The better thing for sports stars to say might be that God taught them persistence and perhaps to overcome difficulty. They might even give thanks for an indirect blessing through the gift of others who have cared for them.

But the story of the refugees is far more challenging for Obadiah to process. He can’t fit the little story from Amy Orr-Ewing and the bigger picture together. In all likelihood, Orr-Ewing can’t either, to be fair. As a very thoughtful theologian, she will be well across this difficulty.

As with sportspeople, the Ukraine refugee story comes down to prayer – what can we thank God for and what can we pray for, which are two sides of the same coin.

We know from the gospels, as Orr-Ewing points out, that God cares for details. Jesus said, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Luke 12:6-7)

We can indeed pray for help with the small things in life even as our questions about big things remain.

We should pray for individuals we know of in Ukraine as a terrible war rages. We can pray that war ceases, too.

Slope does not know why God will choose to answer one small prayer and maybe leave another larger one unanswered. Maybe that larger prayer is answered in a way we fervently wish had gone differently.

But sitting in church at Easter, it occurs to me that I might be adopting the same thinking as the disciples who hoped for the (political) liberation of Israel. Their hopes and prayers were not answered, but a greater liberty came through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

It’s enough to make us sympathise with those thick disciples: how we wish that God would sweep in and end the war in Ukraine!

This screed is my third column, and already, I have wound up being unsatisfactory. Reader, you will need to get used to that.

* * *

Small political announcement: dear reader, please look past the personality politics and examine the parties’ policies, especially the two alternative governments. Let’s not simply vote for the leader we hate the least.

* * *

To misquote Shakespeare: I am sinner the columnist. This Easter convinced me of that. (Not “I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet.” Act 3 Scene 3 from Julius Caesar)

* * *

Once for all: There was a strong reader response to a recent Eternity story about Pope Francis.

Our Facebook post prominently featured a quote from the Pope describing Jesus as being sacrificed as evil occurs in the world.

“We see this in the folly of war, where Christ is crucified yet another time. Christ is once more nailed to the Cross in mothers who mourn the unjust death of husbands and sons. He is crucified in refugees who flee from bombs with children in their arms. He is crucified in the elderly left alone to die; in young people deprived of a future; in soldiers sent to kill their brothers and sisters. Christ is being crucified there, today.”

Francis was speaking metaphorically – as more sinful acts are committed, the pile of sin committed by humankind grows ever higher. The amount of evil to be dealt with by the crucifixion grows higher. But it will never grow higher than Jesus’ one death can pay for.

Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross once for all was enough to cover all the sins ever committed. The classic summary of the atonement as “Sufficient for all, Efficient for the elect” can be traced back through John Calvin to Peter Lombard or Thomas Aquinas. It is a statement all sorts of Christians can accept.

But the whiff of a suggestion of Jesus being re-sacrificed raised the ire of some readers. As Protestants, they think a Pope – or any good Catholic – believes that Jesus is re-sacrificed in the Catholic Mass.

Is this right? A tricky question, that one. Especially as the answer is “sort of but not really.”

Now I am probably on a hiding to nothing to try to correct that impression. As I begin an attempt to clarify what Catholics believe, Obadiah needs to explain that he is thoroughly Protestant – that he thinks our Catholic brothers and sisters add extra layers to Christianity to make things more complex than the Bible account requires. (And our Catholic sister and brothers believe we leave important things out.)

But here goes.

The Catholic Catechism says the Mass is a sacrifice but not a new one. Here are some relevant quotes from the Catholic Church’s Catechism (official teaching). One word, Eucharist, might be new to many: it refers to what many of us call Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper, and it comes from a Greek word that means “thanksgiving”.

1366 The Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross, because it is its memorial and because it applies its fruit.”

“1367 The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: “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.” “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 is offered in an unbloody manner.”

“1364 … When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, she commemorates Christ’s Passover, and it is made present the sacrifice Christ offered once for all on the Cross remains ever-present. ‘As often as the sacrifice of the Cross by which ‘Christ our Pasch has been sacrificed’ is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out.”‘

So Catholics teach there is one sacrifice that is somehow brought into the present. Two other Catholic teachings that Protestants will also differ from are integral.

Transubstantiation: the idea that Jesus is made “sacramentally present under the species of bread and wine Christ’s body and blood, his sacrifice offered on the Cross once for all.”

• And the concept that attending Mass is linked to our salvation.

So our readers were right to point out that there are significant differences between the Protestant and Catholic views on the Lord’s Supper. But we should be careful about saying that Christ is sacrificed again in the Mass – it is not precisely what the Catholic teaching is.

Can Obadiah suggest we Protestants need to avoid a couple of traps?

1) We should not misrepresent what Catholics teach – and we should go by their official documents, not what Joe Internet says

2) We should not say we agree with their view of the Mass when we do not. It is actually not nice to pretend to each other.

In a later column, I might bravely explore the differences between Protestants on the Lord’s Supper – it would only be fair. I think postmodernism might actually help us.

* * *

Best Easter reflection in the public media: Stan Grant with a hefty serve of theologian Miroslav Volf on the ABC website.

Grant gets the Obadiah Slope bravery award for tackling the topic of forgiving enemies just as a vicious war is breaking out.

Volf and Grant, who both speak from downtrodden communities (Eastern Europe and First Nations), know about costly reconciliation. Yet another example that Christianity is best viewed from below. And all of us sinners view the Cross from below.