Sunday, May 15, 2011

Third Sunday after Easter

1 Peter 2:11-19 / John 16:16-22

In the first centuries of the Church, neither the Jews nor the Gentiles in the Roman Empire knew quite what to make of Christians. On the one hand, Christians seemed decidedly what they were before accepting Christ: Jew, Greek, Egyptian, Roman, African, Libyan, and so on. They had no distinctive clothing, they ate as had their fathers and mothers before them, they spoke as did others among their people. In this sense, to be Christian seemed to mean that very little had changed. On the other hand, Christians seemed irredeemably distinct. The refusal to worship any gods but God, and the worship of Jesus as God, put them at odds with both Jews and Gentiles, both of whom saw in Christianity a gross and culpable betrayal of the worship handed on from of old. To have diversity of worship did not offend the Roman world, and apart from the Jews, to take on another or foreign cult was altogether acceptable. However, to reject the gods of one's ancestors, and encourage others to do likewise, was the crime of atheism, and it smelled of treason.

Even so, what all detractors of the Christian faith had to admit was the admirable way of life, the upright moral example of the Christian people. They married once, and did not dismiss their wives. They manumitted their slaves, and indeed ate and worshipped with them. They did not commit abortion or expose their infants to the elements and wild animals to remove an undesired child from their lives. They cared for their poor and hungry, even when they had little themselves. They held one another as brother and sister, no matter the difference in race or class, language or occupation. So, in spite of the puzzle of Christian identity, the Gospel received its best hearing when Christians themselves lived lives of conspicuous charity.

This, of course, is the counsel we hear today from St Peter. Peter, as a Jew, new the ways the people of Rome and their subjects could deride the faith of Israel. As a Christian, he knew that this derision could and would turn ugly and painful. While not one to avoid conflict if the only other option were silencing the Gospel, Peter nonetheless knew the virtue of prudence. He knew what it was to have the good sense of when to strike a challenging or oppositional pose, and when to live in peace and quiet. In fact, he knew all too well that riotous, unedifying living on the part of Christians was just the excuse his Gentile neighbors would need to turn away from a Good News they so desperately needed to hear. If a Christian could live as a good and faithful citizen, a faithful subject even of a hostile, pagan power, knowing that all power comes from Christ the King, then the Gentiles might be willing to set aside their prejudices, see the virtues embodied in the Church, repent, and believe.

We have much to learn today from Peter's advice. Whatever the causes, however rightly or wrongly earned, the reputation of the Church in the West is bruised, if not broken, tarnished, of not altogether blackened. There are some who find in the Catholic faith the very enemy of human flourishing, and such persons, even if not increasing in numbers, are increasing in volume. Others who may well have no ill will against us will nonetheless want to see if the claims are true, if the Church is indeed the enemy of peace and rational living.

Now, we know that the enemies of the Church are wrong. We also know that the curious onlooker and observer should ask even deeper questions, not merely about peaceful citizenship but about eternal life and the promise of the Resurrection in Jesus Christ. However, they need a reason to hear. They need a reason to think that what we believe, that the living faith that works in charity through being born again in Jesus Christ risen from the dead actually makes a difference, not on a far-off time and place, but here and now, in our everyday activity. This is why we today, like the Christians of old at once citizens in the world and strangers and pilgrims nonetheless, must heed Peter's call to refrain ... from carnal desires, which war against the soul, having our conversation good among the Gentiles: that whereas they speak against us as evildoers, they may, by the good works which they shall behold in us, glorify God in the day of visitation.

O God, Who to those that go astray dost show the light of Thy truth, that they may return to the path of justice: grant that all who are enrolled in the Christian faith may both spurn all that is hostile to that name and follow after what is fitting to it.

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