Sunday, March 25, 2012

Passion Sunday

Hebrews 9:11-15 / John 8:46-59

There has been much talk of late about the unfair treatment, indeed the outright abuse, of the Christian faithful. In the West, this has tended to be expressed in one of two ways, either by the compelling of the Church to provide public and material support to things which are contrary to the Gospel, and which it serves no demonstrable public good to do so, or by the shaming and even public prosecution in a court of law of the upholding of principles and practices which were, only a generation ago, part of the common vision of the whole of Western society. In other parts of the world, the abuse of Christians is more overt and more violent, whether the attacks on Christians in Iraq to rid that land of those ancient Christian communities, the assaults on the Coptic Christians in Egypt, the trumped up charges of blasphemy against the Christians in Pakistan, the paranoid accusations and lethal reprisals against Christians thought guilty of manipulative proselytism in India, or the brutal murder of Christians in northern Nigeria. Whether the gentler form encountered in the West or the more violent reactions in the global South, Christians are likely to protest that the response of non-Christians to the Gospel here is unjust and unwarranted. The claim is that Christianity is falsely seen as the source of offense, and that if one truly understood what the Church was about, these anxieties would be seen as the paranoid, violent fantasies that they are.

While this is certainly true, and while Christians ought to do what they can to resist the tendency of others to receive the Church as an offense, the fact remains that, at its heart, the Gospel will produce resistance, violent resistance, from those who have not been brought to new life in Jesus Christ by the Spirit. In John's Gospel, Jesus challenges the multitudes of the Jews to bring forth any authentic and justifiable reason to take offense at him and convict him of sin. Again and again they merely assert that his own words, and precisely his claims that God is his Father, and that whoever rejects his words does so because he is not of God, prove that he is both a heretic and a demoniac. Their annoyance and frustration becomes more and more threatening as Jesus asserts himself and his words to be the souce of life and freedom from death, and his own very person the joy which all of God's faithful, even the great patriarch Abraham, have longed to see. Finally, when Jesus gives his most unambiguous assertion of the Gospel message, when he declares that before Abraham was made, I am, and in doing so identifies himself as the very Lord God who revealed his holy Name to Moses, the crowd can contain itself no longer. They took up stones therefore to cast at Him.

It is well worth recalling that the Gospel can and will necessarily be an offense, an offense that leads to outright and hostility and even violence, for those who take its message seriously but whose hearts remain hardened. The identity of Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, is not merely one of a series of dogmatic assertions which one can hold or not with varying degrees of acceptance. To see what this revelation means, to understand what it entails, requires either embracing Jesus as Lord and Savior and cleaving to his very words as the source of life itself, or seeking to eliminate his presence as not merely another lunatic, but as a true offense to rational and wholesome living. To live in a world where someone is taken seriously to be the very author of the world itself is either to rejoice in the glorious Good News of the Incarnation or to be its most bitter enemy. Take the presence of the Church seriously, and there is no possibility, in the long run, for peace.

This is why, without ceasing our efforts to make sure that Christians do not suffer for misreadings of what they are about, from pretended worries about how disruptive the creed is to the common good, the Church must, if it is faithful to its mission and its Head, expect to find itself resisted, and quite forcefully, from the world. If our Lent has opened our eyes, then we have seen not that this violence can be avoided, but that it cannot stand in the way of our true happiness. This is the joy, the Good News, of the inevitability of martyrdom. We, who are marked with the sign of the Cross, will certainly taste death, and some, even many of us will do so at the hands of those who hate us. Even so, we need not fear, for if we must die from hatred, we will die with the word of Jesus Christ in our minds, on our lips, and in our heart. If any man keep My word, he shall not taste death for ever.

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