15 April 2007

Nothing to fear but faith safely guarded (revised)

2nd Sunday of Easter: Acts 5.12-16; Rev 1.9-13, 17-19; and John 20.19-31
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul’s Hospital and Church of the Incarnation


Safety comes first! Our doors are locked b/c we are afraid! A new security system on all entrances. Four or five cleverly hidden but readily accessible guns. Guard dogs. Threatening yard signs. A panic room with enough food and water for a month. Cameras covering every inch of the property. Two personal bodyguards on duty 24/7: Rocky and Twinkie. Yes, we’re afraid. So afraid, in fact, that we are now prisoners in our own home and hostages to our obsessive need for security and control. Safety comes first!

And Jesus comes and stands in our midst and says to us, “Peace be with you.” The locks fall away. The guns melt. The security system starts playing remixes of “Ave Maria” by P Diddy and Shaina Twain. The guard dogs morph into kittens. The yard signs now read “WELCOME!” We use cameras now to catch funny moments for Youtube. Rocky and Twinkie serve margaritas by the pool and give foot massages. We are no longer afraid. Christ, our Lord Jesus, commanded that we be at peace. And so we are. If you aren’t, I wonder why?

Let’s say that our tightly wound and locked down house is your soul. Or maybe your heart and mind. As a Christian—baptized, confirmed, and in full communion with the Body—you have nothing to fear from anything or anyone. But how many of us here will clamp down on our spirit like a nervous dictator after student dissidents when someone threatens the security of our trust in God? Or challenges the veracity of our faith in the public square? Where is our apostolic spirit, that breath of Christ?

Wait. I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up. The disciples are locked up tight in a room for fear of the Jews, meaning they were hiding from the partisan Jews who arranged for Jesus’ phony trial and illegal execution. The disciples, despite their cowardly betrayal of Jesus in the garden, were probably right to worry that they were being hunted. It’s one thing to remove a tumor. Quite another to pick out all the infected cells. Fail in this and the cells might become tumors themselves. Jesus’ followers were a threat to the hegemony of the temple and the Romans. And so, they locked the doors for fear of their persecutors. Very understandable.

But is this what Thomas the Twin does when he denies, despite credible testimony, that Jesus visited his brother disciples after his death? Does Thomas lock up the doors of his spirit, his heart and mind, b/c he fears persecution for his belief? No. Obviously not. He doesn’t believe, so how would installing invincible security protect his faith? He has none. Thomas’ denial of Christ in the face of the apostolic witness of his brothers is scandalous. Note: he doesn’t doubt. He denies: “I WILL not believe…” And then he demands evidence no one else needs or wants. Thomas is not threaten by persecution for his faith. Thomas is threatened by the faithful witness of those who have seen Christ in the flesh. And what exactly is it of Thomas’ that is threatened by this faithful witness? Let’s pause here and turn the question back to us.

When we, when you detect some alleged threat to your faith and slam the security doors of your soul, your heart and mind, and call the ecclesial police and demand absolute safety for your faith, what is it of yours that is threatened? Please don’t say, “My faith is threatened”! How exactly could faith ever need or use the safety that anyone on Earth could provide? Your faith in God, the trust God has given you as His child, cannot be seriously threatened by anyone or anything outside your own intellect and will. Let me suggest that it is our Spiritual Comfort that gets threatened. Our comfortable, settled, cushy ways of being faithful, of “being spiritual” that get threatened by challenges from our worldly persecutors. And it is the Devil who convinces us that when our Spiritual Comfort is threatened it is actually our Faith in God that is threatened. Nonsense. Utter twaddle.

The disciples went around with Jesus listening to him teach and preach, watching him argue and heal, sweating with him to serve the poor, the wrecks, those abandoned. They saw him day in and day out, heard him every time he spoke, and accompanied him nearly everywhere he went. And yet! At crunch time, at the hour of his crucible, when he needed them most, they ran like weasels set on fire, denying him as they ran. OK. Would we have done any better? Probably not. I dunno. Maybe. But my point is this: with Christ their faith was comforted and defended and they had no need to fear. Without him they fled their persecutors behind locked doors. Christ came to them to console their anxieties. And Thomas, who was absent for Christ’s visit, denies that any such thing had happened. His comfortable ways of being spiritual were threatened by the disciples’ outrageous testimony and he slammed the security doors of his soul, his heart and mind, and called the police. He decided that his best way to defend his comfortable way of understanding Christ was to demand of Christ irrefutable empirical evidence: “Unless I see the mark of the nails of his hands…I will not believe.”

Now back to us. When our comfortable ways of being spiritual, our settled means of knowing Christ are threatened, what do we do? Don’t we become Denying Thomases? That is, we deny the power of God’s gift of faith and cast around for empirical evidence that we are right to trust God. Think about that phrase: “evidence that we are right to trust God”! What kind of trust in God needs evidence to warrant fidelity? We look to weeping statues, Blessed Mother tortillas, bleeding Hosts, a dancing Sun, Jesus’ face in a smeared store window, levitating rosaries, apocalyptic dream poems from “visionaries,” and on and on. All of which could be miraculous. But none of which need be for the truly faithful! You may answer me: “But Father! The faith has enemies everywhere! Fundamentalist Muslims. Fundamentalist secularist. Dissident theologians and priests and bishops. Schismatic archbishops and religious orders. Scandal in the seminaries, in the rectories, in the chanceries, in the schools. Perverts in collars and miters preying on our children and our young people. Call to Action! Voice of the Faithful! Women’s Ordination Conference! Catholics for Choice! Error and dissent everywhere, everywhere! And the Holy Father isn’t doing anything about it! Nothing!” And Jesus comes and stands in our midst and says to us, “Peace be with you.” And his servant, John Paul II, stands next to him and says, “Be not afraid.”

For us, Christ’s peace is our security. We are secure in his presence. Secure in his love for us. Secure in the knowledge that he has won the last battle against darkness and despair. Secure in the church and her invincible yet always open gates. Thomas sticks in fingers in Christ’s wounds and says, “My Lord and my God!” And Jesus tells him that he has come to believe b/c he has seen. The truly blessed, however, are those who have not seen and still believe.

“Safety comes first” is the motto of the damned. There’s nothing safe or easy or comfortable about following Christ. There is only your life lived in absolute trust. Unlock your doors. Welcome the strange and the stranger. Stand firm in the Word. Celebrate joy in the Sacraments. And there will be nothing comfortable in your faith to threaten. Nothing settled to stir up. Nothing easy to complicate by a challenge from the world. Make trusting Christ the most outrageous thing you do, the most exhausting exercise of your day, the most thrilling adventure of this life. And there will be nothing out there or in here to stand up and demand that you fail your Lord. You must believe that he has won this war. There is nothing for us to fear from our enemies. So, peace be with you. Receive the Holy Spirit and live freely the life of a Child of the Risen Lord, the life our Lord died on the cross to give you!

[Addition for U.D.’s Church of the Incarnation…]

At the risk of provoking the crowd with a slightly longer homily, I want to address directly the presence of Divine Mercy in God’s plan for the restoration of creation. And I want to do this by noting a strain of piety, or maybe it’s a way of thinking about sin, here at U.D. that seems to deny the power of Divine Mercy. Let me lay these out plainly: 1) the tendency to turn every sin, no matter how small, into a mortal sin; 2) the seemingly unshakeable conviction among some that God just can’t wait to punish us for our sins; 3) that God is gleefully playing “Gotcha Games” with our spiritual lives by burdening us with temptations we can’t handle; 4) the audacious rejection of God’s grace in games of Religious Athleticism—I go to more Masses, kneel longer, sing in Latin, belong to this or that paraecclesial group, etc. and you don’t or can’t, so I’m holier than you!; 5) the bizarre notion that sexual sins are deeply, horribly offensive to God while pride, envy, lack of charity, and judgmentalism are simply unfortunate character flaws by comparison; 6) the perverse belief that my sins are too big for God to forgive or too many for Him to catch all of them in just one confession or too horrible for Him to look upon so I have to use euphemisms, etc.; 7) that mercy is for the weak, that forgiveness is for the impure and the willful, and the perhaps the most damning error of all: despite the freely given sacrifice of Christ on the cross and his glorious resurrection into heaven, I don’t deserve mercy, so I will just wallow in my prideful self-pity, thank you.

Here’s the truth: not every sin is mortal—stop this prideful manipulation of reality and get a grown up’s understanding of sin. God does not want to punish us for our sins. He sent His only Son to save us. If he wanted to punish us, He would’ve skipped the excesses of the Incarnation and the Resurrection and just damned us. God is not waiting under your bed to jump and yell “A-HA! GOTCHA! GO TO HELL!” It’s a paranoid fantasy. Your Religious Athleticism is pointless. It just makes you more and more self-righteous and less and less holy. Stop it. Don’t stop praying, of course, but stop thinking that you’re saved in these exercises of piety. You’re not. Sex is good, true, beautiful, and holy. Pride, envy, lack of charity, all distort everything that is good, true, beautiful, and holy. Sexual sins are not somehow more horrible sins b/c they are sexual. Sexual sins are usually expressions of pride, envy, lack of charity, etc. Nothing about you or me or this world or this universe is too big for God to handle. The Devil is telling you that your sins are special. They aren’t. Mercy and forgiveness are for the weak, the willful, and the impure. And if you think you’re going to be strong, obedient, and pure without God’s grace and mercy—you’re deluded.

Simply put: God wants His creation—all of it, all of us—restored. That’s His goal for you, for me, for everything He has created. You thwart your own growth in holiness by exaggerating your sins; refusing God’s mercy as a sign of weakness; and believing that there is anything you can do to save yourself. Let God love you, so that you can grow in holiness! What is there to fear in being shown mercy? In being loved?


  1. Father, could you please post your Divine Mercy sermon that you gave at the end of this one? It was excellent, and I was hoping to send it some of my friends.


  2. Anonymous10:56 AM

    I am feeling a bit confused. I haven’t thought of myself going through “Religious Athleticism” before. I am a convert. I thought the things I was doing, and encouraged to do, were part of spiritual growth. It was my understanding that making efforts to go to daily mass was a spiritually growing activity, not just an act of piety. If one belongs to a “paraecclesial group” (whatever they are), does it mean they are self righteous? Going to Bible study is to increase my understanding of the Word and how to apply it to life. Reading your blog, and sharing it with others, another means of challenging my look on life and building my faith. I know you are reacting to something you see at UD that I am not privy to. I guess I don’t know what you are referring to and how to relate to myself. If I am active in my church and become visible, does that mean I am trying to look pious? If I have an attraction to the old songs rather than the new, isn’t that an allowable preference of taste and not a holier than thou outlook? I thought I was supposed to pitch in where and when I can, according to my talents and abilities. At what point do I need to be concerned about being a religious athlete?

  3. Anon,

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I'm confused about why you're confused. It's obvious from your comment that you read my homily with attention. This quote from my homily should clear things up: "Don’t stop praying, of course, but stop thinking that you’re saved in these exercises of piety. You’re not."

    You ask, "At what point do I need to be concerned about being a religious athlete?"

    The point at which you begin to believe that your works can save you. Prayer, good works, etc. are fine for growing in holiness, but they do nothing for our salvation. We are able to pray and do good work only b/c God has graced us to do so. I'm preaching here against the ever-present heresy of Pelagianism.

    My point throughout this last addition to the homily proper is that there we are all radically dependent on God's mercy for everything...nothing, absolutely nothing we can do or will do or are doing right now gains us one tinsy little iota of grace. Belonging to groups, paraliturgical devotions, etc. are all perfectly fine, but they cannot earn us God's love. Grace means gift and any gift that one earns is by definition not a gift but payment.

    Fr. Philip, OP

  4. Anonymous11:50 AM

    What an amazing homily on Sunday evening. I only wish more of UD could have heard it. Thank you!