Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
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Are you a gospel coward? Is your heart weak and your spirit faint? Do you cringe or flinch or whine at the first sign of opposition? Do you think it always best to find a way around or between or under adversity? Do your hands and arms get rubbery at the thought of conflict, the mere mention of offense? Does your brain turn to mush and your strength drain away when the enemy approaches to confront you? Maybe you are a coward in more subtle ways—surrendering to fashion out of fear of exclusion; giving up the fight because your cause is ill-defined or poorly lead; retreating in the face of superior reason or more extensive experience? Do you abandon your gospel witness? Do you manifest cowardice when what is most needed is courage?
How easy it is for us to be ashamed of our “testimony to our Lord”! Paul admonishes Timothy “not to be ashamed” of the witness he himself makes to the gospel of Christ. Rather than being embarrassed by the prospect of telling others about the Lord’s freely given gift of forgiveness in mercy, Paul urges Timothy to “bear your share of the hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.” We are either ashamed of the gospel, burdened by the adversity its preaching brings, or we are strengthened, en-joyed, made joyful by the “sound words that [we have] heard from [Paul].” The faith and love that are in Christ Jesus are our inheritance, our trust fund of grace and life, the exceedingly rich treasury of gratuitous help that we receive for no other reason than that our Father is Love and loves us always. Paul goes on to order Timothy to “[g]uard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit that dwells with us.” Reminding, testifying, bearing-up-under, strengthening, hearing and seeing, guarding, and preaching—all of these we do now and tomorrow for the sake of Christ and our eternal lives with him. Thankfully, we do not do any of these alone, none without help. Our help is the Holy Spirit who dwells within us and among us.
Brothers and sisters, we have work to do. And there is no room for a coward’s heart in a soul filled with Spirit!
We have work to do. And with this work, we have the Holy Spirit filling us with the power of the Word Made Flesh, the fire of truthful witness, and the assurances of God’s promises written in stone and flesh. The Spirit dwells in me. In you. In us. Calling Timothy “beloved,” Paul reminds Timothy: “Beloved, I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.” What is this gift? For the Church, Timothy is a bishop, ordered to apostolic authority by the imposition of Paul’s hands. His gift is the grace of leadership, the gift of standing in front, between what has gone before and what is coming. Timothy is the focal point of salvation history for his local church. He is the crux, the crossroad for what is and what is not authentic testimony, what is and what is not truthful witness. With the Church, Timothy is a man of faith, burning with courage and strength, called to service to the exhaustion of his gifts, and lifted up as one with authority to lead. Timothy is himself a gift to the Church, a grace given to serve us in peril, without profit.
With Timothy’s strength, with Paul’s strength, with all the saints living and dead, and with the unfailing help of the Holy Spirit and the whole Body of Christ, we, cannot fail in preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather one of power and love. Therefore, to be ashamed of our gospel testimony is to be ashamed of Christ himself. Why would we add this hardship to our burden? We have enough work to do in pursuing holiness, in keeping away from sin, in feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and healing the sick. Why would we do any of this and fail to claim the power and love of the Holy Spirit? Why would we do any of this and fail to dig deeply and excessively into the treasury of graces freely given to us specifically for this purpose? Why would we plow the fields of the world and tend the world’s sheep and do so without humility and eagerly welcoming hearts? Why?
Cowardice, that’s why. Fear of hardship. An aversion to difficulty. A distaste for “offending.” We might be called names. We might be ostracized. People will think we are being exclusive or discriminatory or intolerant. If we make any hard claims about the truths of the gospel, we will be seen as aggressive missionaries, or worse—missionaries of aggressive religion! Thus, we must blend in, mingle, disguise ourselves. If we stand up, stand out, or in any way distinguish ourselves as gospel witnesses, we must be claiming exclusive possession of The Truth. We must be preaching One Way, The Only Way to heaven. We must be vile little buggers who lust to see the heathens burn! If we flinch at these accusations, batting a single eye for a single second, and change one word of the gospel out of fear being called bigots, we are, in fact, cowards; cowards deserving the label.
Now, before any of you think I am calling for the reinstitution of the Inquisition or a rallying of the Crusades, let me say: we work as servants. Not inquisitors. Not soldiers. Servants. We serve. That’s what gospel people do. Secularists expect us to come charging out of Mass with swords drawn and torches lit and force them all to the baptismal font and confessional. My suspicion is that this is exactly what they want us to do, thus confirming their own bigotries and prejudices and giving them every excuse to continue their already well-oiled and ever-so-sophisticated persecution of the Church. No, I’m not being an alarmist. Nor am I issuing warnings or dire cautions against the evils of the secular world. The evil we need to be worrying about lives already in the heart of every man and woman who lays claim to the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. Our worst enemy is not the state, not the Supreme Court, not the ACLU, and not other religions. Our worst enemy is the weak heart of compromise, the fainting spirit of accommodation and assimilation. Our worst enemy is the Christian heart that believes its soul is impervious to charitable work. Excused from profitable service and witness. This is the restless heart of a Christian that will not search for and will not find its rest in Love. It cannot. Because it suffocates the Spirit in disobedience and fear.
Ask these hard questions this way: is the Lord to be grateful to us b/c we have done what he has commanded us to do? Is he supposed to pat us on the back and send us on permanent retreat b/c we completed the work we vowed to do at baptism? Because we have said “amen” and “thanks be to God” at Mass? Or, are we to say to our Master, “We are unprofitable servants, Lord; we have done what we were obliged to do”? Even better: we have done what we promised to do because you died for us, making us heirs to your kingdom.
We are already well-paid servants. We’ve used all of our vacation days. All of our comp time and sick days. The Christmas bonus has been given and spent. The heavenly 401K has been cashed. The time clock is still ticking and we haven’t yet punched out. If you are going to be a witness to the gospel out there, then know this: our God did not give you a spirit of cowardice but rather a spirit of power and love and self control. His Word has been proclaimed to you and his Word remains forever.
Brothers and sisters, put on your apron. We have work to do!