Sunday OT(C): Malachi 3.19-20; 2 Thes 3.7-12; Luke 21.5-19
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Monastery of Mary the Queen, Elmira NY
It was a Friday afternoon after school. We were right outside the Ms Shear’s house—she was the one with the indoor pool with that the glass roof. She would open her gates and let us run our bikes down her driveway into the dead-end cove. At the bottom of the driveway that Friday just as I was spinning around to ride back up, my best friend, Teddie asked me, “Do you know Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?” I stared at him for a second, mildly embarrassed, murmured something unintelligible, and headed back up the hill. He followed and asked me at the top, “Have you ever heard of the Tribulation?” No. “The Second Coming of Jesus.” No. “The Rapture?” No. “The war at Armageddon?” No. He stared at me, open-mouthed. I felt like a circus-freak, an dime-store exhibit, one of those werewolf boys or eight-legged cows you see at the state fair. And just as I was starting to think Teddie was going to slap a sign on me and start selling tickets, he said, “You need to come to Vacation Bible School at Fremeaux Ave. Baptist Church.” I distinctly remember his tone. He pronounced this possibility like a highly-effective cure for a particularly ugly disease, like suggesting radical plastic surgery to the eight-legged cow or laser-hair removal for the werewolf boy. Vacation Bible School will fix ten-year old-Jesus-stupid-Philip.
Jesus knows how to get and hold the attention of a crowd. Pointing to the temple, the very heart of the Jewish people, he says, “All that you see here—the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone…” And the people wonder, “Teacher, when will this happen?” Notice how Jesus answers. Typically, Jesus doesn’t answer the question asked of him; rather, he answers the question we would ask if we were less clueless! Rather than tell the crowd who or what destroys the temple, or how the temple is destroyed, or even when it is pulled down, Jesus says, “See that you are not deceived, for many will come in my name, saying ‘I am he’ and ‘The time is come.’ Do not follow them!” This isn’t an answer. And neither is any of the rest of his response. War. Famine. Earthquakes. Awesome sights and mighty signs. Persecutions of the church. These have been going on since the beginning of the Church. Before the Church even. And long after her founding. And not only that, but the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans some seventy years after the resurrection of Christ, making this passage from Luke’s gospel essentially an interesting but ultimately pointless historical curiosity for us in 2007, right? Wrong! Jesus’ response to the crowd is an answer to the ages. To us. He is speaking to us right now.
You see, our faith, done right, is a dangerous thing. It is a worm in the shiny apple of the world. A pest that buzzes ‘round the emperor’s head. Our faith is a still small voice that never stops whispering for the Lord’s justice. Never stops praying for the world’s sick, hungry, lonely, oppressed, sinful. Our faith, our firm trust in the Lord and our sure hope of resurrection, annoys; it burns to clean; it names those who would set themselves on the altar of the temple, and it pulls down the idols of the stomach. Through our faith we see clearly, hear cleanly the chaos and racket of a world infused with the spirit of the Now and the New. Easy salvation. Cheap grace. No-challenge Church. Invent as you go, believe as you wish, do as you please. Please yourself, please me! Here’s a new prophet, a new priest to tickle our ears, to scratch our curiosities. I am he. The time has come. I am he. The time is now. The time is new. I am he who comes in the name of the Lord. I am he whose time is now and I come in the name of a new Lord!
Do not be deceived. Do not follow him. Or her. Or it—a spiritual program, a method, a style or a fashion, a theological trend, or a “new thing in prayer,” the latest thing to demand your allegiance, your time and energy, your soul. Do not be deceived by easy fixes, quick cures, elaborate models of living the faith, or fanciful devotions that take your eyes from Christ. Do not be deceived by the shiny, flickering world of cable-TV commerce or media-born politics or the brain-rotting candy of cultural relativism. Your faith is old. Your trust in the Lord is sparkling new. For us, Christ is the wisdom of the ages. Always fresh, always innovative, always the original.
So, Jesus-stupid-Philip went to Vacation Bible School. A week of verse-memorization, macaroni art, disciple-tag, fevered altar calls in church, intense pressure to “come to Jesus.” On the last day, I caved. I walked the aisle to the rail. In a Baptist version of confession, I muttered a few sins to the preacher. He asked me if I accepted Jesus into my heart as my personal Lord and Savior. I said, “Yes.” But I thought, “Sure. Anything to get outta here!” Later, Teddie asked me if I felt different. I said, “No. Not really.” Again, he stared at me like I had grown a third eye. He said sadly, “Well, you didn’t get saved then. You would feel it.” All I could do was shrug and say, “Maybe next time.” He showed me the Book of Revelation where the blood of those killed in the war against the Beast flowed as high as a horse’s bridle. He pointed to the whore of Babylon and told me that was really the Catholic Church. He read out to me the parts about the angels and the seven seals and the ten-headed dragon and the number 666. And he managed to scare Jesus into me. Or maybe he scared me into Jesus.
Jesus warns us that we will be persecuted. Arrested and executed for our faith. This was made clear to me by Teddie when he showed me the chaos of the apocalypse. The energy, the fervor of his belief propelled me to seek out, to question, to look more deeply into the faith. I didn’t stop at the fundamentalist vision of the end times. I kept reading, praying, asking questions. And I found the Church…eventually. Before that though I let every alien philosophy out there, every puny little god with a creed and a priest tell me how to live. We are the Church, the Body of Christ. We are his Body and Blood. The blood of the martyrs’ faith. The faith of our ancestors in covenant with the Father. And a Father who has not abandoned us to novelty, to trendy religious nonsense. We are given the word of wisdom against whom no adversary can stand. We are given the trust of the Creator and His recreating Love. On these, we endure. With these, we persevere. And what promise we do have? This one: “You will be hated b/c of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.” Nothing cheap or easy about that!
Pic credit: John B. Wright