29 June 2008

Downright 'ornery

SS. Peter and Paul: Acts 12.1-11; 2 Tim 4.6-8, 17-18; Matt 16.13-19
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Paul Hospital
, Dallas, TX

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Peter, inspired by God, given a revelation, a view of God’s face, answers Jesus when he asks, “Who do you say that I am?” You are the Christ. You are the Son of the living God. Peter alone among the gathered disciples answers. Peter alone is given this revelation. Peter alone is blessed as the son of Jonah, the only one of flesh and blood to see clearly the truth of the Word of Made Flesh. He is the first to preach the name and face of our salvation. And in virtue of this unique privilege, Jesus the Christ says to him, “You are Peter, upon this rock I will build my Church…I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven…” Born of the Spirit at Pentecost, safeguarded against the assaults of the netherworld, and anointed as a prophetic body, the Church lives with Peter even now as a thriving witness, as a testimony to the love our Father has for us. Because of Peter’s faith, we are the Body of Christ alive and well in the 21st century; and alive and well well-into 21st we will remain. Despite our fundamental health and the promise of the Spirit to abide with us always, we are faced daily with attacks from the netherworld, both small and great, assaults on our foundation and our frame. How do we survive? How do we thrive?

The martyrdoms of Peter and Paul in Rome are perhaps the most egregious examples we have of how our enemy uses its secular political power to attack the Church. King Herod sees the pleasure James’ execution brings to the Jewish leadership, and so he plots to arrest Peter. Paul, despite his vigor and determination, and despite his Roman citizenship and deep connections to the Jewish community, is persecuted by both the State and the Temple. He speaks the Word plainly and without flinching and dies for his mission. Why would the King, the Emperor, the Chief Priest be threatened by these men? Why would those who wield the power of the throne, the empire, and the temple see these men as threats to their way of life, their power and prestige? Peter and Paul did little more than travel the known-world preaching a simple gospel of repentance and Godly love. Without armies, money, or influence, what power could either man bring against the rulers of their world?

What the enemy knows and we often forget is that the Church is the living Body of Christ, the breathing Body of the Son of the living God. We are not an institution. We are not a community of allegiance. We are not a convenient organization for charitable work. Nor are we a social club, a religious market, or a school for moral instruction. And though we are certainly a society of vowed believers, we are more than a gathered family, praying together during a communal meal. In fact, if we restrict the Church to her function and utility, we become nothing more than an terribly inefficient means of redistributing our members’ wealth, time, and talent for the meager good of others. Would you die eagerly for a social service club? How about dying for a largely wasteful and embarrassingly messy neighborhood association? Would you die for your family, your living faith?

Peter and Paul stand at the beginning of our history as both a promise of growth and a warning of death. Their lives of service to the preaching of the gospel records tremendous successes and abject failures. In their day to day struggle against the onslaught of the netherworld, they called upon the help of the Lord, fully expecting, though not always without some doubt, that the Lord would give them whatever they needed to accomplish his commission to them. The prayer of their brothers and sisters sustained them in the most horrible of persecutions. They knew that the Body of Christ lived and that that Body lifted them up, stood them up, before the Lord as great men of faith and endurance. Luke, in his Acts, tells us: “Peter was being kept in prison, but prayer by the church was fervently being made to God on his behalf.” Paul writes to Timothy, “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength…And I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.” That the Lord was with these men in their suffering was not only enough for their immediate survival and rescue but also sufficient for their perfection in heroic virtue. They live because Christ lives in them.

What did these men preach that threatened the powers of this world? What did they do to merit execution? Earlier we noted that they did nothing more than preach and teach a gospel of repentance and Godly love. Hardly sedition or treason. Why would a message of repentance and Godly love shake the Roman Empire and the Temple? Like their master these men brought down on the heads of those who ruled them in this world a condemnation, a declaration against their disobedience to the Word of God. Preaching and teaching a message of divine mercy threatened the state’s power by urging those who would listen to forgive offenses, to eschew vengeance, and seek forgiveness rather than redress. Preaching and teaching a message of divine love threatened the temple’s power by urging those who would listen to forego temple sacrifice, to ignore hypocritical clergy, to seek out the Father’s love in one’s neighbor. What judge in a court of law or priest in the temple wants to hear that his fundamental purpose is obsolete, completed in the coming, dying, and rising of one man? These two, Peter and Paul, and those who followed them, shook the foundations of their world with a Word: “Christ.”

In our own time, we are challenged as the Body of Christ with the difficult commission of living in a world diseased with relativism, subjectivism, narcissism, neglect of the young and old, the sick and dying, the poor and the oppressed. In our own time, we are presented by our rulers with the options of either living our lives of faith in private, or seeing the Church legally excluded from the public arena. In our own time, we are betrayed from within by those who would see us play fair with the enemy by preaching and teaching a gospel fraught with compromise and falsehood. In our own time, we are faced with the choice of either keeping our baptismal vows to serve the Lord without flinching, or to serve the enemy by retreating back into disobedience and cowardly concession. Knowing this, we can fall into a paralyzing despair, or we can give God thanks for placing us in a world in desperate need of His love. Regardless, the work of Christ’s Body, the Church, is the same now as it was 2,000 years ago: preach the gospel as Christ himself preached it. We can preach the Good News. Or we can play the devil’s game by his rules. We cannot do both. It was this stubbornness in holding up the truth that accompanied Peter and Paul to deaths.

I do not intend to sound like a blaring car alarm this morning, wailing insistently that some thug is breaking into the Church to steal our goodies. There is a time and place for subtly in our preaching, in our daily witness; in fact, the subtle witness of quietly loving God by serving our neighbor is perhaps the best way to show Christ’s face to those who need see God’s mercy. However, when confronted as we are with a world increasingly hostile to the gift of life and the possibility of eternal salvation, we cannot break the essential bond between our baptism into Christ and our witness inside and outside the Church. And so, we need to be reminded that we do not preach a theology, a philosophy, a therapeutic method, a political platform, or even a religious practice. We preach Christ—his life among us, his death for us, and his rising again to bring us to the Father. There is nothing else for the Church to say to the world and to herself than this: repent of your disobedience and come to Christ.

Though none of us here will likely see martyrdom preaching the Good News, our brothers and sisters all over the world are dying for Christ, suffering for the sake of his gospel. The empire of this world will not tolerate a black and white message of repentance and forgiveness. It will tolerate nothing less than the Church’s total unconditional assimilation into its chaotic celebration of choice, utility, and death. This we cannot do and remain the Body of Christ. Therefore, like Paul, we must keep the faith, run the race, and come to God perfected in His love alone.

No comments:

Post a Comment