The Fifteenth Sunday of the Year (B)
Dear brothers and sisters,
What does it mean to be accounted Christians – to be known as Christians – for the faith we profess? It means, among other things, that our faith is public and that we live differently from those around us. If a man or woman, boy or girl, is to be known publicly as a Christian there must be something that distinguishes him or her from the crowd and that something is the faith of Jesus Christ. Here we must ask ourselves: Does my faith distinguish me from the crowd? Am I publicly known for the faith I profess?
The very name of Christian is a qualifier that – though present very early in the Church – is not original to the Church. Those who first came to be known as Christians called themselves the disciples, the brethren, or even the followers of the way. But because many teachers had disciples, because many groups had brethren, and because many philosophies and religions claimed to be the way, a new word was needed to designate this new group of men and women who followed Jesus of Nazareth. So it was that those who claimed Jesus was risen from the dead were first called Christians – that is, followers of Christ - in the city of Antioch, where Saint Peter presided over the Church before he went to Rome. But they did not at first call themselves Christians; rather, they were called Christians by those who wished to denigrate them and point out how differently they lived. Even so, because the designation was true, because the early disciples of Jesus were followers of Christ, they took the derogatory name to themselves and gloried in it.
As our society turns ever more Christophobic, as the number of those who view Christians with disdain increases, we might learn a valuable lesson from our ancestors in the faith. Many account us as bigots and haters simply because we follow Christ and seek to live according to his decrees and example and because we insist we should be free to do so. As a soft persecution of those whose first allegiance is to Jesus Christ continues to strengthen in these United States of America, we must, like the earliest Christians, willingly suffer dishonor for the sake of the name (see Acts 5:41).
We cannot shy away from giving honor to his name; we must reject whatever is contrary to his name; and we must do all can to make his name known and loved. We cannot forget that “in him we also were chosen, destined in accord with the purpose of the One who accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will, so that we might exist for the praise of his glory, we who first hoped in Christ” (Ephesians 1:11).
As those who misunderstand us increasingly seek to push us out of the public square with steadily growing force, we must endeavor to proclaim - with humble confidence - that God “has made known to us the mystery of his will in accord with his favor that he sort forth in [Jesus] as a plan for the fullness of times, to sum up all things in Christ” (Ephesians 1:9-10). To this end, we must strive to honor the very name we bear – the name of Christ - by conforming ourselves to him in such a way that when others see us, they do not see us, but Christ; we must remember that “he must increase, but [we] must decrease” (John 3:30). When we are slandered and assaulted, we must announce the peace of God and help everyone know that “near indeed is his salvation to those who fear him” and invite them to place themselves under his holy name (Psalm 85:9).
To this end, we have, in many parts of the world, bright lights shining in the darkness, great lights that point the way to Jesus, to him in whom “kindness and truth shall meet” and in whom “justice and peace shall kiss” (Psalm 85:10). These lights are those of our brothers and sisters who intentionally choose to reject all that is contrary to the name of Christ and strive to do it honor, even to the point of the shedding of their blood.
Whereas we in our country are only mocked and ridiculed today because of our faith, our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world are suffering greatly for the faith they profess. They have been driven from their homes and separated from their loved ones; they have watched their family and friends be made martyrs for Jesus by beheadings, hangings, and crucifixions. They have lost everything they had in this world, but they have held fast to their faith, confident that “justice shall walk before [the Lord], and prepare the way of his steps” (Psalm 85:13).
No matter how many miles separate us from the Christians in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Libya, Egypt, Somalia, Tunisia, and many other parts of the world, we cannot ignore their plight, nor can we remain silent. They are suffering greatly for the sake of the name of the Lord Jesus, the same name that unites us together in the Body of Christ. We cannot ignore them or their needs because, as Saint Paul teaches us, “If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it” (I Corinthians 12:26).
It was not that long ago that people outside Germany looked back at the terrors of the concentration camps and asked, “How did they allow this to happen? How did they not see it coming? Why did they say nothing? Why did they do nothing?” Before he was elected Chancellor of Germany, everyone knew what Hitler wanted to do, but no one thought he would actually do it. Then, step by purposeful step, he incrementally began his campaign. It was subtle at first, but in the end deadly and horrific.
Right before our eyes another such genocide is occurring at this very moment across the world – we have seen the pictures and the videos! What is more, we knew this was coming for months, and we did nothing! What is more, we continue to watch it happen, and do almost nothing to stop it. History will look back upon us and condemn us with the same questions we ask about Hitler’s Germany: “How did they allow this to happen? How did they not see it coming? Why did they say nothing? Why did they do nothing?”
Among the many victims in the camp at Auschwitz was a Carmelite nun, Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She was born to Jewish parents and given the name Edith Stein. She abandoned Judaism for atheism in her teenage years and became a renowned philosopher whose thought deeply influenced Saint John Paul II. Before her martyrdom in the gas chambers, she said, “Those who remain silent are responsible.” Her words were directed at those of her own day, and they are equally directed at those of our own day. Yes, those who remain silent are responsible! We must speak out on their behalf and we must remember them always in our prayers.
We should pray that their attackers show them mercy, that peace come to their land, and that justice be served. We should pray that they find shelter and sustenance and that they be allowed to return to their homes. We should pray that they remain steadfast and persevere in the faith of the Lord Jesus, that they hear his voice whispering to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid” (cf. I Kings 19:12; Matthew 14:27).
What is more, we should fast for them; we should offer our sufferings and inconveniences for them; we should talk about their plight with our family, friends, neighbors, politicians, and strangers; we should donate to reliable groups working on their behalf. We cannot forget them! We are one with them in Christ Jesus!
Pope Francis has urged us to think of “Christian” not simply as a descriptor for what we believe, but as our very name. He said:
We are not isolated and we are not Christians on an individual basis, each one on his or her own, no, our Christian identity is to belong! We are Christians because we belong to the Church. It is like a last name: if the first name is “I am Christian”, the last name is “I belong to the Church.”
…you cannot love God without loving your brothers, you cannot love God outside of the Church; you cannot be in communion with God without being so in the Church, and we cannot be good Christians if we are not together with those who seek to follow the Lord Jesus, as one single people, one single body, and this is the Church.
My friends, we cannot claim to love our brothers and sisters, we cannot claim to be members of the Church or even to be Christians without feeling their sufferings and without doing all that we can to come to their aid.
Our persecuted brothers and sisters can teach us how to love Jesus in all things and above all things; they can teach us to reject everything contrary to him and to honor him in all that we do. May their example teach us how to suffer dishonor gladly for the sake of the name of Christ. Amen.