It amazes me when I think about all that the early Church had to go through and put up with. Saint Paul writes that he put up with persecution from all sides: from his own people as well as the Gentiles. He was beaten often, endured hazardous journeys and perilous weather, as well as every kind of deprivation. His experience was definitely extreme, but others who lived the faith in those days were also subject to persecution, torture and death. Our experience isn’t like that, is it? I mean, here we sit in this air-conditioned church and relatively comfortable surroundings. We came here freely to Mass this morning and it is unlikely that anyone will openly persecute us or torture us or put us to death for worshipping our God, although as we saw in the news yesterday, it does happen.
But there is a subtle kind of persecution that we must endure. We know that even if our society is not openly hostile to living the Gospel, it is certainly just one step short of that. Life is not respected in our society: babies are aborted, the elderly are not respected or given adequate care, children are not raised in nurturing families, people are hated because of their race, color or creed. Faith is ridiculed as the crutch of the weak. Hope is crushed by those who abuse power. Love is overshadowed by sexual perversion and self-interest. Living the Gospel is dangerous to anyone who would want to be taken seriously in our culture.
To all of us who come to this holy place to worship this morning and who hope to work out our salvation by living the Gospel, Saint Paul speaks eloquently. We know that he, as well as all of the communion of saints, is there to intercede for us and show us the way. He says to us today, “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is led to sin, and I am not indignant?” He points us to our Lord Jesus who paid the ultimate price for the Gospel, and reminds us that in living that Gospel, regardless of its cost, we store up for ourselves incredible treasures in heaven, because it is in heaven that our heart resides.
St. Andrew Dŭng-Lạc was a priest in Vietnam in the early nineteenth century. He and his 116 companions, including Spanish Dominicans, members of the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris, and 96 Vietnamese, including 36 other priests, were all martyred around the year 1839. It is estimated that between 100,000 and 300,000 Catholics were martyred in Vietnam during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.
Like the poor widow in today’s Gospel reading, St. Andrew and his companions willingly gave everything – their very lives – for the faith and for our Lord. Because of their generosity and courage, the faith exists in Vietnam today. The cross has long been part of Vietnam’s history, from the early days of those persecutions, to the more recent history of war, and later communist rule. The faith is still there, but many have given up homes, lands, and even lives to pay for it.
As our Church year ends, may we take courage from the example of the Vietnamese martyrs and courageously rededicate ourselves to witnessing to the faith, regardless of the cost.
Right at the end of today’s first reading is one of the most chilling lines in all of Scripture: “and they did die.” The people’s faith was sorely tested: would they give in and worship the false gods of the people around them so that they could have some kind of peace and security, or would they prefer to stand up for what they believed and more likely than not, give their lives for their faith? Many gave up and gave in and worshipped the false gods. But many stood their ground and clung to their belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
But, let’s be clear about this: they all died. In some way. Those who were martyred literally gave their lives for the faith, we get that. But those who chose to give up and give in brought about the death of their culture and the death of their souls. Sure, they may have had some kind of peace and security now, but who would protect them if the people they allied themselves with were overtaken? And that is to say nothing of their eternal souls. They did die.
The persecution never ends. It would be easier in our own day to give in and accept abortion as a necessity, or to change Church teaching on the nature of marriage and the family, or to accept whatever special interest groups think is best for us, or keep our faith private and never share it or show it in any way. Our culture would like that; they would appreciate our willingness to blend in and not give offense. But that would be the death of our way of life and our spirituality. It will surely cost us to witness to our faith, to challenge co-workers when a business deal blurs the lines of morality, to insist that our children attend Church on Sunday before they go to a weekend-long soccer tournament, or whatever the challenge may be.
But better that we die a little for our faith than that we die without faith at all.
Today, Jesus has for us good news and bad news. The good news is that he is eventually going to send the Holy Spirit upon the world. The Holy Spirit will be a new Advocate for us, and will testify to everything that Jesus said and did. The Spirit’s testimony will be further evidence of God’s abiding love for us, a love that did not come to an end at the cross or the tomb, but instead triumphed over everything to make known his salvation to the ends of the earth. The testimony of the Holy Spirit, combined with the testimony of the Apostles, would be the birth pangs of the emerging Church, given by Christ to make the Gospel known in every land and every age.
But the bad news is, that glory won’t come without a price. Those Apostles would be expelled from the synagogues and misguided worshippers would think they were doing God’s will by killing them. Jesus knew this would be the lot of his baby disciples and he cares for them enough to warn them of what is to come. It is an important aspect of their discernment to know what is to come. Also, by warning them, he is preparing them for what is to come so that when it does happen, they may not be flustered or frightened, but might instead hold deeply to their faith, knowing that God’s providence had foreseen these calamities and they might know that in God’s providence, these calamities would not be the end of the story.
We are beneficiaries of the good news and bad news of today’s Gospel. We have heard the testimony of the Spirit and the Apostles, have been nourished by the Church they founded, have been encouraged by all that they suffered to bring the Good News to us. It is important that we too know that there is good news and bad news in the future of our discipleship. The Spirit continues to testify and the Apostles continue to teach us – that’s the good news. The bad news is, sometimes our faith will be tested, and sometimes our faith with cost us something. But in the end, it’s all Good News: even our suffering will not be the end of the story. God’s love triumphs over everything.
Well, it doesn’t take long. Just on Saturday at Mass, we heard about the selection of the first deacons of the Church, including Saint Stephen. And now, today we hear of his persecution and impending death sentence. The life of faith certainly has its ups and downs, doesn’t it? I am sure we can all relate to that at some point or another in our lives.
So they drag Saint Stephen before the Sanhedrin, and make all sorts of false claims against him. Actually, Stephen is in good company. He is brought to the same place where his Lord Jesus, and later Peter and the apostles, have gone before him. And just like all of them, even with all the lies and accusations flying around him, he is at peace. The source of his peace, is of course, his Lord who has already traveled the Way of the Cross, that same Lord who now fills him, as the first line of the reading says, with “grace and power.”
We too, will be tested in this life because of our faith. It can and will get us into trouble if we let it. But we too can rely on that same grace and power if we unite ourselves to our Risen Lord. As the Psalmist says today, “Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord.”