So they drag Saint Stephen before the Sanhedrin, and make all sorts of false claims against him. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? In fact, 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 gone before him, 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. We too, can rely on that same grace and power if we unite ourselves to our Risen Lord.
A phylactery was a black leather box that was worn on the arm or the forehead, containing scriptural verses. Maybe the modern equivalent would be a “WWJD” bracelet, or a cross worn around the neck, or even a t-shirt or sweatshirt with a Scriptural verse on it. These are wonderful reminders of who we are called to be, except when we ignore them. We cannot advertise to be one person when in fact we are someone else. We cannot be like the Pharisees who preach but do not practice. Our works must be works of justice, reaching out to those in need, living in right relationship with everyone, or our words are just hollow.
When I met with Father Jim before I came here to Saint Petronille a few weeks ago, the one concern I expressed was coming back to my home parish. I thought it might be weird, and I quoted the exact line in today’s Gospel: “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.” I asked him what he thought about that and he said he didn’t know; he’s never had to experience that himself. But, he also assured me that you’d all be on your best behavior! So we’ll just have to see how that goes.
But it is a valid concern, because, as I believe today’s Liturgy of the Word is saying, we are all of us called to be prophets. When we are baptized, we are anointed with the Sacred Chrism oil, the oil whose name has the same root word as the word “Christ.” In that anointing, we are called to be other christs to the world, we are anointed as Jesus was, priest, prophet and king. So the mission is laid out for us on our baptism day. As priests, we are called to sacrifice for the good of others. As prophets, we are called to speak the truth and witness to the will of God. As kings, we are called to reign eternally with Christ our King in the kingdom that knows no end.
Today, I want to focus, as our readings suggest, on the whole idea of us being anointed as prophets to the world. This presents two important issues. First, whether we like it or not, we are called to be prophets. And second, whether we like it or not, there are prophets among us.
So first, we are called to be prophets. And we may in fact not be thrilled about being prophets. With good reason, I think, because a prophet’s job is not an easy one. Prophets are called to witness to the truth, and quite often, people just don’t want to hear about the truth. God says as much to Ezekiel in today’s first reading: “Hard of face and obstinate of heart are they to whom I am sending you.” You know, that’s not a scriptural quotation you’ll often see on a vocation poster! But it’s a warning we all need to hear, because we will always in our witnessing to the truth come up against those who don’t want to hear it. You might be witnessing to the truth by taking a stand against a business practice you aren’t comfortable with. You can bet that won’t be popular. You might be witnessing to the truth by refusing to allow your children to participate in sports when it conflicts with coming to church on Sunday, that won’t be popular either. Whenever we exercise our ministry as prophets, we are certain to run up against people who are hard of face and obstinate of heart, but our call is the same as Ezekiel’s: witness anyway.
And second, we need to recognize that there are prophets among us. And that’s hard too because prophets can be a real pain. None of us wants to be confronted when we’re straying from the right way. None of us wants to hear the truth about ourselves or others when we’ve been blocking it out. None of us wants to be called out of our comfort zone and have to extend ourselves to reach out in new ways or meet the needs of those we’d rather ignore. But prophets insist that we do all those things.
It’s harder still when we know those prophets. They might be our spouses, our parents, our children, our best friends, and because they love us they will witness the truth to us. But how ready are we to hear and respond to that truth when we are called to it? Wouldn’t we too want to dismiss the carpenter’s son – or daughter – the one whose parents or sisters or brothers live with us, the one we have watched grow up, the one who shares our life with us? Who are they to be witnessing to the truth anyway? That’s the kind of thing Jesus was dealing with in his home town.
It’s like the Procrustean bed from Greek mythology. The mythical figure Procrustes was a son of Poseidon and a bandit from Attica, with a stronghold in the hills outside Eleusis. There, he had an iron bed into which he invited every passerby to lie down. If the guest proved too tall, he would amputate the excess length; victims who were too short were stretched on the rack until they were long enough. Nobody ever fit the bed exactly because it was secretly adjustable: Procrustes would stretch or shrink it upon sizing his victims from afar. Procrustes continued his reign of terror until he was captured by Theseus, who “fitted” Procrustes to his own bed and cut off his head and feet. And so a Procrustean bed is any kind of arbitrary standard to which exact conformity is enforced. We might be a lot like Procrustes when we refuse to admit that people among us are prophetic, when we refuse to hear the truth from them.
And here is a very important truth, the truth that I think we are being asked to take away from today’s readings: the prophetic ministry continues among us. There are times when we will be called to hear the prophets, and times when we will be called to be the prophets. Neither task is an easy one: the truth is very often difficult to deal with, no matter what side of it we are on. But honoring the truth is the only way we are going to get to be with Jesus who himself is the way, the truth and the life. So it is the vocation of us Christian disciples to constantly seek the truth, proclaiming it when necessary, hearing and responding to it when called upon, but always to be open to it.
Ezekiel says at the beginning of today’s first reading, “As the LORD spoke to me, the spirit entered into me and set me on my feet.” We might be ready to skip over that detail but I think we need to dwell on it a bit because it’s important. The truth is a heavy thing, and very often can flatten us. It might seem to crush the prophet who has to bear it or even knock the wind out of the one who has to hear it. But it doesn’t go away. We are given the truth, and the strength of the Spirit who picks us up and puts us on our feet. So we prophets can depend on the strength of the Spirit to bear the news, and we hearers can depend on the grace of the Spirit to receive the news and heed its call. The prophetic word is difficult, but our God never leaves us to bear it alone.
In our second reading, it is Saint Paul who makes the call so plain to us. He was afflicted with that thorn in the flesh. Maybe the thorn was the call to witness to the truth as he so often was. It wouldn’t go away, but God did give him the grace to bear it. And the words he heard from God are the words we prophets and hearers of the prophets need to know today: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
“You are witnesses of these things.”
That is what Jesus tells the disciples at the close of today’s Gospel reading. He is almost ready to ascend to the Father, and so he takes care to make sure that the disciples are ready for the mission. They are the ones who will have to testify to the death and resurrection of Christ, and to preach forgiveness of sins in his name to every person on earth.
And we can see that the disciples did indeed take up this mission. In the first reading from Acts, Peter speaks to the Jews and tells them what Christ suffered for all of us. He emphatically urges them to repent and to believe in the Gospel. In the second reading, John exhorts believers to follow the commandments and live the Gospel if they would testify to the love of God. You can’t say that you love God but not follow the commandments – that’s ridiculous – and so John exhorts all his hearers to become people of integrity and to witness with their lives.
“You are witnesses of these things.”
And so we are the hearers of the message now. We too, brothers and sisters in Christ, are witnesses of these things. We may not have seen the events unfold in front of us, but we have seen them in the Liturgy, and we believe that our celebration of the Liturgy is not some simple re-enactment of the events of our salvation, but in a very real sense is a participation in the death and resurrection of Christ in our own day.
We are the witnesses now. And people have to see us preaching with the way that we live our lives. We have to preach it by going to Mass faithfully, by keeping the commandments, by being people of integrity and fairness at our jobs or in our schools, by reaching out to those who are poor, needy and marginalized, by giving ourselves to others whenever, wherever, and however we can.
We are witnesses of these things. The question is, will others witness Christ in us?
Today’s Scriptures are showing us that two ways are being developed in the early days of Christianity. The first is the way of the world, and the second is the Way – with a capital “W” – which became known as Christianity.
That first way, our Gospel reading tells us, is concerned with earthly things. These earthly things certainly include the small, unimportant stuff: concerns about our own needs, our prestige, our wealth, our own comforts. But it also concerns things that we have no business pursuing: lust, slander, theft, and all manner of violations of the Ten Commandments. This way seeks to silence the truth, as we can see in our first reading. The religious authorities forbade the disciples to speak of Jesus, lest others be led to convert to the other Way.
And that Way would be the way of Christianity. This is the Way that remembers that the small, unimportant stuff is not worth our time. This Way professes that our home isn’t on earth anyway, and so it strives for heavenly things: the life of the Spirit, the good of others, witnessing to the Truth, the salvation of the world, eternal life. Here is the way of those disciples who could not be bound by a human order not to preach in Christ’s name, because the command of Christ himself carries so much more authority.
We have before us the way of death and the Way of life. We too must choose which way we will follow. And so it’s worth our time today to consider that our final home is not on this earth, that we were created for the life to come. So we must choose the Way that leads us there.
Today’s readings speak to us about the virtue of persistence. St. Paul was one who modeled persistence in his life and ministry. He quite often ran up against not only opposition, but also danger and imprisonment designed to thwart his preaching. But Paul was filled with the Spirit and would not let anything deter him from doing the Lord’s work. And so he could easily encourage, well, even command Timothy to “be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.”
And we need to hear this encouragement too. Because it’s easy enough for us to preach the word in our thoughts, words and deeds when it’s convenient. But the moment it becomes a little embarrassing, or when we’re in a situation in which we don’t want to stir up trouble, or if we think that others might think less of us, well it’s far too easy to let our witness slip away. It’s easy to be fervent believers at Mass, but miss the opportunity to do the Lord’s work the rest of the day. That’s simply human nature, and it affects all of us.
But maybe the example of the Widow is what we need to follow. Her witness didn’t have to be all about making a big scene or calling attention to herself. Indeed the only one who even noticed, probably, was Jesus, the One who sees everything. But that doesn’t mean that her witness didn’t cost her anything. Indeed, it probably cost her almost everything she had in the world. But nothing would stop her from witnessing.
And so we must ask ourselves today and every day: when we “go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” what will that witness look like? Will we be able to say with St. Paul at the end of the day, “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith?” If we can, we too can await that crown of righteousness. Please God, let us all be able to be crowned with it one day.
When I read St. Paul’s message to Timothy in our first reading last night, I resonated with the spirit of his message. St. Paul reminds Timothy of his calling and of the authority that was given him when St. Paul laid hands on him. The life that Timothy was called to lead as a consequence of that anointing was one that would be challenging, but blessed. He would have to bear his share of hardship for the Gospel, but St. Paul tells him never to be ashamed of it. Whatever is to befall them, St. Paul’s confidence is in the Lord: “For I know him in whom I have believed,” he says, “and I am confident that he is able to guard what has been entrusted to me until that day.”
That got me thinking about my own ordination as a priest, which was two years ago yesterday. I clearly remember the words that Bishop Imesch spoke when he handed me the chalice and paten that I use for Mass to this day. He said, “Receive the oblation of the holy people, to be offered to God. Understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross.” I think those very words would be words that St. Paul would understand. “Understand what you do” seems easy enough, until it gets to the second instruction: “imitate what you celebrate.” What I celebrate here is a sacrificial moment, and if I am to imitate that, then my life must be basically sacrificial. That’s what is meant by the third instruction in what the bishop said to me: “and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross.”
Sometimes it’s hard for all of us to know that whatever our call may be, it will involve sacrifices. Every single vocation necessarily requires that, because nothing authentic can ever be just about us. We have to lay down our lives in love every single day because that’s what Jesus did for us. Some days, as I tell the couples getting married here when I preach the homily for them, that may be hard work. But it is always our hope that every day, whether it’s easy or difficult, it will be the greatest joy of our lives. That’s why St. Paul tells Timothy that he should not be ashamed of his testimony to the Lord. That’s why the bishop told me to conform my life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross. Because none of us will ever regret anything we’ve sacrificed for love.
Today's readings [display_podcast]
Sometimes we get an idea and it seems well, a little uncomfortable. We may well have had a call or even a gentle moving from the Lord, and are afraid to act on it. Today’s Scriptures speak to those of us who are sometimes hesitant to do what the Lord is calling on us to do.
I think St. Paul must have been exhausted by this point in his life. As we hear of him in our reading from Acts today, he is saved from one angry mob, only to learn he is to go to another. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. He has borne witness to Christ in Jerusalem, but now he has to go and do it all over again in Rome. And underneath it all, he knows there is a good chance he is going to die.
In the Gospel today, Jesus prays for all of his disciples, and also for all those who “will believe in me through their word.” And that, of course, includes all of us. He prays that we would be unified and would be protected from anything or anyone who might seek to divide us from each other, or even from God. He says that we are a gift to him, and that he wishes us to be where he will be for all eternity.
What we see in our Liturgy today is that God keeps safe the ones he loves. If he calls us to do something, he will sustain us through it. Maybe we’ll have to witness to Jesus all over again or we’ll have to defend our faith against people in our community or workplace or school who just don’t understand. We might well feel hesitant at these times, but we can and must go forward, acting on God’s call. When we do that, we can make our own prayer in the words of the Psalm today: “Keep me safe, O God; you are my hope.”
Today's readings [display_podcast]
Today’s readings are full of messengers. In the first reading, Paul is a messenger bringing news of the real meaning of the ancient Scriptures in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. And he speaks of another messenger, John the Baptist, who paved the way for the coming of Jesus by preaching a baptism of repentance. In the Gospel, Jesus points out that a messenger is never greater than the one who sent him, and that those messengers sent by Christ should be accepted as Christ, since Jesus himself was sent by the Father. Accepting the messenger is accepting Jesus is accepting God the Father.
The word messenger goes back to old French and Latin words for “send” and is closely tied to the word “mission.” The messenger is truly on a mission from the one who sent him. When you think of it, all of us disciples are messengers on a mission. We all have been charged with the mission of proclaiming the Gospel and witnessing to Christ. We do that in our own ways; sometimes, as St. Francis would say, we use words. But often we do not. Most often our witness depends on how well we live our mission, the message that we send comes in the things we do and the way we live. As my father used to say, “actions speak louder than words.”
And so we come to this place to be nourished for our mission. We hear the words of Scripture that gives us the message to preach and receive the Eucharist that gives us strength for the journey. People will come to know Christ as they come to know us. We pray that our message might be a good one, a message that compels everyone we meet to turn to our God. Because the mission, the message that we have is better than anything on earth. As the Psalmist says, “For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.”