PRAY, OBEY, GIVE WITNESS, AND PAY
Homily, Third Sunday of Easter
Fr. Charlie Fox, Spiritual Director, St. Paul Street Evangelization (www.streetevangelization.com)
The Season of Easter is a certainly a time to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. But it is also a time to take a fresh and serious look at what it means to be a Christian: a person who believes in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, and who lives according to that belief.
The scriptures for the Masses of Easter time give us a window into the early days of the Church, as well as Jesus giving His apostles their proximate preparation for leading those first Christians. In these scriptures, we see the basic building blocks of the Christian life, not just for that time, but for every time. For *our* lives.
There used to be a saying—used somewhat in jest— that the basic duty of a Christian was to “pray, pay, and obey,” meaning: say your prayers, give the Church financial support, and obey the Church’s teachings. I want to adjust this saying a bit, in keeping with today’s readings, and propose that each of us, priest and lay person alike, is called to pray, obey, give witness, and then pay.
First, we’re called to PRAY. This is so obvious and uncontroversial that I won’t dwell on it here. Prayer is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry, that of the apostles, and is at the heart of any authentic Christian life. You won’t do anything to please God or that will bear good fruit without prayer.
Second, we are called to OBEY God. Pope Francis said once in a homily, “To obey God is to listen to Him, to have an open heart, to go on the road that God shows us. This is what makes us free.” In today’s First Reading, Peter gives voice to all the apostles when he stands up to the Sanhedrin—the high court of the Jewish people—and says, “We must obey God rather than men.” There is a period at the end of that sentence, but if there were ten exclamation points it would not fully convey the power of Peter’s declaration. The apostles were willing to be imprisoned and suffer for Jesus, and so should we be. Fulton Sheen once said, “If the new crime be, to believe in God, let us all be criminals.” The Christian is one who obeys God at all times, with no exceptions, no matter what the cost.
I’ll get to the cost soon, but we need to stay with obedience for a moment. Obedience is not just unpopular today; it is held by most people, at least here in the United States, to be ridiculous. But the fact that obedience is unpopular does not make it less important by one iota. We don’t follow trends, or those people who try to make us submit to them. We follow Him Who said, “I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me” (Jn 6:38) and Who said, by the way, “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first” (Jn 15:18). But now we’re edging close to the cost issue again.
Before we get to that, however, we need to say something about WITNESS. A big part of being obedient to Jesus is to give witness to him, to testify to the truth about him. “You will be my witnesses,” (Acts 1:8) Jesus tells His apostles, and in telling them He’s telling us, too.
By now I hope we all know something about the content of our witness, the message. But I want to underscore that what Jesus calls His apostles to do, they actually go out and do. Today’s First Reading, and really the whole of the Acts of the Apostles, makes it clear that the apostles took Jesus seriously. They knew their job, if I could put it in its most simple form, was to tell the truth. And so it is for us.
We don’t need fancy marketing campaigns, or sophisticated technology, though marketing savvy and technology can be helpful tools. We certainly don’t need “spin,” which is really a way of turning the truth into a lie. What we need to do is simply to tell the truth, all the time, with love and mercy but without compromise. Now, if you don’t know the truth about our faith, there are plenty of ways to find all that Jesus is teaching in and through His Church. Try reading some part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is available online, for starters.
All of us have a responsibility to follow Jesus in this way. Remember, Jesus said to Pilate, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (Jn 18:37). Simple, eh? Yet telling the truth can get you killed, as Jesus knew very well.
So that brings us to the “PAY” element of the Christian life. I’m not going to talk about money, though that is a necessary part of our giving. But I do want to say something about the cost of obeying God, of giving witness to the truth, and even of praying, since this is where real prayer will always lead us.
The cost of the Christian life, in a word, is love. Today’s Gospel makes this clear, as we see Jesus restore Peter by drawing out of him a triple affirmation of his love for Jesus to heal the wound of his triple denial on Holy Thursday night. Love is the hallmark quality of the Church’s first pope, and it is the hallmark quality of everyone who dares to follow Christ.
I say “dares” purposely, because we know that this love is not squishy, sappy love. It is the love of the cross. It is the love of service. It is the love that caused a fisherman to leave his whole life behind in obedience to God, and to give witness to Jesus even though it meant being crucified for the sake of that witness. That is why I can speak of love as the “cost” of the Christian life. In today’s Gospel, Jesus predicts that Peter’s death will be a direct consequence of his love. Or better to say that it is the ultimate expression of Peter’s love.
This is the love of the apostles, and countless martyrs throughout the Church’s history, and it needs to be the love that fills our lives. If we are not willing to stand up and face death for giving witness to Jesus, for obeying God rather than men, then we are not really Christians at all. This is a lesson many of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and elsewhere are teaching us right now, as they lay down their lives for their faith in Jesus Christ.
Is that scary? Of course it is. Part of me doesn’t even want to stand up to my “atheist Uncle Larry” who rips on the Church at a family barbeque, let alone face imprisonment or death. But Jesus sees our fear coming, too, and reminds us, “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (Jn 16:33). Every time we come to Mass, Jesus offers us a mega-dose of what we need to persevere—His Body and Blood, the power of His death and resurrection, His courage and His love.
So there’s no need to be afraid to stand up for Jesus. Though we may seem to be “losers” in the sight of the world, we know the truth, told in one of our ancient Easter chants, “Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat” … “Christ conquers, Christ reigns, Christ commands.” May we do our part in the battle against Satan and sin, that we might share in the fruits of the victory of our King.
[Pictured: Crucifixion of St. Peter by Caravaggio, 1601]