THE WITNESS WE ARE TO GIVE DESPITE PERSECUTION
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, ThD
Homily of Monday, Sixth Week of Easter, May 02, 2016
Acts 16:11-15, Psalm 149, John 15:26-16:4
Scripture quotations are from the RSV unless otherwise noted.
"They will put you out of the synagogues; indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God" (John 16:2).
Jesus predicts the future persecution of his disciples in order to strengthen them for what is to come. He prepares them for the battles to come, lest taking them by surprise, they fall away. "I have said all this to you to keep you from falling away" (John 16:1). So we see that persecution is part of the Christian life. We are to be witnesses to the truth, even when people turn against us for proclaiming it. We are not to be intimidated by people turning against us.
Look at Jesus' life. It was one of almost constant conflict with the scribes and Pharisees. It was not a sleepy, peaceful life. Look at the life of St. Paul. No one, I think, had more conflicts than him. He was beaten five times with lashes, three times with rods, and stoned once (2 Corinthians 11:24-25). Yet when he was persecuted in one city, he moved on to another city and continued his preaching, only to be persecuted again. Today's Saint, Athanasius, is also an inspiration in this regard. He defended the full divinity of Christ, when just about everyone else was giving in to Arianism, not regarding Jesus as fully equal to the Father in divinity. Athanasius was exiled many times from his see as bishop of Alexandria for persistently proclaiming the truth that was being attacked in his day.
Jesus says today that the Holy Spirit will bear witness to him, but he does not say this so that we can just fall asleep and do nothing ourselves, leaving it all up to the Holy Spirit. No. He tells us that not only the Holy Spirit but we also are to bear witness to him. He says today, "But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me; and you also are witnesses, because you have been with me from the beginning" (John 15:26-27).
So what is the witness that we should bear today? What kind of witness is needed now? What kind of witness is the Holy Spirit inspiring us to make to Jesus Christ today? I think it is to preach the gospel of our redemption in Jesus Christ to a world that has lost its belief in Christ's redemption. We are redeemed and made righteous by Jesus Christ, through our faith in him, not through our works. Our works come after we are redeemed, as helping us to grow still more in holiness via progressive sanctification. But before that happens, Christ redeems us and declares us to be righteous if we put our faith in him.
This is not automatic. It requires a decision on our part and a response to God's gracious call. We respond by saying, "Yes," and committing ourselves to Christ. It is as though we were on an airplane that had engine failure and was about to crash. The stewardess gives everyone a parachute and tells them to put it on to save themselves from certain death. But each one has to make the decision to put it on if he wants to be saved from a terrible death. Jesus is the parachute that God offers us, but he does not force us to put him on, nor does God automatically put him on us. Rather he invites us, through the preaching the gospel, to put him on by truly making an act of faith and trust in Jesus Christ for our salvation from eternal death in hell for our sins.
Once we make that free decision to put our faith in Jesus Christ, we are redeemed and made righteous and holy, and so are saved from eternal death in hell for our sins. Jesus makes it clear that we have to make the decision to believe in him. He says, "He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him" (John 3:36). "He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name only Son of God" (John 3:18). "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned" (Mark 16:16). So we see that we have a choice between believing and not believing. It is something that we have to do. God does not just automatically put faith into us. He calls us and then waits for our decision to believe.
So it is clear that we ourselves have to do something to be redeemed. We have to believe in Christ. But believing in Christ is not a work. We do not redeem and justify ourselves by our works. It all comes by our act of faith in Christ.
Then Christ redeems us by the merits of his death on the cross. How does he do that? What does "redeem" mean? The word "redeem" literally means to pay a ransom price to buy back. We redeem a kidnapped child by paying a ransom price to the kidnapper, who then gives our child back to us.
This is the language the New Testament uses, but it uses this word only in an analogous, not in its literal sense, not in the exact etymological sense of the word. That is, Christ paid a ransom price for us to set us free from God's righteous wrath against us for our sins. In justice we owed God eternal punishment in hell for our sins, and we could not pay this price, for if we tried to pay it, we would be in hell forever and so would not be saved.
So God paid it for us. How did he do that? He became a man in his Son Jesus Christ and took our sins upon himself (2 Corinthians 5:21) and suffered and died for them on the cross to make just reparation for them before God. This just reparation is the ransom price he paid to God to pay the debt we owed him for our sins, so that God's case against us could be legally dismissed, for our fine was paid for us by Christ on the cross. This was our ransom price. By making this payment to God, with whom we had the debt, Christ redeemed us, he ransomed us from our sins, and God declared us acquitted, righteous, and holy. We are no longer destined for hell for our sins when we die.
This ransom payment constitutes us as righteous and holy, if only we accept Christ in faith as our Savior, for God will not force his redemption on anyone. We must freely accept it with an act of faith. We must freely decide to put on this parachute that will save us from eternal death in hell for our sins.
"You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot" (1 Peter 1:18-19). "For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). "For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all" (1 Timothy 2:5-6).
This is the gospel we are to preach and give witness to. But we are also to preach God's moral law, the Ten Commandments, not to justify us, for no one can justify himself before God by doing the works of the moral law; but rather to show us how sinful we are, to make us feel guilty, and to drive us to the gospel of redemption in Christ for our salvation from hell.
For example, people living in open, public adulterous relationships need to have the law, "You shall not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14), compassionately preached to them, especially if they do not think they are committing any sin. The law will help them to form a proper Christian conscience and to see their situation as it really is, as God sees it. They need to be compassionately but clearly told that they are living in a public state of continuous mortal sin and that if they do not repent and end their adulterous relationship or live as brother and sister, when they die, they can expect to find themselves in hell forever.
This preaching of the law will prepare them for the gospel. It will make them feel guilty, sinful, and fearful of ending up in hell when they die. This, then, makes them ready to hear the good news, the gospel, namely that if they repent and promise to end their adulterous union and if they confess their sin, they can receive sacramental absolution (John 20:22-23) because of the reparation-making merits of Christ's death on the cross, which will then be applied to them, blotting out their sin and redeeming them, and God will declare them to be righteous and holy. They may then be admitted to the reception of the Eucharist.
But for redemption and justification to take place, they must put their faith in Christ's reparation-making death on the cross for their sins. This act of faith is a free choice that they must make themselves, and it includes repentance, that is, a firm purpose of amendment, a clear decision to definitively renounce their mortally sinful adulterous union. "Repent, and believe in the gospel," Jesus said (Mark 1:15). The role of the law is to help them properly form their conscience and realize the truth of their condition, that is, the sinfulness of their way of life so that they will be motivated to genuinely repent (promise to abandon their adulterous union) and believe in Jesus Christ for their salvation from hell and for their justification, making them righteous and holy before God.
God's mercy requires repentance and faith in Christ. A "gospel of mercy" that does not require repentance is not the true gospel. It is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a false gospel. So when we speak of God's mercy, we must understand it correctly, as God has revealed it to us in the Bible. God is merciful. He reveals himself to us in his Son, and he calls us to repentance and faith in his Son in order to receive forgiveness of our sins and justification, making us righteous and holy, a people redeemed by our faith in Christ.
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