Thursday, April 14, 2016

Pleasing others is not our Vocation

Fourth Sunday of Easter Year C

It may not be a good thing nor convincing to start off a sales pitch by expounding the limitations of your product. But this is no ordinary pitch. It’s meant for the choir. Let’s face it - being a Christian can be disheartening to say the least, ‘suicidal’ at worst. How many Christians have suffered, are subjected to violence, injustice, betrayal, deceit and even murder as a result of their faith? It is not easy to faithfully live a Christian life in a world that promotes contrary values. Often, it feels almost impossible to be Christian, to be counter-cultural; to be honest in a society that thrives on subterfuge; to be clean in business and politics where playing dirty is the rule of the game; to be merciful when the world is out to exact more than just a pound of flesh from you. Most people would simply resign themselves to these situations and just go with the flow: “That’s how things work.” It is possible to be a Christian and survive in today’s world?

Almost two millennia ago, a newly married woman of good family and upbringing by the name of Perpetua had no difficulty answering in the affirmative and I suppose, if given another opportunity, she would do the very same today. She was about 22 years old and still nursing an infant son when she was exposed as a Christian and condemned to die. In her own account, she spoke of how her father attempted to persuade her to renounce her faith. She pointed to a pot of water closed by and said, “Father, do you see this vase here, for example, or water-pot or whatever?” “Yes, I do”, he said. And this young martyr told him: “Could it be called by any other name than hat it is?”  And he said: “No”. “Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.”

Today’s readings reassures us that we can and we must continue to live and give witness to our Christian vocation, even though the world seems to be against us. Fidelity to God comes before succumbing to the popular notion of conforming to the mainstream. Our vocation is to please God and not win the approval of men. In the first reading, the enemies of Paul and Barnabas spread lies about them and opposed them and finally got them expelled from town. But the reading ends on a surprisingly heartening note, with a curious remark: “the disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.” Instead of becoming despondent, the disciples remained resolute in their defiance of the larger culture and they did so with much joy. They understood that they were the real winners in this story and that those who opposed them and the gospel were the real losers. They were convinced that they would be vindicated in the end.

And this is exactly what takes place in the second reading. Here, we witness the fortune of those who have suffered or even died for the sake of the gospel. They are those who in this world went through sufferings, persecutions and gave their lives for their brothers like the Lamb. They were viewed by the world as losers, but in the eyes of God, they were the real victors. As a reward for remaining faithful, they will no longer experience suffering, hunger or thirst because the Lamb will be their shepherd and will lead them to springs of living water.

Christians are not called to make everyone happy. This is not our vocation. In any event, it is impossible to make everyone happy. Bishop Athanasius Schneider tells his priest: “It is quite insignificant to be popular or unpopular. For every member of the clergy, their first interest should be to be popular in the eyes of God and not in the eyes of today or of the powerful... Popularity is false… Great saints of the Church, such as Thomas More and John Fisher, rejected popularity… those today who are worried about the popularity of the mass media and public opinion… will be remembered as cowards and not as heroes of the Faith.”

Therefore the criterion is not whether our actions meet with the approval of others but rather that we remain faithful to God and His dictates. In a myriad and cacophony of noises, there is only one voice that matters – it is the voice of the Good Shepherd, who promises us: “The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life; they will never be lost and no one will ever steal them from me.”

Jesus’ promise invites us to declare ourselves for Him before others with courage, overcoming our need for mere human respect and honour, whilst braving insults, rejection and even persecution. We may be misunderstood, contradicted, made the object of derision and hatred. But remember that we have been called to bear witness to Christ. We can bear witness to Him wherever we are, whether in our family, at work, among friends, or school. We can do it without having to stand on pillboxes on street corners as we shout his name! We do it gently and simply first of all through our behaviour, through the integrity of our lives, through our purity, through our detachment from money and ambition, through our participation in the joys and sufferings of others, through our mutual love and unity.

But we acknowledge Jesus not only through a positive witness of life, living peaceably with others in society, but also by fulfilling our prophetic role to be salt of the earth and light of the world. The latter is far more difficult than the former. We live in a world that has grown intolerant with the Church’s intolerance of its sinful ways, an intolerance rooted not in bigotry but in love and mercy. We are reminded by the Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen that tolerance is never extended to error or sin but rather to persons. Today, no one wants to be reminded of the disordered nature of their choices and life decisions. Thus if someone chooses to divorce his wife and marries another, he does not want to hear the gospel reminder that comes from the lips of the Lord Himself, that he is now committing adultery. Or if a man chooses to formalise his relationship with another man in a way that is sanctioned by the State, he would certainly feel judged to be reminded that this is not “marriage” even if the State chooses to call it so, it is the sin of “sodomy.”

The problem is that it is no longer fashionable nor acceptable to call a spade a spade. But that should never be a problem for us Christians. St Perpetua’s rhetorical question remains equally relevant today, “Could it be called by any other name than what it is?” We must always remember that it is mercy and not the lack of it to call a sinner to repentance, for in doing so, we are calling him to face to Truth about himself and God. And the Truth is the only thing that is capable of setting us free. The Shepherd does not and will never lie to His sheep.

Perhaps someone will ask us why we act the way we do, why we choose chastity over lust, why we choose simplicity over extravagance, why we choose obedience over individualistic disobedience, and why we are so serene in a world that is so fraught with tension. We will then answer with humility and sincerity using those words were first uttered by a twenty two year old girl who went to her martyrdom. “I am a Christian. I am a Catholic. I cannot be called by any other name.” We listen, we obey, and we follow only the voice of the Good Shepherd, no other. So let’s go ahead to bear witness to Him with courage even in the midst of trials, even at the cost of our lives. The reward that awaits us is well worth it; it is heaven, the eternally green pastures where He will lead us to, where we will no longer experience hunger or thirst.

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