By the Rev Msgr Harry Entwistle
Fourth Week of Easter Sunday 12th May 2019
Prior to his resurrection, Jesus spent time preparing his disciples for the persecution he believed that they would suffer in the future. There has never been a period in the history of the Church when it has been free of persecution of one type or another.
In the gospel reading, St John presents Jesus as the saviour of both Jews and Gentiles, but only those who recognise his voice and follow his path will receive eternal life. These sheep will never be plucked away from him because they are protected by the Father. It is God who protects Jesus’ disciples because as Jesus is the agent of the Father, he and the Father are one. This does not mean that they are the same. Jesus is not the Father in human form walking around in disguise. Jesus is revealing the Father’s glory in a way that a good marriage is a sign of giving and receiving. The Father and the Son remain distinct but are able to give and receive so that together they are united in the glory of love. They function together in complete unity.
The other readings put flesh on Jesus’ words. In Antioch, which is part of modern Syria, Paul and Barnabas were preaching the gospel of the risen Jesus as the saviour of all. There was a strong Jewish faction in Antioch that took exception to the message that Gentiles have been saved by God and so can become members of God’s people. The Gentiles were of course delighted to hear this news. The anti-Gentile Jewish faction which included some women, were the elite, wealthy and powerful. They stirred up Jewish public opinion to such a degree that Paul and Barnabas were driven out of the city. Even so, the disciples who remained in Antioch were full of joy because they considered it a privilege to suffer for the gospel.
The Book of Revelation refers to far more serious persecutions that Christians suffered at the hands of the Romans at the end of the first century AD. In his revelation John describes a great number of people dressed in white robes. These were those who had suffered persecution for their faithfulness to the Lamb of God. Their persecution occurred because they did not conform to the negative aspects of the prevailing culture of Roman and Jewish societies and were prepared to live a way of life that was distinctive and different. Like Jesus, they challenged the so called ‘truths’ of the day, and like Jesus, they suffered for it.
Jesus continues to be crucified in all those who suffer and brutalised because of their faith in him. It is finally being acknowledged that Christians are the most persecuted believers in the world at this time. Note however how the media and politicians avoid using the word Christians. Those killed in Sri Lanka were described as tourists and Easter worshippers rather than Christians.
Christians, especially Catholics, are persecuted by atheists and pagans because the teachings of the Catholic Church present a way of life that they do not consider to be politically correct. Some Christians are persecuted by radical fundamentalists of other world religions whose aim is to eradicate what they deem to be a false religion. This is done by violence and by outbreeding the Christian population.
Some Governments and radical extremists kill Christians because they believe that Christianity is the religion of white imperialist decadent western nations that have forcibly converted unenlightened non-western peoples.
But persecution is not always obvious and brutal. It also occurs when others, especially those close to us, persuade us that the Christian story is a fairy tale, or that the Church is out of date, oppressive, abusive and corrupt. They try to persuade us that we should ‘ease up’ on our church attendance because we don’t have to worship every week, or there are better and family things to do that can only happen on Sundays. These things may not sound like persecution, but if the intent of persecutors is to weaken and ultimately destroy a person’s faith and commitment to the gospel of Jesus and the Resurrection, then the subtle undermining of a person’s faith is persecution.
It is those who resist persecution, despite suffering through it, who are dressed in white robes participating in the Supper of the Lamb. Worth thinking about isn’t it?