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12th Sunday (A), 21.06.20: Sparrows and Martyrs

Readings: Jeremiah 20:10-13; Psalm 68(69):8-10,14,17,33-35; Romans 5:12-15; Matthew 10:26-33

Jesus paints two very different pictures of God the Father in today’s Gospel, almost à la Jekyll and Hyde. First, he is the One we must fear because, unlike human beings, he can destroy both body and soul in hell. Then, a few breaths later, the Father is the one whose tenderness knows the sparrows that fall from the sky and the hairs on our head (if we still have any!).

Why this contrast? It is to both instruct and warn the apostles. Jesus has been instructing them about what to expect when they are sent to preach the truth of the Gospel to the world. Much of the time, he tells them, they should expect opposition, including rejection, hatred and violence. But he is telling them not to be afraid of the reactions of human beings. The worst men can do is take your physical life. (I know that is a big deal to most of us, but it is the loss of the soul that the Lord is concerned about – the restoring of our physical life is no problem for him!) He is warning them not to shrink from their mission, not to water down the Gospel, not to betray or deny him. If they do, then Jesus himself will disown them before his Father. It is the Father’s power to destroy body and soul in hell that they must therefore fear. In other words, fear God, not men.

Given these terms, who, in their right mind would want to be a follower of Christ? In the Old Testament, the prophets who had the role akin to that of apostle and almost every one of them was reluctant to obey God and preach his word. I wonder why! A large number of them who did obey him were imprisoned, tortured or summarily executed. The first reading gives us a powerful insight into how Jeremiah the prophet experienced the suffering of his mission. Everyone was against him. Humanly speaking, he was terrified and crushed. Yet, as he himself tells us, he knew he had the Lord at his side as a Mighty Hero and that the day would come in which the Lord would rescue him and pay back his foes. He proclaims almost with relish: theirs would be unforgettable, everlasting disgrace!

If the Apostles had realised what they were letting themselves in for, they may well have turned back, too, as did Judas and as nearly did Peter. Christian history is full of apostates, those who, having believed, then reject the faith wholesale. It is full of compromisers with political power, for the sake of money or to escape persecution or unpopularity. It is full of such things because people, including Popes and Cardinals, can be weak. They are afraid for their skin, their reputation, their power, their money; they want approval and are scared of being out of step with the perceived wisdom of their time, including of the Church of their time.

But Christian history, of all denominations, is also full of faithful servants. There are the martyrs and the great confessors of the faith who faced down kings and tyrants in the name of Christ and for his sake. This coming week we will be remembering John the Baptist who died for defending marriage by appealing to the sixth commandment; and also, nearer home, we will celebrate St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, both of whom died to defend marriage (in the face of Henry VIII’s non-conformity with the Pope’s decision to reject his petition of nullity of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon) and the primacy of the Pope over the Church, Christ’s charge to Peter. There are moreover the faithful servants of every day, those who humbly and perseveringly get on with the business of living as Jesus asks, whatever the cost. They get few hosannas on earth, but they will get plenty in heaven.

So, it’s not just the preacher who is in the firing line, but anyone who wants to live in fidelity to the Gospel received from Christ through the preacher. The Gospel, of course, does not just mean the words written in the four Gospels and New Testament. It includes the teaching of the apostolic ministry of the Church (exercised by the successors of the Apostles, the bishops, in union with the successor of Peter, the Pope) in matters of faith and morals which that same ministry judges to be necessary or important for our salvation. The same Spirit who inspired the Bible inspires the Church’s teaching office when it comes to our salvation. Other things, like the political and diplomatic decisions of Popes and hierarchy or other decisions about purely temporal matters don’t carry that weight – unless, in some sense or way they are linked to a question of salvation, and even then only to that extent.

But now, although a preacher may remain faithful out of fear of God, surely he will be more convincing if he is faithful out of the love of God! Fear is the bottom end of the line; love soars above the top. Likewise, any believer will surely want to be faithful to the Gospel and to the teaching of the Church not out of fear, but out of love for the Lord. That does not mean anyone is to leave their intelligence or reason at the door. We all have questions, we can all think, we all need discussion and clarification. Reason when authentic (that is, when not manipulated by ideology or bias) is not the enemy of faith, but neither is authentic faith the enemy of reason. Both are required, but when it comes to the decision about what the truth of salvation means, then Vatican II itself calls us to show a “religious submission of the mind and will” to the decisions and teaching of the apostolic ministry. This is not to abandon our intelligence or our freedom but to place them at the service of salvation.

When our back is to the wall, of course, and because of our faith we are threatened by opposition, by the loss of reputation or job or heritage, fear can very much come back into play. However, when fear surges we need to remember the words of St. John: “perfect love casts out fear.” We need also to remember Jeremiah. In his terror he was yet able to cry out with exultation, the Lord is at my side, a Mighty Hero!

We are in a time when the prevailing winds of society want Christians to come down from the rooftops and back into the dark, to return to whispering rather than proclaiming in the daylight what Jesus teaches in and through his Church. They want to hear Christianity only if and when it fits into the latest secularist orthodoxy. They not only don’t want to hear it but also want it silenced when it comes to home truths that pain and offend the pious ears of the new high priests of political correctness! Nevertheless, today Christ continues to face us with the uncomfortable yet, if we want it, exhilarating truth of our calling as his Church to insist on the Gospel in season and out of season: with love, yes, with compassion, of course, but also with unwavering and uncompromising fidelity. Do we have ears to hear him? Do we have the humility to fear him? Do we have the love to proclaim him? Do we have the faith to stand up for him? Do we have the detachment from self to die for him?