The Women at Christ’s Tomb and the Ascension (The “Reidersche Tafel”), Rome c. 400 AD
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Seventh Sunday of Easter
May 24, 2020
1 Peter 4:13–16
There is much that separates us from St Peter’s original audience. They lived almost 2,000 years ago in what is now Turkey. They would have originally been pagans and owed obedience to the Roman Emperor. But perhaps the key difference, spiritually, is that they expected to suffer for their faith, while we are shocked at the very thought of suffering for our faith.
Beloved, do not be surprised
that a trial by fire is occurring among you,
as if something strange were happening to you.
(1 Pt. 4:12)
As we have seen, this trial and the suffering it will cause will not be state persecution but personal antipathy. These new Christians were obviously different from the rest of their community and there was a penalty to pay:
For the time that has passed is sufficient
for doing what the Gentiles like to do:
living in debauchery, evil desires, drunkenness,
orgies, carousing, and wanton idolatry.
They are surprised that you do not plunge
into the same swamp of profligacy, and they vilify you;
(1 Pt. 4:3–4)
Christians in America are the majority of the nation and are expected to march to the sound of the same drummer as the rest of society. A Christian who believes that Jesus is piping another tune should expect the same treatment as Peter’s converts.
This can be seen in the reception of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment Laudato Si, published five years ago this week. At its heart, it is a call for environmental conversion. This is not transactional, recycling our garbage and turning off lights when we leave the room, but transformational, examining how the way we live our lives affects others. It is the application of the principles of Catholic Social Thought to the entire created world. If we seek the common good of everyone we will do what we can to prevent climate change; if we see the radical equality of all people, we will seek solidarity with the poor, who are most endangered by rising tides and violent storms. This requires that we have a true change of heart–turning away from dangerous habits and desires to embracing what uplifts others.
The reaction to “Laudato Si” was immediate, broad and sometimes passionate. An overview may be found here. Particularly interesting were those who had considerable difficulty with its message. Some were perceptive. Others, predictable and several unhinged.
Most instructive were the objections from the right. Their position on the Church’s social teaching has been remarkably consistent for almost sixty years. In 1961, St Pope John XXIII published the encyclical Mater et Magister—Mother and Teacher—to examine “Christianity and social progress.” It upheld the traditional teaching of the Church: that human dignity requires authentic community and emphasized that the State must sometimes participate in matters of education, housing and, most particularly, health care. The reaction of right was best expressed by a quip attributed to the pundit William F Buckley: “Mater, Si; Magister, No.” In subsequent writings, he and the conservative establishment held that the social teachings of the Church had overstepped the permissible boundaries of the magisterium. They asserted that the teaching authority of the Church extends only to “faith and morals,” the latter being essentially limited to the actions of individuals.
It is impertinent to examine motives or intentions, but let us look at effects. This emphasis makes religion private, domestic, and indeed domesticated. A religious conversion would change a person’s life but not world. There might be a great struggle to be morally upright, but this is not sacrifice in the sense that St Peter uses the word.
Yet that sacrifice may be coming quicker than we might imagine. Let us look at what suffering with and for Jesus means.
We are all suffering in some way with COVID-19 and its consequences. There are sacrifices to be made yet our society is supportive of the efforts to combat it. A person who does not wear a mask in public will be taken to task for this, and we expect to be rebuffed if we try to shake hands with even a close friend.
This will end with the lockdown. How will we behave after that? Pope Francis has established a task force to propose strategies for the “new normal” and we can expect that they will resemble Laudato Si.
We will be asked to make personal lifestyle changes and to be more generous to the poor. This will not be easy and, at least for me, not wanted. But the real change will come when we will be asked as a society to make changes. Those who do so should expect criticism.
The objections from the right will be predictable. The modern right is unabashedly, economically libertarian and believes that government should provide basic services but that anything beyond that is theft. This is a moral vision and we should respect those who hold it. They are often extremely generous as individuals and will respond to the needs of individuals with great kindness, but are ideologically committed to not extending that kindness to the society at large.
I think however that the more difficult situation will be with those who consider themselves progressive or “woke.” They are socially libertarian. They want as many options as possible to determine their future. This costs money and I would be extremely surprised if many will give up their privileges to help those in need. The behavior of the great and the good during this pandemic has not been edifying although often humorous. There are few things more enjoyable than watching a celebrity trying to be profound.
What we believe actually is profound, and, because of that, it will betray our difference. We can expect to suffer for this, but, because it is for others, we will be with Jesus:
But rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ,
so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly
(1 Pt. 4:13)
Suffering for others connects us to Jesus and that is the very meaning of joy. Notice that when his glory is revealed, our joy will be even greater. Our motives will be misunderstood and assumed corrupt. So be it, for the spirit of glory will be upon us.
The verse that completes this section is powerful and particularly meaningful for this time and place.
For it is time for the judgment to begin with the household of God;
if it begins with us,
how will it end for those who fail to obey the gospel of God?
(1 Pt. 4:17)
Peter, like many in his day, thought that Jesus would soon return and that this would first be seen and understood by his followers and only then by others. History has taught us that Jesus is present in many ways but does reveal himself most clearly to his disciples. Because we believe “everything is connected” and in the primacy of relationships, we can see the presence of Jesus working first in this pandemic; but we will also see him in the struggle for the preservation of creation. Having seen can we be silent?
We cannot expect to be understood much less applauded, but let us recall the words of St Mother Teresa: “We are not called to be successful, but faithful.”