With over a billion members in the Catholic Church plus who knows how many in other Christian denominations, it’s hard to believe that those who 1st accepted the Good News of Jesus were thought to be outsiders and therefore a threat in some way.
How did they deal with that? The 1st Letter of Peter gave some sound advice. Knowing the knee-jerk reaction of many of us when attacked, the author advised against returning evil for evil. Instead, he counsels that when anyone asks for an explanation of what gives you hope, or when you are challenged about your beliefs, answer “with gentleness, with reverence” and respect. If you suffer, “it is better to do so for doing good than evil.”
And there were many times that these 1st Christians were attacked and persecuted. For example, Philip was in Samaria partly because of the persecution Saul had helped to initiate after the stoning of Stephen, the 1st martyr. Instead of striking back or going into hiding, he went out to the Samaritans who were despised by the natives of Judah. They were considered tainted, outsiders, and outcasts from the People of God. But, for Philip, Peter and John, they became brothers and sisters, blessed by the same Spirit. Any feelings of anger the Samaritans may have harbored were transformed into great joy because someone reached out to them and broke through the walls of isolation.
What enabled these 1st followers of Jesus to act with gentleness and reverence, with such openness to others even when they themselves were persecuted or shunned as outsiders? It was simply a bedrock conviction that God in Jesus Christ loved them. Nothing else really mattered, neither life nor death. They looked to Jesus as their model and guide. Rather than focusing on their own struggles and becoming overwhelmed by them, they centered themselves on Jesus, his saving works, his resurrection and the hope and promise of their own. They took very seriously Jesus’ command to love. Professed words of love became expressed works of love.
Because of sheer numbers we may no longer be considered outsiders. Yet, those who hold that there is a moral code that exists outside of personal choice are belittled. Society says, “If it feels good, do it.” It would feel good to drive a BMW. But it would be wrong to steal another’s car. Those who do not seek revenge when hurt are mocked or looked at with surprise. Consider the black parishioners of the church in Charlotte who forgave the one who killed their members who were at Bible study. How could they do that? They were following the Gospel. Those who proclaim the sacredness of all life from conception to its natural end are jeered or labeled “anti-choice”. Hmm. Maybe we who try to walk the Gospel path are still indeed outsiders as much as were Philip, Peter, John, and all the others.
Will we act as they did? Or will we beat a hasty retreat, ashamed of the faith we share?
Which will it be?
6th Sunday of Easter, Year A