Homily: Being God’s Messangers
Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” [Acts 5:29]
This rather simple statement from Saint Peter and the other Apostles signaled the birth of Christianity. Not only were the Apostles effectively saying they were not going to follow orders from the religious Jewish authorities, but also they were not going to follow what society dictates is correct. From this time forward, there has always been a tension between Christianity and society.
The ancient Romans believed very strongly in infanticide. If a child seemed weak, sick, or just undesired, he would be left by the Tiber River to die. When Christianity happened upon this tradition, they started to rescue the helpless infants. That which was condoned by men was not acceptable to the early Christians. Rather, they felt that they must follow what Christ told them they should do.
When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, things changed somewhat, but even when a country is considered Christian, there is still tension between what men say we should do and what Christ told us we ought to do. A perfect example of this is slavery.
The slave trade was very lucrative for the British. However, there were many who thought it unchristian, including the man who penned “Amazing Grace.” He was a slaver who repented and became a preacher. Eventually those good Christians who fought against slavery won, and in 1833 slavery and the slave trade was banned in the British Empire by an act of Parliament. Ironically, if America had remained a colony, slavery would have been banned 30 years prior to the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War may never have been fought.
However, as supportive as society used to be to Christian beliefs, since the French and American Revolutions, society in general has become increasingly hostile to Christianity. In fact, in our society, it seems as if society is much more supportive of other religions than either Christianity or Judaism.
I remember reading that, right after 9/11, the public school system in New York City was worried about a backlash against Moslems. As a result, for Ramadan, they wanted to set aside a place within the school where Moslems could pray during the day. They were moving forward with these plans until they discovered that the Roman Catholic Church was supporting their move. That gave the school system pause. What they suddenly realized was, if they were successful, then what would prevent any faith, including Christians, to demand space set aside for their religious observations? The New York school board decided to scuttle their idea.
This reminds me of the story of the burglar who needed money to pay his income taxes. His solution was to burgle a local store. After he broke into the store and got to the safe, to his surprise, he saw a note on the safe. The note said, “Please don’t use dynamite. This safe is not locked. Just turn the knob.” The burglar smiled to himself, and turned the knob. Suddenly, a heavy sandbag fell on his head, all the lights came on, and the burglar alarm went off with its ear-piercing siren. As the police carried him out on a stretcher, the burglar was heard moaning, “My confidence in my fellow man has been rudely shaken.”
As Christians, we are IN this world, but we should NOT be OF this world. This means that, although we should not remove ourselves from society and our fellow man, we also should not become like them. We SHOULD be different. We SHOULD be Christians!
So, what does being a Christian really entail? It entails three things, none of which are particularly easy. The first is that all Christians need to emulate Christ. That means we need to know what Christ did and what He commanded us to do. As I said on Easter, Christ gave us a new commandment:
“That ye love one another as I have loved you.”
This seems easy enough, but it is not. Not only are we to love those we like, we have to love those we DON’T like. We are to love our enemies and those who “despitefully” use us. We are to love the least of our brothers. To say we are to love sounds good and simple, but trust me, when we think about one of Christ’s last acts, the magnitude of this statement comes shining forth:
“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
How many of us, while hanging on a cross would think of pleading to God to forgive those who chose to kill us? I am not sure if many of us would have even thought this thought at that moment. But, now that we have Christ as our example, we MUST try to be like Him.
The second thing we must do is know what God has told us. This means, not only reading, but studying the Bible. It means knowing that God does NOT change:
7 The works of his hands are verity and judgment; * all his commandments are true.
8 They stand fast for ever and ever, * and are done in truth and equity.
All of God’s commandments are “true;”they stand “fast” and are done in “truth and equity.” This means that nothing that God commands us to do is without truth or is unfair. They do not change, and they are not subject to the society in which we live.
But then how come all the cleanliness laws were overturned with Christ? Why are we no longer subject to the Law if God’s Commandments are true or hold fast? We will never understand these questions if we are ignorant of our faith. So, we must understand. And in order to understand, we need to study our Bibles.
Finally, the last thing we have to be in order to be a good Christian is open. It is human nature to decide an issue and then think this is the end of the discussion. It is the reason the Pharisees and the Sadducees could not understand Christ. And it is why so many good Christians could not understand why freeing slaves was the correct Christian thing to do.
But Jesus made it clear that it is more important to live by the Spirit of the Law than the letter of it. This, in turn, means that we must be tolerant of other ideas, even if we think them incorrect. John Stuart Mills once wrote:
The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
None of us are perfect. None of us are never wrong. And, although we should be confident in our faith, we should also be capable of listening to other opinions. If it is wrong, we will know, not because of some knee-jerk reaction, but because of thoughtful prayer and study.
If we truly undertake these three steps, if we try to emulate Christ, if we study our faith and our Bibles, and if we stay open, then we too will become Christians that can distinguish that which men are asking us to do, and that which God commands us to do. Then and only then will we be capable of being in society but not of society. And then we too may be capable of announcing to the world God’s verity and truth.