“Then the high priest rose up and all his companions, that is, the party of the Sadducees, and, filled with jealousy, laid hands upon the apostles and put them in the public jail. But during the night, the angel of the Lord opened the doors of the prison, led them out, and said, “Go and take your place in the temple area, and tell the people everything about this life.” –Acts 5:17-20
In this selection from Acts, the angel commands the freshly freed followers of Christ to “take your place in the temple area, and tell the people everything about this life.” To what “life” is the angel referring? The life of those who have traded possessions, relationships, jobs, and prestige in order to hide out in a rented room? The life of those who are outcasts in the only world they’ve ever known; who follow an executed blasphemer and criminal? The life, if you can call it that, of those who are routinely imprisoned, tortured, even killed? Jesus had said to them, “I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.” Is this what he had in mind? Is this the life the angel commanded the first disciples to proclaim?
Or is it the life lived by most contemporary American Christians: comfortable, enervated, fully invested in the idolatries and ideologies of our age, and above all respectable? Bourgeois respectability is for Western Christians what opium was to China in the 19th Century, a drug of choice that has saturated our spiritual bloodstream and sapped us of the empowerment we received in Baptism and Confirmation. Under the influence of this drug we have become indifferent to the poor and callous about easy violence in our culture. We have aped the entertainments and politics of the broader culture while abandoning the corporal works of mercy to what Dorothy Day called “Holy Mother State.” We abort, divorce, and make war in roughly the same proportions as the population at large. And through it all we piously sing our Sunday hymns – “Faith of our fathers, living still, we will be true to thee ‘til death …” – when the fact is that many of us are rarely true even ‘til lunch.
Am I being a scold? Sorry. I really don’t mean to. And I certainly don’t exempt myself from one thing I’ve written. The question we’re wrestling with is this: what is the “life” the angel of the Lord commanded the apostles to tell people about? I would say that it is a life lived in the reflected glory of the Resurrection, a risen life, in which everything is folded into Christ and his Kingdom. This includes family, work, finances, community, nation, even church. Everything.
Everything? Yes, everything. Remember the little parables in Matthew 13?
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it. (Matthew 13:44-46)
“Sells all that he has.” The Kingdom of God demands everything from us because it is worth everything we have, everything we are. When St. Paul writes, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us,” he doesn’t mean that suffering isn’t real, or that it isn’t painful. This after all was a man who endured deprivation, imprisonment, shipwreck, beatings, hunger, thirst, robbery, and finally beheading. No, when he writes that suffering is “as nothing” he means that the things we lose when we suffer – physical health, comfort, material security, position, friends, respectability – collectively possess a worth that is dwarfed to insignificance by the infinite value of the Kingdom of God.
To live the risen life is to be in the Kingdom of God now. St. Catherine of Sienna used to say that, “All the way to heaven is heaven because He said ‘I am the Way.’” Living in the Way is living in Christ; and since Christ is risen, living in the Way means sharing in his risen life. We might as well be in heaven, brothers and sisters, if we remain in him and he in us. As such, “the sufferings of this present time are as nothing …” This was what the first Christians knew. They had met Jesus face to face, or knew those who had. They had felt the force of his personality and the unmistakable holiness of his life. His words lingered with them for all their lives. In the intimate company of others who had likewise seen and heard, touched, and even tasted, they devoted their daily lives to “the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Acts2:42). They lived in the Way, and so should we.
But how? We are the products of 5,000 years of monotheism, 3000 years of Western civilization, and 2,000 years of Christian history. We are the products of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. Those of us in the United States are the heirs of the English legal tradition, the Lockean political tradition, Classical Liberalism, and nearly 250 years of American history, including over 100 years of oil-powered, mass-market consumer society and 65 years of the American Imperium. Not to mention our own family and personal histories, the influence of our ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and the varieties of religious experience and expression that have framed us. And as individuals, of course, we each have our own personalities, talents, strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, and so on. That’s a lot of stuff piled on top of “the Way.”
In September 2010, Pope Benedict XVI announced the formation of the Pontifical Council for Promotion of the New Evangelization, which was created to serve “the particular Churches, especially in those territories of Christian tradition where the phenomenon of secularization is more obviously apparent.” In other words, the focus of the New Evangelization is a re-evangelization of the post-Christian West. This October, the bishops of the world will gather in Rome for a three-week synod on The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith. In some ways, those assembled will be responding to the command of the angel who appeared to the apostles in Acts 5. They will be taking up their place in the temple area of the Church and attempting to tell the people everything about “this life.” What will they have the courage to say? What will they risk in order to say it? Will they risk privilege and comfort, as their predecessors did? Will they risk their lives, as some of them already do every day? More importantly, what will we hear and accept? What will we add to their understanding of what the “risen life” means? And what will we risk to really live it?
You may be wondering about the man in the photo above. He is Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian convert and pastor who is awaiting execution for apostasy and blasphemy. Our dear brother Youcef can tell you all about the risen life. In fact, he already has, in a letter written to his tiny flock and later translated into English. Here’s part of what he had to say:
What we are bearing today, is a difficult but not unbearable situation, because neither he has tested us more than our faith and our endurance, nor does he do as such. And as we have known from before, we must beware not to fail, but to advance in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, And consider these bumps and prisons as opportunities to testify to his name. He said: If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.
As a small servant, necessarily in prison to carry out what I must do, I say with faith in the word of God that he will come soon.”However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
Discipline yourself with faith in the word of God. Retain your souls with patience. For there is no man that doeth any thing in secret, and he himself seeketh to be known openly.
May you are granted grace and blessings increasingly in the name of Lord Jesus Christ.