Sermons

Summary: Jesus turns that human sin on its head by becoming the scapegoat, by taking all sin onto His divine shoulders and letting the Romans and Jewish leaders nail His sacred Body to the cross.

Tuesday of 2nd Week in Easter

The great literary critic and philosopher René Noël Théophile Girard, was baptized in France with names that speak of Christmas, his birthday, and the love of God. He gave us the idea that all our desires are borrowed from other people, and that all conflict comes from the collision of those mimetic desires. He also explained horrific historical events like the Nazi extermination camps as results of scapegoating, a process by which we blame another person or group of persons like the Jews for all our problems. That idea is found in the early chapter of Genesis, where Adam blames his disobedience on Eve, and Eve blames hers on the serpent.

Jesus turns that human sin on its head by becoming the scapegoat, by taking all sin onto His divine shoulders and letting the Romans and Jewish leaders nail His sacred Body to the cross. Jesus identified with all the scapegoated peoples of the world and by His death and Resurrection turned all human suffering into a meaningful act of sacrificial, redemptive love. When we are “born from above” by water and the Holy Spirit, we are conveyed into that Christ-life and learn the same kind of obedience to the Father’s will that Christ learned and practiced.

Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles relates the story of how the early Jerusalem church practiced that obedience and entered into a common life, a life of sharing everything in testimony to the Resurrection. The disciple Barnabas sold a piece of land and donated the proceeds as a kind of encouragement. His very name means “son of encouragement.” (Incidentally, that action of Christians selling their productive property so the poor could be fed did not last very long, and the Jerusalem church later had a constant need for money from Paul’s churches in Greece and Asia.)

But Christians soon began to stand out in the minds and eyes of the authorities because of their unique ways of living and prayer. And in short order, their disagreements with their Jewish neighbors and their disdain for enriching the pagan temples with offerings made them ideal candidates for scapegoats. Thus the early three centuries of the Church were times of persecution wherever Christians lived.

During the third century we see the rise of the Roman politician Trajan Decius, who became emperor late in the year 249. “Decius' political program was focused on the restoration of the strength of the State, both militarily opposing the external threats, and restoring the public piety with a program of renovation of the State religion.” A couple of months after becoming emperor, he issued an edict commanding that “All the inhabitants of the empire were required to sacrifice before the magistrates of their community 'for the safety of the empire' by a certain day.” The authorities went after the bishops and Christian leaders first, and many were killed, including Pope Fabian.

Our saint of the day, “the merchant Maximus, originally from Asia, was called before the consul Optimus. Maximus provided his name, profession and identity as a Christian. When Optimus ordered Maximus to ‘Sacrifice to save your life; if not I shall make you die in torment,’ Maximus answered, ‘I have always wished it; it is in order to pass out of this short and miserable life to the life eternal that I have declared my faith.’

“Maximus was tortured on the rack and by being beaten with rods, but because he would not recant, Optimus ordered him lapidated. Accordingly, on May 4, 250, Maximus was led outside the city walls and stoned to death.”

I follow with interest the current campaign against the National Rifle Association, as state and local government authorities exert pressure on financial institutions to stop doing business with them. We (I am a member) are being scapegoated, even though the NRA promotes gun safety and responsible ownership. I fear that if these campaigns drive the NRA out of business, the action of governments may provide a pattern for persecuting other institutional scapegoats. The Church is the one that comes to mind immediately, because we have been weakened by the clerical scandals and the constant attention of the press. So let’s ask for the intercession of the many martyr-scapegoats of our faith: Saints Fabian and Maximus of Rome, pray for us.

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