Summary: Belief in Jesus Christ must be accompanied by obedience to His word.
Thursday of Second Week in Easter 2018
When will humans learn that murdering one’s enemies is not only morally sinful, it’s a really, really bad idea just on a secular level. For the first three hundred years of the Church’s existence, the enemies of the Church, from the Sanhedrin to the Roman Emperors, thought that they could kill Catholics and be rid of the pesky sect. But persecution points out two things about the persecuted, and two about the persecutors.
The onlooker sees the persecutors either as deliverers or as oppressors. If it is clear that the one who is killed has done bad things, then the persecutor is seen as a deliverer. But onlookers, seeing the deeds of followers of Christ, would see that they were living moral lives, taking care of their families, and strangers, and the poor, and relating well to their neighbors. So persecution made the killers look both unjust and intolerant. It also made the Christian faith look worthy of attention, and good enough so that its adherents would die rather than give it up.
So when the Jewish Sanhedrin ordered the apostles to shut up about the Rabbi Jeshua, and to stop claiming He had risen from the dead and was working miracles through His spirit-filled disciples, they were just calling attention to the Truth. The disciples just wanted to follow Christ’s command, to rescue their fellow Jews, and ultimately all human beings, from the logical consequence of sin–eternal death. They could not keep silent about what they knew from experience to be true–Jesus Christ lives, and He continues His work through us.
There’s a controversial little quotation from John, certainly echoing what he heard from Jesus, at the end of today’s Gospel, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.” This parallels an earlier verse in this chapter of John’s Gospel: “He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
The important idea to take away from this, I believe, is that belief in Jesus Christ must be accompanied by obedience to His word. One cannot be a disciple of Christ without hearing and heeding His message of loving God and loving our neighbor. It reminds me of what St. Luke records Jesus saying: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” So wrath is the destiny of not only those who hear the Gospel and freely refuse to follow Christ, but also for those who say they follow Christ, but act in opposition to His Law.
What is the “wrath of God,” anyway? The Calvinist preacher Jonathan Edwards, in 1741, during the so-called “Great Awakening,” preached a sermon known as “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It features the picture of the fate of sinners: “They are as great heaps of light chaff before the whirlwind; or large quantities of dry stubble before devouring flames. We find it easy to tread on and crush a worm that we see crawling on the earth; so it is easy for us to cut or singe a slender thread that any thing hangs by: thus easy is it for God, when he pleases, to cast his enemies down to hell.” This is a horrible vision of God, as if He were some hateful tyrant just waiting to catch us in sin, kill us and cast us into the flames.
God’s wrath, we should understand, has to do with His unbelievable love for each human, and His total abhorrence for sin. We, like God, should hate the sin but love the sinner. If we die in charity, He takes us to Himself. If we die with our whole being entwined with evil, if we have refused His loving forgiveness and the grace we need to be free from sin, then we separate ourselves from His companionship forever, and that is our consignment to wrath. That is hell.
Our celebration today is not our declaration that we are wonderful. What we do today is first of all acknowledge our sin and unworthiness. Then we hear the joyful Gospel of Christ and commit ourselves once more to repentance and a life of love and justice. God then gives us Himself as our food, and the life of Christ enables us to do good and avoid evil, together in His Church.