“So first – and most important – cherish what you believe. Don't job off one single value judgment because it swims upstream against what appears to be a majority. Respect your own logic, your own sense of morality. Certainly listen to arguments; certainly ponder and respect the opinions of your peers. But there’s a point you compromise and there’s a point all human beings draw the line and say ‘Beyond this point it’s not right, or just, or honest, and beyond this point I don’t move’” ~ Rod Serling
These were the words of the master of the macabre, the purveyor of both shadow and substance, things and ideas, the creator of the Twilight Zone and one of my favorite writers Rod Serling as he addressed the graduates of Ithaca College on a sunny afternoon in May of 1972. These words resonate with the same profundity today and certainly in today’s Gospel (John 15:18-21) wherein Jesus, in a Twilight Zone-like twist, abandons his role as the penultimate prophet of the Good News to instead deliver some bad:
“...because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you,” Jesus explains, going on to offer this similitude: “No slave is greater than his master.If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. And they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know the one who sent me.”
The slave-master analogy reminds us that in reality, no one among us can honestly claim to be his or her own master. Certainly no one among us dies as his or her own master. While in the world, we are compelled to make some very important decisions as they pertain to servitude. The ramifications of these decisions will indeed echo throughout eternity, for to quote the legendary Bob Dylan “it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you're gonna have to serve somebody.” If we choose the Lord as our Master, if we are responsible to the Lord, when we die we die as his servant. Both in life and in death we are the Lord’s. This is in fact why Christ died and came to life again, that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. Throughout Scripture, Jesus, out of love for us, reminds us that we simply cannot serve two masters (Luke 16:13-15, Matthew 6:22-24, 1 Timothy 6:9–2, Hebrews 13:5-6, Exodus 20:3-6, Deuteronomy 6:14-16, Romans 12:2 and at least another 15-20 examples).
It has been said that Christianity is a religion of fulfillment; Jesus came to walk among us, humbling himself to share in our humanity (Philippians 2:8), sent by the Father to die for the sins of mankind (John 3:16). But it is also a religion of joyful anticipation, a religion of waiting. Waiting with profound hope for the second coming of Jesus in the fullness of his power and glory. We wait and watch and keep vigil. We pray, give alms and fast, always weighing our decisions and subsequent actions against the backdrop of eternity and where we desire to spend it. Those who remain stubbornly tethered to this world will never understand.
“We live in uncertain times” is the never-ending mantra, particularly popular now in the wake of COVID19. The real truth however is that uncertain times have always been the reality since the very beginning of time. A popular question posed during any job interview is “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” I think it’s safe to say that everyone, every single person, who had a job interview in the year 2015 got that question wrong; my apologies to anyone who replied “In self-quarantine at home due to a highly contagious virus that originated in Wuhan, China as a result of someone purchasing tainted bat. . . to eat.”
No one knows what’s next, certainly no one knows the day nor the hour of Jesus’ glorious and triumphant return (Matthew 24:36). But triumphant he will be, this we know. Will Jesus find any faith upon his return, a question he once posed in Scripture (Luke 18:8)? Or will he encounter a milquetoast, weak-kneed flock, ruminating and obsessing over the fact that our devotion to him is unpopular in the eyes of the insignificant, those who belong to the world and as such, will die in the world?
Jesus never promised us a serene or idyllic life, one free of controversy, persecution or even loneliness. But in Jesus, we are connected to the very power of God, to that which is, here and now, creating the universe. We are lavished with the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, fortitude for instance, which allows us to persevere and ultimately survive any storm and all persecution.
In tomorrow’s 2nd Reading (1 Peter 3:15-18) the Rock of our Church implores us to “always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence.” Saint Peter’s words remind us that we are called not only to persevere, to endure the slings and arrows, but to bring the message of a God who loves us and offers us eternal life to our persecutors. A life rooted in the Holy Spirit will equip us to do just that, and Jesus even goes so far as to alleviate all unfounded anxiety as it relates to our role in this mission when he says “do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say. (Matthew 10:19).
Jesus clearly anticipated the animosity His disciples would face. That we will face. If not, He would not have prayed to the Father that “they may be one, even as we are one.” (John 17:11). But through the oneness he possesses with the Father, a oneness he shares with his beloved followers, we can stand tall in the face of persecution. God’s power dwells within us by way of our obedience to Jesus’ true teachings and the advocacy of the Holy Spirit. Anyone who stands in opposition to the power of God will one day be a footnote. Maybe.
In the meantime, pray for the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, pray for your persecutors, cherish the sacraments, heed the perfect teachings of Jesus in Scripture and take solace in the words of the prolific poet Dante Alighieri when he says “Do not be afraid; our fate cannot be taken from us; it is a gift.“