Centered on God, we can face all challenges

  • April 24, 2007

Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year C) April 29 (Acts 13:14, 43-52; Psalm 100; Revelation 7:9, 14-17; John 10:27-30)

An encounter between the old and the new is seldom peaceful or smooth. The old does not give way gracefully, and the struggle is often hateful and hurtful. The new is not necessarily correct, but often it is not even given a fair hearing.

We can think of clashes in our own lifetime concerning race, gender, values, war and peace, public policy and religion. The new is often impatient and aggressive, the old fearful, defensive and authoritarian. If people are reasonably patient, persistent and tolerant, a new consensus usually evolves comprising the best of both sides. But often the result is simply polarization and exclusion.

Paul is attempting to stretch minds and hearts by proclaiming God’s merciful action on behalf of all humanity in the person of Jesus. Messiah — Jesus — raised from the dead — fulfilment of the promise — the whole world and the Gentiles too. Some embrace the word; others reject it with rage and violence. We should not judge any particular group, for this is a normal human reaction. A similar proclamation in our own churches would be met with the same response. Nor would we judge anyone who is unable to accept the word as unworthy of eternal life.

What is the great ordeal? In its original context, it probably referred to persecution and the tribulations of the time preceding the return of Jesus. But in a broader sense, the great ordeal is life itself. It delivers pain and struggle for individuals and for humanity as a whole. In our own time, we experience the fear and uncertainty of a violent and polarized world. Political and economic injustice and uncertainty are heaped on top of personal failures and difficult relationships.

Our faith will not give us a free pass. We cannot expect that being a Christian is going to lift us out of the human condition. But worshipping before the throne of God day and night is the key: when we are centred on God we will have the grace and strength necessary to meet all the challenges with courage, grace, dignity and even a bit of humour. Although we experience the consolation of God along the way, the definitive consolation and liberation occurs when we pass from this life and are with God in a more complete way. We carry with us the spiritual wisdom that we gain in the challenges of life.

Why do some believe while others do not? Why do some drift away from God and the spiritual path? John uses the strange parable about sheep hearing the voice of the shepherd to deal with the mystery of faith. We have often heard the expression to “lose one’s faith.” It comes up frequently when people are scandalized at the failings of the system or those in authority. And an avalanche of popular books assures us that either God does not exist or authentic Christianity exists only in a weird and sensational version that we do not recognize. Still others cast nostalgic eyes back to a tired form of Christianity that no longer speaks to modern people.

But true faith cannot be lost, nor can anyone or anything steal it from us. True faith of course is not intellectual ascent to theological propositions and rarely admits rational proofs. It does not consist of belonging to the right group or having the right label. We should not look outside of ourselves, for it has nothing to do with worship of a distant object or person. It is an interior and personal relationship with the Risen Lord, and no power on earth can interfere with it.

We are surrounded by many voices, but we choose the one we listen to. A continual attentiveness to the inner divine presence will lead us on the right path. The unity with the Father that Jesus speaks of in this passage indicates a unity of purpose, will, desire, knowledge and love. We are invited to strive towards that unity with the instruments self-giving love and walking in the spirit. Nothing can take from Jesus all that the Father has given Him, and that includes those who follow Him.

We need to remember that as overwhelming and powerful the negative forces of the world might seem they are nothing before the power of the Living God.