We are called to be witnesses to God’s kingdom

  • April 5, 2013

Third Sunday of Easter (Year C) April 14 (Acts 5:28-32, 40-41; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19)

It is well known that dictatorial or totalitarian regimes rule by fear. The oppressed know that they must keep silent at the least and maybe even mouth the party line. The consequences for not doing so are fearsome. Even so-called democratic cultures and societies also use a form of fear to coerce people — the fear of ridicule, exclusion or labelling. The message is clear: do not challenge the status quo or the powers that be, even if they are somewhat benign.

The religious establishment of Jerusalem tried the fear treatment on Peter and the apostles, but it no longer worked. They were cowed and terrified after the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus, but after encountering the risen Christ something profound happened to them. The Spirit had fallen upon them in a powerful and dramatic way, giving them courage and joy that could not be silenced or contained. They were able to obey God and leave the threats and fear tactics of human beings behind. The apostles boldly delivered the message about the ministry of Jesus and the saving acts of God to the authorities and anyone who would listen.

How could they not proclaim the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit? Amazingly they felt quite honoured and overjoyed to have been considered worthy to suffer dishonour for the sake of the name. There was none of the collective self-pity and victimization that sometimes afflicts Christians today in the face of religious resistance or opposition. In the Jewish tradition suffering for the sake of the name — God — was considered an honour and privilege rather than a punishment.

Many situations that we face call for integrity, courage and the willingness to suffer, whether it be for the Gospel, God, justice or any noble principle. It is far too easy to allow the fear of suffering, humiliation or loss to paralyze us and tempt us to take the easy way out — silence or capitulation.

Jesus considered the salvation of humanity and loving obedience to God worthy of the supreme sacrifice of life itself. He did not embrace suffering for its own sake or in a calculating maneuver for future benefits — His motive was love. Humility, generosity, compassion and self-giving rendered Jesus worthy of honour, glory and power — not competitiveness, force or selfishness. The principles: less is more, weakness in the Lord is strength and humility is exaltation. This definitely describes God’s kingdom rather than the kingdom of the world.

The strange post-Resurrection appearance of Jesus on the Sea of Galilee echoed two important themes from the previous readings — suffering and service. At the subdued and probably uncomfortable seashore breakfast, Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him more than the others. Peter replied affirmatively the first two times and Jesus countered with the command to feed His lambs and tend His sheep, signifying the style and quality of the leadership that Peter should exercise in the community. In other words, legitimate leadership and honour is manifested in love and service to others rather than words or domination. When Jesus fired the same question at him a third time, a flustered and distraught Peter lost his composure. He asked Jesus why He kept asking him the same question — after all, He knew everything anyway.

At the Last Supper Jesus had commanded His disciples to love one another as He had loved them — that is, willing to lay down their lives for one another. Now Jesus stunned Peter with some rather heavy news. When Peter was still young, he could do whatever he wanted. As a follower of Jesus, his life would no longer be his own — he would be taken by the Spirit where he would rather not go — and that meant a martyr’s death by which he would glorify God. He was also found worthy of suffering for the name, and as the Acts of the Apostles informs us, he did so fearlessly and joyfully as one filled with God’s Spirit.

Peter represents all of us. Although few will be called to such a radical expression of physical suffering and martyrdom, all are called to give up time, treasure, convenience and personal gain for the sake of others. This less than dramatic form of martyrdom or witness is the foundation stone of God’s Kingdom.