3 Easter C #48
Acts 5, 27-32. 40-41
Rv 5, 11-14
Jn 21, 1-19
April 18, 2010
Saint Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
Deacon Tom Cornell
“We must obey God rather than men!” Peter spoke on behalf of all the apostles and for the whole Church. Peter’s successor, Pope Benedict, preached on this text last week, “We must obey God rather then men.” Benedict was talking about the totalitarian regimes of a past that young people do not remember, but that he does only too well, and we older people, Communist and Nazi-fascist dictatorships. The Pope spoke especially to the young about today’s tyranny, dictatorship, a dictatorship of conformity, “…conformity, in which everyone has to think the way everyone else thinks, to act the way everyone else acts.” Get out of the box, young people, get off the bus! It’s going nowhere, if not to Hell!
Pope Benedict spoke also of eternal life. Sometimes we hesitate to speak of eternal life in a culture so saturated with materialism. We need to speak the truth of the Resurrection to eternal life, the truth of spirit. You can bet your life on it. If death is the end, then life has no meaning at all, it is absurd: love, loyalty, sacrifice and honor are empty words, and if God exists, he is evil; all our joys and all our sufferings are for naught; life is a cruel joke, a mockery. Today’s Gospel reading teaches us exactly the opposite. Jesus Christ is risen! It is true!
John tells a touching, very human story of Jesus’ appearance by the seashore. He cooks them breakfast, bread and grilled fish. This is Jesus’ third appearance after his Resurrection. They took heart. Just a few days before they were frightened out of their wits. Now they are strong in faith, strong enough to speak the truth of Jesus to the power of the Sanhedrin. “We must obey God rather than men.”
In the early Christian era the Church had to teach barbarians to obey civil authority for the sake of peace. Today the Church must teach Christians the duty of civil disobedience, how to disobey responsibly, for the sake of peace, to obey God rather than men.
Christians are obliged to obey duly constituted authority justly exercised (Rom 13, 1-2). There’s no argument about that. But then we must ask: what constitutes legitimate authority, and how justly is it being exercised? The Church teaches in the Compendium of the Social Teachings of the Catholic Church: When Christians are called to cooperate in morally evil acts they must refuse…. It is a grave duty of conscience not to cooperate in practices which are contrary to the Law of God. Such cooperation can never be justified, not by invoking respect for the freedom of others nor by appealing to the fact that it is required by civil law” (#399).
Catholics understand this when it comes to abortion. A nursing student or a medical doctor in training must refuse to assist at an abortion, no matter what the pressure, no matter what the consequences. Once the principle is established, it can be applied to other crimes against life, like war and torture and capital punishment and unjust social and political structures as well. We must say “NO! We’re getting off the bus!”
Does that mean that individual Christians may make up their own minds about which laws we will obey and when? Should we not give our elected leaders the presumption of justice for the sake of peace and good order? Ordinarily, yes, but, this is where conscience comes in. In the depths of our hearts God speaks to us. Go there! Listen! Don’t be afraid!
When the time draws near that nonviolent civil disobedience becomes a threat to the common good, then we will reconsider the matter. But that is not the case today. Far from it! The problem today is quite the opposite. The problem today is blind obedience. The Nazi Army was overwhelmingly Christian, Roman Catholic and Lutheran, over 90 percent, the same with the death camp personnel. If there wasn’t a pastoral failure involved in that, then there is no such thing and we pastors and preachers and catechists and teachers are irrelevant. It’s all “pie in the sky.” If the Kingdom of God is not here and now it will never be then and there. This is not Nazi Germany, thank God. But the defense, “I was just obeying orders,” didn’t work at the Nuremburg war crimes trial and it won’t work today, either in the hospital surgery or the battlefield.
It’s not “pie in the sky,” it’s real. That’s what today’s Gospel reading teaches us. The Lord has risen, he has truly risen! In baptism we died with Christ, in baptism we rose with Christ. Death is not the end. This is the most important truth our faith teaches us, the central truth.
They were slow to believe: he had risen! Jesus’ teaching on the hills of Galilee was mostly about the Kingdom of God, so we can presume he was still at it as they did the dishes after breakfast by the seashore. It would all become clear with the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We are slow to believe too.
In baptism you and I were baptized into his death and into his resurrection. We were baptized into his messianic ministry also. We share Jesus’ priesthood, his role as prophet, his kingship, every one of us. The Messiah-Christ awaited by Israel is here, and we are incorporated into him. If we are in Christ, then it is ours to build the Kingdom of God here on earth. Can we do it, create the new heaven and the new earth that he has promised? As a matter of fact, no, we can’t! That's a delusion, a very dangerous delusion. But with faith, with his grace, we can accomplish more than we think. Christ when he comes again will establish the Kingdom. But we have our part to play. We can prepare the way.
The life we will live in eternity starts here and now, how we build the Kingdom, or not. We prepare the way when we learn to obey God rather than men, to say NO! to a culture steeped in brutality, stupidity and ugliness, hatred and fear – if you want to know what I mean just turn on the radio and listen to the music, or open the newspaper and read the review of the latest movie blockbuster, or listen to the incessant justification for crimes against humanity in the name of a “war on terror” – and speak Truth to Power, no matter what the price, no matter what the consequences, even as Peter and the Apostles did. And if we have to pay a price, rejoice and be glad like the apostles to have the chance to do penance for our own sins and for the sins of our country as we pray, “Thy kingdom come!” #