It is not easy to be a Christian in today’s world. Witnessing to Christ and professing Him as the Saviour of the world, and confessing Him to be our Lord is considered arrogance by the world. There is pressure from society to be more modest in confessing our faith in Christ. This is just on the question of beliefs. Equally challenging is to propose the gospel values taught by our Lord for the world. All the teachings of the bible are being challenged by relativism, materialism and humanism. Whether it is with regard to the traditional understanding of marriage, sex, family, dignity of life, and authentic freedom, these issues are challenged as outdated, impractical, irrelevant and impossible.
It is easier for us to succumb to such pressures than to stand up for Jesus. That is why many Catholics are so cowardly in professing their faith. They are afraid to be seen as Catholics in the world and at their place of work for fear of being challenged, ridiculed and even discriminated. This is understandable. We are afraid of suffering and rejection. We need to belong to the world so that we feel safe. But yet, we know that we are of the world but do not belong to the world. This is what the Lord says to us. (Jn 15:19) Jesus warns us, “So if anyone declares himself for me in the presence of men, I will declare myself for him in the presence of my Father in heaven. But the one who disowns me in the presence of men, I will disown in the presence of my Father in heaven.” If we are afraid to stand up for Jesus, we will betray ourselves and lose our faith eventually. Either we transform the world or the world will secularize us. By not standing up for Jesus, the issue is not so much that He will disown us, but that we will eventually disown Him. There is no neutrality in faith. Either we are for Christ or against Him.
In the face of such challenges, how, then, can we remain faithful to God? Firstly, the gospel warns us that Jesus our master suffered the same fate and therefore we are not exempted. “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, what will they not say of his household?” Indeed, although Jesus was doing good for the people, healing them of their illnesses, setting them free from bondage of the Evil One, exhorting them to repentance, to live a life of authenticity and integrity, reconciling everyone to God and with each other by advocating the brotherhood of all and the equality of all men and women; yet, He was grossly misunderstood. The Jewish leaders felt threatened by Him, the political leaders felt He might be a threat to their powers and the common people projected their political hopes on Him. When Jesus failed to deliver all these expectations, He was put to death.
We can learn from the courage of our Lord. He was confident that even if He were innocently condemned and put to death, justice would prevail in the end. Hence, He advised us, “Do not be afraid of them therefore. For everything that is now covered will be uncovered, and everything now hidden will be made clear. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the daylight; what you hear in whispers, proclaim from the house tops.” Indeed, like Jesus, we will be misunderstood. The Church has been misunderstood in her teachings, whether doctrinal or morals. But history will unveil the truths of what the Church of Christ has consistently maintained all these years. We have confidence that the Lord who looks after the Church will protect her and the gates of hell will not overcome it. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (cf Mt 16:18f) We, too, will let history judge us and humanity. The truth will prevail in the end because as Jesus said, what is hidden will be made clear eventually.
Hence, we should not be afraid even of death. “Do not be afraid of those that kill the body but cannot kill the soul; fear him rather who can destroy both body and soul in hell.” This was the faith of the Fathers of the Church. If the Church had been so faithful, it was because there were some Christians who were ready to die for their faith and their beliefs. The martyrs of the Church testified to the truth of death. When death is no longer feared, then as St Paul said, we have overcome the power of death. “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet.’” (cf 1 Cor 15:25-27). With the resurrection of Christ, we know that death is not the last word. This last enemy of man has been overcome by the death and resurrection of Christ. Jesus has demonstrated that death is not the last word but eternal life.
Let us take consolation that the Lord will look after us. He will surely protect and guide us. He assures us, “Can you not buy two sparrows for a penny? And yet not one falls to the ground without your Father knowing. Why, every hair on your head has been counted. So there is no need to be afraid; you are worth more than hundreds of sparrows.” Indeed, let us take heart that no matter what trials come our way, He will help us to overcome them. He does not take away our pains just as His Father did not take away His suffering, but He will help us with the power of His Holy Spirit to keep us strong, wise and faithful. Also, He assured us that those who endure to the end will be saved. “But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.” (cf Mt 24:13f)
How can we do what Jesus did? We need to be empowered and sent by Him as Isaiah was. The prophet Isaiah was given a vision of the heavenly court before he was called. He “saw the Lord seated on a high throne; his train filled the sanctuary; above him stood seraphs, each one with six wings: two to cover its face, two to cover its feet and two for flying. And they cried out to one another in this way, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. His glory fills the whole earth.’ The foundations of the threshold shook with the voice of the one who cried out, and the Temple was filed with smoke.” It must have been a powerful vision of God. Those of us who have had some visions of God in our dreams or some religious encounter in prayer will understand how much more life-changing the vision must have been for Isaiah.
We know that we have encountered God when we come to consciousness of our total unworthiness and sinfulness. The reaction of Isaiah to the encounter was “What a wretched state I am in! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have looked at the King, the Lord of hosts.” We feel unworthy to come before the Lord. The realization of our sinfulness is always one of the consequences of entering into the presence of the Lord. This explains the radical transformation. But it is more than just the realization of our utter unworthiness; it is the assurance of the forgiveness of our sins. “Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding in his hand a live coal which he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. With this he touched my mouth and said: ‘See now, this has touched your lips, your sin is taken away, your iniquity is purged.’” This was also the experience of the call of Moses and Gideon in the Old Testament (cf Ex 3; Judges 6:11-18); and the call of Peter and Saul in the New Testament. (cf Lk 5:1-11; Acts 9:1-19) Their encounter with God made them aware of their sinfulness, but at the same time, God also reassured them that their sins had been forgiven. They were given His assurance of divine assistance and protection. “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” (Ex 3:12)
When we have been loved unconditionally, the desire to proclaim His love is a natural consequence. We want to announce to the world how much God loves them too, just as He has loved us. God does not just give us a personal encounter with Him without sending us out on mission. So like the prophets before Him, Moses and Elijah, Isaiah also “heard the voice of the Lord saying: ‘Whom shall I send? Who will be our messenger?’ I answered, ‘Here I am, send me.’” God too chose Peter to be the leader of the Twelve and the rock of the Church. St Paul was given back his sight so that he could lead all peoples back to God through the proclamation of Jesus as the Christ and the Lord of all. “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:15f)
Without a special encounter with the Risen Lord, our faith would remain weak. This explains why although many priests, religious and lay people have faith in God and love the Church, their witnessing is weak, because they have not had a personal, transforming encounter with the Lord. Their faith is dependent on hearsay and study. Because they lack a real encounter with the Lord, in times of trials and challenges, they give in to temptation. It is not surprising because they then begin to wonder where God is. Doubts enter their minds as to whether what they are teaching is true and whether Jesus is real.
Of course, those who receive the special encounter with the Lord have to continue to grow to become more like Christ. This is the mistake of many who have received such an encounter. They do not continue to nurture this relationship with the Lord through prayer, study and sharing the faith in the community. Eventually, they too will lose the faith. Hence, “Jesus instructed the Twelve as follows: ‘The disciple is not superior to his teacher, nor the slave to his master. It is enough for the disciple that he should grow to be like his teacher, and the slave like his master.” This is an ongoing process. We must never stop growing in understanding of our faith in Christ and our relationship with Him. In this way, we will remain faithful to Christ and be courageous in standing up for truth and the gospel of our Lord.