Obedience to God before obedience to men
(Readings: Acts 5:27-32, 40-41; Apocalypse 5:11-14; John 21:1-19)
Introduction to Mass
The readings today emphasise the lordship of the risen Christ and the courage and zeal which his earliest followers had as a result of their faith in him. At the start of Mass we examine our own consciences and ask God to forgive our own lack of zeal in acknowledging Jesus as Lord and our lack of courage in proclaiming him as Lord.
In the period immediately after Jesus’ resurrection it seems that the disciples had a fair bit of success persuading people to commit themselves to this new faith that the apostles announce in the first reading: "God has now raised Jesus up to be leader and saviour, to give repentance and forgiveness of sins through him".
The people who became Christians in that first generation of the Church’s existence didn’t have the experience that the apostles had, of seeing the risen Christ with their own eyes. What seems to have persuaded them about the truth of the resurrection was the very obvious change that had taken place in the disciples.
During Jesus' ministry the disciples had been constantly confused and slow-witted. At the end they were only too eager to dissociate themselves from Christ to avoid persecution themselves.
But only weeks after his death the same men suddenly emerged in the manner that we heard about in the first reading today: proclaiming a new phase in the relationship between God and humanity, and proclaiming it with zeal and conviction, with a complete lack of fear of persecution and death and, most of all perhaps, with a quality that people saw as being somehow filled, and driven, by the spirit of God.
People could only try to make sense, in their own imaginations, of the descriptions the apostles gave of what Jesus looked like after his resurrection. I don’t think that was what impressed itself deeply on them.
What impressed them was the fact that the disciples had obviously witnessed or been caught up in something life-changing - and that was enough to persuade them to accept this new faith they were proclaiming.
The fearless preaching in public was complemented by a defiant stance towards the threats of the Sanhedrin, and I think that doesn’t only show the change that took place in the disciples’ personalities as a result of seeing Jesus alive again. It also illustrates one of the essential qualities that marked the Christian faith right from its beginnings.
The Church didn't evolve smoothly and serenely out of the Jewish faith or any of the other religions of the time. It was born in circumstances of violence, contention and persecution. Its founder was put to death violently and so were many of the first generation of his followers: the gospel today refers to Saint Peter's eventual death as a martyr.
These circumstances compelled the first followers of Jesus to adopt the basic stance that Peter declares boldly in the first reading: "Obedience to God comes before obedience to men".
Part of the role that religion played in the ancient world - in Egypt, in Babylon, in Rome, for example - was to buttress the power of the king and the ruling class. It was a state religion, a civic religion. Often the king or emperor was regarded as divine and he was able to demand obedience and a kind of worship from his subjects.
But it was part of the essence of the Church's faith from the beginning to defy any human authority that tried to demand absolute obedience or conformity.
What that meant for the future history of the Christian faith was that, at its best, it was always on the side of freedom of conscience and against totalitarianism, always against any tendency of institutions to present their control over people’s lives as absolute.
In many instances Christianity took on the opposite role from a civic religion. It became the focus of opposition and resistance to concentrations of power instead. That was because of this basic principle: only God is sovereign, only God has absolute authority. It's a principle that denies the right of any human being or group to claim that sovereignty and that authority.
But of course faithfulness to that stance also entails a willingness to suffer. The apostles were “glad to suffer humiliation for the same of Christ's name” says the first reading. They weren't striking a dramatic pose in circumstances where they were safe from any real harm. And for all the other men and women who converted to Christianity a situation of danger persisted for centuries.
In our own country now, no one is under any physical threat just because he or she is a Christian, and it seems that one of the ironic consequences of our freedom from danger is a loss of this heroic attitude that the earliest believers had.
I remember a religious sister saying to me in all seriousness that it was unreasonable to expect young Catholics to continue to come to Mass on Sundays because a lot of their friends their own age would laugh at them if they knew they belonged to a church. Parents have told me from time to time that their children are anxious that nobody should find out that they're Catholic and that they go to church on Sundays.
So the attitude of some Catholics now seems to be the exact opposite of being “glad to suffer humiliation for the same of Christ's name”. Often there's a great effort made to produce arguments defending a lack of willingness to suffer even mild inconvenience for the sake of the faith.
Fortunately that's not the whole picture. Young Catholics who aren't so conformist do actually exist.
The basic difference between them and the others seems to be that they value their relationship with God more than the opinions of their peers, and they regard the gospel message as the truth - so they stick to it regardless of any ridicule or rejection they might receive as a result. They're more than ready to put forward arguments in defence of their faith if other young people challenge it.
These types of young Catholic seem to experience the Mass as a genuine encounter with Christ, something that nourishes and strengthens them spiritually, something they don't want to do without. So they don't complain about Mass on Sunday messing up their social life or making them a laughing-stock among their friends. Everything else they do with their time at the weekend is planned around making sure they can attend Mass.
My own belief is that one of the divisions that will open up (further) in the Church in the next twenty or thirty years is the division between a rather decadent, recreational form of church life on the one hand and what we might call a genuinely witnessing faith on the other – a bit like the faith of the first generation of Christians.
If the gospel message is going to get passed on to a new generation – which I’m certain it will, because it always does - it'll be due to Christians who believe, with the enthusiasm and the defiance and courage of Peter and the apostles, that "obedience to God comes before obedience to men".