Truth and Opposition

Twentieth Sunday of the Year. Jer 38:4-6, 8 -10; Ps 40:2-4, 18; Heb 12:1-4; Lk 12:49-53

Today’s readings are all about opposition. The first reading describes how Jeremiah’s message is so unwelcome that he is thrown into a well of mud. The second reading exhorts us to be strong in the face of opposition, and Jesus in the Gospel warns that he brings opposition and division even in families. In this homily I want to examine briefly the fact of opposition, the reasons for opposition and what this implies for our own lives.

With regard to the fact of opposition, Christ and the precursors of Christ in the Old Testament, such as the prophet Jeremiah, faced resistance to their message and even persecution to the point of death. Many Christians in the Roman Empire had the same experience – as do many Christians today. Indeed, we probably think of England as a civilized and gentle place, perhaps forgetting how brutal the persecution of Christianity has been in our own country in recent centuries. There are many areas of this country where any detailed Ordnance Survey map will show you the sites of destroyed abbeys and monasteries, a reminder that there was once a great Catholic civilization in these islands. This Catholic civilization built our first universities, like Oxford, our great cathedrals, like Durham, and founded our music, literature, art and science. Indeed, this civilization conceived the very notion of ‘England’: the Venerable Bede, a saint and doctor of the Catholic Church, is unanimously acknowledged as the Father of English History. In the 16th and 17th centuries this civilization came under sustained attack by a state that wanted to eradicate every last trace and memory of Catholicism, driving our priests into hiding in holes, like Jeremiah in his well of mud, in order to continue their work to a remnant of the Faithful. Even today in the England of the early 21st century, no Catholic is allowed to be monarch and many believe that the legal foundations of a new kind of persecution of the Christian Faith are being laid, a persecution based on a prohibition of the natural law, especially with regard to the family.

So the fact of persecution is clear, but the reason for it is more difficult to explain. Jeremiah was sent by God to save the people of Jerusalem: why then did they throw him into a well of mud? Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners: why then was he crucified? In the words of G. K. Chesterton, why does a ‘halo of hatred’1 surround the halo of holiness of the saints? Part of the explanation is simply that God is good and reasonable and we are not. As John’s Gospel states, in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. But the word ‘Logos’, which we translate as ‘word’, also means ‘reason’ and ‘order’. The one thing that God cannot do is to contradict himself since this would contradict reason. So God cannot approve of sin or condone sin, as this would be contradictory. So although God offers us eternal life and happiness in heaven, this life with Him cannot co-exist with sin. If we do not give in to God, if we do not allow Him to heal us by His grace, the conflicting desires in our souls between wanting the light and rejecting the light (by the desire for what is incompatible with the light) will give rise to disorder and anger. In the early 16th century, King Henry VIII wanted to be a good Catholic king; the Pope even gave him the title Defender of the Faith. But Henry VIII also wanted to abandon his lawful wife to marry a younger woman. When the Church refused to approve his action, since this would violate the laws of marriage established by God, the king in his anger launched a persecution of the Church which is still not quite over today, nearly five hundred years later. The King wanted to have it both ways: to be a good Catholic and yet receive divine sanction for his evil action. The Church can certainly forgive sin but can never call good what is sinful. As a result, for witnessing to the truth one might say that the Church in England was condemned to death in the 16th century. Similarly, it is for witnessing to the truth that many Christians face persecution in the world today.

How then does all this apply to our own lives? Just as on a large scale, so also on a smaller scale in our local communities, in our companies and places of work, in our schools and in our families, the same kind of drama is played out. Now in practice all Christians sin, but thankfully this is something God can deal with if we turn to Him. Indeed, the Church could be described as a hospital for sinners. But the Church can never call good what is evil, and the very difficult choice that so many Christians face in their lives is when they are asked, by agreement or silence, to condone evil. It is not easy in a company or place of work to stand apart on moral issues, to refuse to fall in with the flow of illegal and dishonest practices. Similarly, and no matter how gently it is done, it is often wrenchingly painful for Christian parents to confront their own children when they sin, or even for children to stand up to their parents. It is much easier to turn the other way, to have a quiet life and to ‘let sleeping dogs lie’.

Yet if we fail to confront sin we share in the guilt and we fail in love, a love which desires to save others as well as ourselves from the consequences of evil choices. Taking a stand for the truth will often divide our countries and our communities. Conflicting choices may even, tragically, divide our families. But conflicting choices cannot literally divide our souls, because we cannot choose both good and evil: we choose either one or the other. For heaven’s sake (and I say this literally), pray that God gives us the strength to hold fast to the truth.

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, Sacred Heart Church, Sunningdale, 19th August 2007

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1.    Chesterton, G. K. 1993. The Everlasting Man. Ignatius Press. Original edition, Dodd, Mean & Company, Inc., 1926. Part I, chapter 8 (concluding paragraph). For an online edition see www.worldinvisible.com/library/chesterton/everlasting/content.htm.

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