Quo Vadis

Lent 3 2019

As I’ve said to you many times, I don’t believe in coincidence. The world is filled with random events and naturally occurring wonders but coincidence is more than that. Coincidence is God’s hand at work orchestrating events to gain our attention, often through a stunning or amusing way. For example, I told someone once that I thought the most beautiful dog I’d ever seen was a long-haired dachshund. Immediately following that discussion, I left the rectory to walk over to Jane’s house for something. I remember it well because as I was walking by the old YMCA someone came walking by me with two long-haired dachshunds! I had only seen a long-haired dachshund once before that and I’ve never seen one since. What? Tell me the Lord doesn’t have a sense of humor. I think that was God’s way of reminding me that he is listening to every word we speak.

Through a similar but more solemn coincidence this week, God got my attention. I was up late one night watching an old movie called Quo Vadis. Made in 1951, it was one of those Biblical epics, like The Ten Commandments or Ben Hur or The Robe that were popular with audiences in the ‘50s. By modern standards the movie Quo Vadis is kind of corny and stiff. Many of those old shows have dialogue like a cartoon. Nevertheless, it’s a good movie about a great subject. It tells a true story about the sad plight of Christians living in first century Rome. It shows Paul coming to Rome. It shows Peter preaching to a congregation meeting in the catacombs. And it shows the decadence of the Roman aristocrats, especially the young emperor Nero who wanted to be worshipped. Nero had big plans for Rome. He was going to fill it with temples built to himself. But to do that he had to get many people out of their homes; today we call it eminent domain. So the tyrant set fire to the city, causing massive destruction of property and the deaths of many innocent people. In order to excuse himself, he made scapegoats of the Christians, publicly blaming them for his own crimes. He then began to hunt down and kill the Christians. Many Christians died as a result of the persecution that followed Nero’s fire in the year AD 66. The movie shows them being fed to lions in the Coliseum while the citizens cheered. As hard as it is to imagine such cruelty, ordinary Christians in early Rome suffered extreme torture. The movie doesn’t show this, but there are reports that Nero used some Christians as human torches to light up the patio where he had a dinner party. The Roman pagan elite really did think that Christians, who met in secret and refused to worship the emperor, were deplorable. It became a hate crime in Rome to be a Christian. Christians, in that first generation, suffered prolonged persecution.

The title of the movie Quo Vadis comes from a legend about Saint Peter. When the persecution began, the Christians in Rome urged Peter flee the city in order to save himself and survive to preach the gospel and establish churches elsewhere. So Peter fled the city. But as he did, the Lord appeared to him in a bright light. Peter recognized Jesus in the light and falling down in adoration asked him in Latin, “Quo Vadis?” Meaning “Where are you going, Lord?” Christ replied to him, “I am coming to Rome to be again crucified.” And Peter asked him, “Lord, will you be crucified again?” And the Lord said to him, “Even so, I again will be crucified.” Peter said to him, “I will return and I will follow you.” And with these words, the Lord vanished from Peter’s sight. Then Peter, coming to himself, understood that it was of his own passion that Christ had spoken. Peter then returned to meet the death that the Lord had assigned him. Peter was crucified in Rome upside down, insisting that he did not deserve to be crucified head up as was the Lord. The place where Peter died is now the site of the high altar in St Peter’s Basilica. The Church of Domine Quo Vadis southeast of Rome was built on the spot where Peter encountered Christ in the divine light.

Quo Vadis is a good movie based on a beautiful legend about Saint Peter and Christ. But I would never have thought to make a sermon of it except that early the very next morning, after seeing that movie late the night before, I turned on “Life is Worth Living,” repeats of Bishop’s Sheen’s TV show from the 1950s. I like his old shows because he was an excellent teacher. His lesson that day was called, can you guess? Quo Vadis. He told Peter’s story and talked about Christians having courage in the face of persecution and keeping the faith in an age that is becoming increasingly pagan and hostile to Christianity. The coincidence of this stunned me. Clearly the Lord was telling me something. I mean, what are the chances that you’d see the movie Quo Vadis one night at midnight and then follow it up with a lecture first thing the next morning? I had never heard the story of Quo Vadis before seeing the movie that night. The coincidence took my breath away.

So, the question for me then became, “Lord, what do you want me to say about this?” My first thought was to talk about the persecution of Christians in our world today. The mainstream media, intent on portraying Islam as the religion of peace, buries many persecution stories. But religious news services on the internet report every day horrible atrocities committed against Christians around the world. Islamic armies in Nigeria have butchered 100s of Christians in recent months and destroyed entire villages. Several churches n France have recently been desecrated and one French priest was murdered by Moslem fanatics during a mass in 2016 at Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, in Normandy. Hindu fanatics in India have killed dozens of Christians there. The Chinese Communists are persecuting the churches and driving them underground and torturing leaders. In Libya they found bodies in a mass grave recently of Christians killed by ISIS. On and on it goes.

If this sort of thing happened to us in America, I wonder how many Christians in this country would have the courage to accept death rather than deny Jesus Christ. We don’t know. You can’t know whether you’d keep the faith in the worst circumstances until you’re faced with it. But one thing is sure, Jesus promised his church that the world powers would constantly be against it and that as they rejected and hated Him, so the world would hate and reject His church. When Jesus instituted the church, he also promised Peter that “The gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Nevertheless, Peter and all the 12 faced violent death. “Deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow me,” Jesus said. Those are hard, hard words. It means that to be a Christian, we must value Jesus Christ even more than our own lives. Anyone can be baptized as an infant and celebrate Christmas and call themselves a Christian. But the message of the New Testament is that you are a Christian in name only unless or until Jesus Christ becomes the most important person in your life. He needs to be more important than your wife or husband; more important than your kids; more important than your job. He died on a cross for us. He expects us to live for Him. He expects us to stand up for Him and for the truth of his gospel even in the face of violent opposition; even if it costs you your career, your fortune, or your life.

So my first thought was to write a sermon on the persecution of Christians. But as the week went on, I realized that the Lord wanted me to talk about something else. He wanted me to talk about the bright light. Many people, when they hear the “Quo Vadis'“ story about Peter, simply don’t believe the part about Christ revealing himself to Peter in a bright light. We live in a very skeptical age. Most people doubt that things like this really happen. So, they say that the story about Peter seeing the Lord in a bright light must be a fiction, a fable, a myth. Even though Jesus said “I am the light of the world” and the Bible tells us that “God dwells in unapproachable light”(1 Tim. 6.16), even though the Bible tells us that Jesus revealed his divine nature to Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor by transfiguring into bright light and even though we have the story told in the Book of Acts of how, after the Resurrection, the Lord appeared to Saint Paul on the Damascus road in a bright light, still people find such stories hard, if not impossible, to believe.

I was thinking about the “Quo Vadis” story and what I would say about it when I went to visit Josephine (a member of our church from Liberia, and a good friend of Bishop Hart). Her mother is dying and I went to take her communion and to pray with them. As we sat around the kitchen table, Josephine reminded me of a wonderful miracle that happened to her son Jonathan—a miracle much like what happened to Peter as he was fleeing Rome or Paul on his way to Damascus. Some of you may remember when Jonathan was 12; he suffered a life threatening attack of tachycardia. His heart began racing and nothing would slow it down. Josephine called me and I raced downtown to Johns Hopkins to join them. The doctors wanted to operate. But John would not allow it. He kept saying that “God will heal me.” So, we prayed. Then Josephine and I went out in the hall to talk in private. Jonathan later said that while we were in the hall, the Lord came to him in a bright light. He said he was afraid but then the Lord handed him a glass of milk to drink. He drank it and then the light vanished. After that, John’s heart rate was normal. They sent him home and told him never to play sports again. He said, “The Lord healed me. I’m fine” and he went on to play football on the varsity team in high school. John is grown up now. He’s in LA on a business trip. But the next time he’s in church, would anyone here wish to tell that boy that he didn’t meet the Lord that day and see the light of Christ? Little boys make up stories all the time, but they seldom get cured of cardiac issues while they tell them. To this day John attributes prayer to saving his life. His faith is a rock.

So through a series of coincidences the Lord gave me a message this week to deliver to you. Don’t ever doubt the real presence of the Lord in our lives. Only a few people will ever be blessed to receive a personal revelation of God as Peter, Paul, and Jonathan—our favorite acolyte—did. You and I will probably never see that bright light. But all of us are blessed by God every day. The Lord is with each one of us each step of the way. “I am with you always even to the end of the age,” Jesus promised his church. Everything the Bible tells us about Jesus Christ is true. Pray to him, he said. “Ask anything in my name and I will do it,” he said. “If you have faith so much as a mustard seed you can say to a mountain move and it will move”. Keep the faith and learn to pray and learn to love to pray. The more you pray, really pray from the heart, the more you’ll see what the saints have always known, that no matter what happens we have nothing to fear. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” is not just a line of sweet poetry. It’s the truth. Blessings abound for those who dare to believe the gospel and live that truth.

The Devil and His Hatred of Christ’s Church

1 Lent 2019

Every year on the first Sunday in Lent we read the story of Jesus’s spiritual battle with the devil in the wilderness, and every year, after hearing this story, many in the congregation yawn and say to themselves, “That’s just a legend. No one really believes in the devil, do they?”

You know me well enough by now to know that I believe in the devil. To which many say, “Well, sure, you’re the preacher, you kind of have to believe in the devil or at least say you do.” But no, I don’t have to believe in the devil or say I do. Many clergy in this country today, Protestant and Catholic alike are educated “open-minded” liberals who not only don’t believe in the devil, but don’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ ,or in the unique divinity of Jesus, or in the divine institution of the church. One man, who identified himself as a Presbyterian, explained it to me this way: “I go to church,” he said, “but I’m not religious.” The spirit of the modern age respects religion but denies divine revelation. In other words, we live in an age of agnostic unbelief, an age in which a majority of people say that they believe in God but who at the same time do not actually believe in the supernatural. If that sounds contradictory and confusing, it is. People today are very confused about religion. They aren’t sure who or what to believe. The confusion that characterizes the spiritual life of the American people has not happened by accident but by design. The work of the devil is to confuse people, and by confusing them make them vulnerable to doubt just enough that when it comes to making a decision for Christ they will hesitate and instead of saying, “Yes, I’m all in 100 percent for Christ” they will say,” I don’t know, I’m not sure.”

We can be sure of the existence of the devil for two solid reasons. One is that Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, who knew Satan before the creation of the world, taught his disciples that the world is in the grip of the devil. He called the devil “the father of lies” (Jn. 8.44). Since the Son of God, by virtue of his divine nature, cannot lie and always tells the truth (“I am the truth” he said [Jn. 14.6]), we can trust Jesus implicitly without doubt when he warns us that “your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1Pt. 5.8). But he also encourages us when he says, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and God will draw near to you” (James 4.7-8.) If you say that you believe in Christ but don’t believe in the devil you make him out to be a liar.

You don’t want to call Christ a liar because that is the unforgivable sin (Mt.12.22-31). Jesus made his reputation in Galilee initially as an exorcist. Following his example, the Catholic Church has priests who are exorcists, and the stories they tell are terrifying. An exorcist battles with the devil. It’s no joke. Demons sometimes possess a human soul, and when they do only an exorcist can expel them. Jesus performed an exorcism on a man in the synagogue in Capernaum (Mk 1.21-28). He exorcised a legion of demons from a man known as the Geresene demoniac. He drove the demons out of that possessed man and sent them into a herd of pigs which then leaped off a cliff (Lk.8.26-33). He did many other exorcisms openly in public. The Pharisees who witnessed Jesus’s exorcisms, however, did not trust him and said of him derisively, “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons” (Mt.12.24).That’s when Jesus asked them, “If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself, how then will his kingdom stand?”(Mt.12.26). Jesus not only knew Satan, the devil, but he had divine power over Satan and his whole army of demons. They were—and are—no match for him. Jesus taught a doctrine of the devil and proved it by performing exorcisms.

For those two reasons we can believe the devil exists but you must know this. God and the devil are not equal. Jesus is the Son of God. The devil is a fallen angel. Those creatures we call demons are angels who rebelled against God and were banished from heaven by God. Like all angels and demons, they are endowed with preternatural powers. Angels are stronger than humans but they are not divine; they are, like us, creatures of God subject to God’s judgment. At the time of the creation, when God created human beings in his image, many of the angles fueled by jealously and led by Satan, also called Lucifer or Beelzebub, rebelled against God. As punishment, God banished them to the realm of this earth to live among human beings of whom they are exceedingly jealous. As the story of Job reveals, the demons, under Satan’s direction, tempt, harass, and confuse human beings in an attempt to separate us from God. The devil’s greatest victory came early on in the Garden of Eden when, disguised as a serpent, he seduced Eve and led Adam into sin. This caused a split between God and human beings, making it impossible for human beings to have communion with God, thereby denying them the privilege of eternal life. The history of God and humanity could have ended there, with our permanent exile from God’s presence, with God remaining invisible to us and eternally distant from us. But God would not let his beautiful creation end in tragedy. God revealed the depth of his love for human beings by implementing a plan to redeem us from our sin by the offering of his Son. The Old Testament tells the history of how God announced that plan through the prophets of Israel and set the stage for Christ’s coming. God promised to send a Redeemer to liberate the heirs of Adam and Eve from captivity to the devil, a Savior who would rescue the human race from Satan’s evil grip and restore us to God’s good graces. Jesus Christ is that man. Christ came into the world to save sinners (1Tim.1.15) and to destroy the works of the devil (1Jn.3.8). What is the work of the devil? It is to drive a wedge between human beings, to harden our hearts against Christ and ultimately make us hate his one holy catholic and apostolic church.

Now I know what some of you are thinking. You’re thinking: Fr. String, really? This is the 21st century. You’re talking to us about angels and demons, the Garden of Eden and original sin, and a divine savior coming down from heaven to rescue us from the devil. This is obviously mythology. Come on, you don’t really expect us to buy into all this, do you? We’re educated people living in a modern liberal society. We’re not superstitious, illiterate peasants living in the dark ages. You can’t talk to us like this. It isn’t right.

Ok. You win. I just have one question for you. What do you think Christ meant when he said, “I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven?” What do you think his disciples meant when they said to him, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name” (Luke. 10.17–18).

Jesus taught us by word, (and his word is absolute truth), and by the example of exorcism done openly in public, to recognize that angels are as much a part of the created order as we are. He taught us that there are good angels who serve God and assist human beings on the way to salvation, that each of us has a guardian angel, for which we ought to give thanks daily in our prayers. He taught us also that there are legions of rebellious angels called demons who seduce human beings into sin and who conspire by tireless scheming to separate human souls from our Maker.

In other words, he taught us that if we want to attain salvation, we have to be willing to fight for it. God has fought the battle for us and on the cross God has won the victory. God has given us the victory through Our Lord Jesus Christ (1Cor. 15.51). But for us to share in that victory and for us to reap the rewards of that great battle, we must remain through life faithful to Jesus, completely faithful to Him. That is why he said to all those who would be saved, “Take up your cross daily and follow me.” We live our faith in Jesus by living as he did, resisting the devil. And we resist the devil by choosing every day and every step of the way to live for God trusting his word and obeying the teaching of his church. Attaining salvation is not easy. Christ suffered to the point of death on a cross to win our salvation. That’s the encouraging part of the gospel and the reason for our hope. But the gospel also challenges us to follow his example. We only have faith to the extent that we become like Him. And he warned his church from the start that following him would be difficult. When Our Lord said to Peter “On this rock I will build my church,” he praised Peter for receiving through faith the revelation of God and confessing that Jesus is the Christ, the True and only Redeemer of humankind, announced by the prophets and come in the flesh. But then he added this ominous warning that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Mt. 16.16–18). In other words Jesus warned his disciples and the future church that demons will stop at nothing to destroy our faith and to turn us away from Jesus. The church is constantly under attack from demons that wage relentless spiritual warfare against us.

There is no institution in the world more loathed and hated than is Christ’s one holy catholic and apostolic church. Why? Because there is no one is in the world more loathed or hated by the demons than Jesus Christ. They hate him because he came into this dark world like a light from God to expose the paganism and idolatry of this world for what it is. The demons had everyone in this word worshipping everything and everyone but God. As the psalmist said, “All the gods of the Gentiles are devils.” (Ps. 95.5 Douy-Rheims). There is only one true and living God and Jesus Christ has made him known. That is why the church is the most hated institution in this world. The church is the visible body of Christ in the world, the assurance of his real presence among us. Before Jesus ascended into heaven he promised his church “I am with you always even to the end of the age.” And on every altar in every church where the sacrifice of the Eucharist is offered and Christ’s body and blood is kept in the tabernacle, Jesus Christ is really present. He is here disguised humbly as bread and wine, but he is nevertheless really present among us in body, blood, and soul. And therein lies our joy because he is our rock and our salvation. The church he founded is the one true religion instituted by God. That is the meaning of redemption. Christ freed us from worshipping false idols to know the one true and living God.

The point of this sermon is a simple one. In this world with devils filled, (as Martin Luther said in that hymn we sang this morning) we have much to fear. But we have nothing to fear as long as we allow Christ’s Holy Spirit to possess us. As long as we keep our baptismal vows and remain loyal to Jesus Christ, allowing him to abide in us and we in him, we have in Him the assurance of salvation and the hope of eternal life. Many people are losing their salvation. The devil is having tremendous success in Europe and America today persuading people that they don’t need Jesus Christ; that his church has been to blame for most of the evils of this world, and that one religion is a good as another. Even the pope is going about now singing the praises of Islam and teaching people it doesn’t matter what religion you are—as long as you’re a good person, it’s all good. My friends, if that were true, Christ would never have had to become incarnate and die on a cross for our sins. When even the Pope is preaching blasphemy and sacrilege, you know the spiritual warfare in the heavenly places is intense. I emphasize to you: pray every day. Ask God to strengthen your faith and the faith of your loved ones. If you wish to see your family and friends in heaven, pray for them daily, fight for them because God knows, even if they don’t, that the demons are fighting against them. That is why Saint Paul admonished the church with urgency to “Put on the whole armor of God that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood” he said, “but against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph.6.10–12).

The secular socialist onslaught that is rapidly transforming this nation into a Christophobic pagan empire not unlike first-century Rome is systematically poisoning millions of souls against Christ and turning them away from his one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Christ created the church to continue his mission, to save souls from the eternal fires of hell that Jesus said God has prepared for the devil and his allies (Mt. 25.41). This work takes courage; this work takes faith. This work takes prayer. The story of Jesus confronting the devil in the wilderness confronts each of us with this question: Do you have what it takes to be a Christian in this increasingly Christophobic and post-Christian age? When the devil looks you in the eye and asks you, “ “Do you have what it takes? Are you sure? Are you really sure you want to believe in that little Jesus of Nazareth. I nailed him to a cross. I can do worse to you. Why do you want to have me for your enemy, when I could so easily be your friend?” When that day comes and it will, remember that the answer you make to that question will reveal the depth and maturity of your faith.

The man who performed miracles and the crowds that pressed against Him

Epiphany 6

All the crowd sought to touch him, for power came forth from him and healed them all” —Luke 6.19

Have you ever seen a celebrity in person? People often go wild when they do. We were at a play one night near Times Square. The show was boring, so at intermission we left the theater. We no sooner stepped outside than we heard women’s voices and saw a lot of commotion. I looked away for a moment and when I looked back my wife was gone. She had run into the crowd and joined the screaming fanatics. There was a man standing beside me, likewise bewildered. I asked him, “What’s going on?” He said, “I have no idea, my wife just suddenly ran into the crowd.” The cause of this riot was: Al Pacino. I guess he had also been at the show and left early, and when the women saw him they all went nuts. The crowd pressed in on him wanting to see him up close and touch him. I’m glad we left the play early. It was a spectacle to behold, and I have to admit to being jealous. I wish I could have that effect on women; it might have changed the course of my life. I just don’t draw big crowds and women generally run from me.

Jesus also drew big crowds. But why? I can see why Al Pacino would draw a crowd. He’s a big star. But Jesus was not a movie star. Up until about two months before this event recorded in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus had been an unknown. He was just a guy living quietly with his mother in the unimportant town of Nazareth. But John the Baptist had been a kind of star. Israel was a very religious country and John was viewed by many as a prophet, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord.” And John had given his blessing to Jesus, indicating to the crowds who had come to the Jordan River to hear him preach that they should look to Jesus. So, John the Baptist made Jesus a kind of religious celebrity. But then Jesus disappeared into the wilderness alone to pray for six weeks. It’s easy to be forgotten in six weeks. So the fact that John had pointed to Jesus as the one whom Israel had been waiting for doesn’t alone explain the sudden explosion of Jesus’ amazing popularity among the Jewish people.

Billy Graham could draw great crowds, and the Pope in any generation can draw massive crowds of the faithful. But Billy Graham had a well-organized machine helping him. His rallies were planned weeks in advance. And the same is true of the Pope. He seldom if ever just shows up somewhere in the street unannounced. So how is it that Jesus, a relative nobody from Nazareth, could excite such large spontaneous crowds wherever he went?

He could draw crowds to hear him preach because he had a charismatic personality, a good delivery, a great message, and the endorsement of John the Baptist who had pointed to him as the one on whom Israel could pin its highest hopes. But Jesus had one more thing going for him that no one else had. He had power; power to heal every disease and infirmity. He could do things that no one had ever done before. Every tribe has had its great medicine men and holy men, its great healers, and its wisdom teachers. But Jesus took it to a whole new level. There was seemingly nothing he could not do. And so the crowds followed him wherever he went and continued to grow because hurting and suffering people wanted healing. There were many in Capernaum that saw him heal a paralyzed man and many others saw him in a synagogue restore an insane demoniac to perfect sanity. The crowds of sick and suffering souls swarmed to Jesus because the word on the streets was that he could work miracles. And he didn’t disappoint them.

This is where, for modern men and for strong liberated women, the story of Jesus becomes complicated. It’s complicated because we want to believe what the Bible says about Jesus and what the church teaches, but the first premise of the modern age is that there is no such thing as miracles. Miracles are events whose cause is supernatural. But the philosophical foundation of the modern age is scientific naturalism, the unassailable belief or secular dogma that everything about human life and the universe we inhabit can be explained by natural causes alone without reference to a Divine Creator. The modern age is a secular age that holds steadfastly to a blind faith, a vain philosophical premise beyond question, that divine grace may not be invoked as an explanation for anything. And anyone who does is just being superstitious or unreasonably romantic; a denier, if you will. According to the modern philosophy a mature and intellectually responsible realist believes that every phenomenon in this world, especially the many miracles ascribed to Jesus, have scientific natural explanations. The faith of the modern age is that if we can’t explain something now, eventually science will explain it. Science will show that God had nothing to do with it. God is an illusion.

So you see the problem. If God had nothing to do with it, how do we explain the miracles of Jesus? And how do we account for the crowds that swarmed around him, trying to touch him? Why does Luke say that “power came forth from him”? What power did he have? If it wasn’t by God’s grace that he healed the blind cleansed lepers, and cured the sick, by what power did he do these things? If it was his own human power— some special talent he had—why didn’t he say so? Why did he lead people to believe that his power came from God? Was Jesus a deceiver, nothing but a magician? That’s what those who doubted him said he was. They said he was demonic, and that his power came from Satan. The doubters today don’t say that. They say that Jesus was a good man but they say that his apostles were the real deceivers, that they invented all these fantastic stories, stories about events that in fact never happened. And when I say “modern age,” I’m not saying that this era of hyper-skepticism began with the higher Biblical criticism that came into vogue in Germany in the last century. The modern age that made an idol of human reason began in the mid 1700s, a period known ironically as “the Enlightenment.” The quintessential Enlightenment intellectual was Thomas Jefferson, a man of corrupt sexual morals with no faith in miracles. He called the twelve Apostles not “saints” but “mountebanks and charlatans” and then engaged in a project to edit the New Testament in such as way as to exclude all the miracles. The fact that Americans have been raised to idolize Jefferson goes a long way towards explaining why our churches today are so mind-numbingly liberal and largely ineffectual. God doesn’t like being dismissed as an illusion. Our Lord doesn’t like it when we insult his Apostles.

And let’s, for a moment, remember Jesus’ Apostles. In relating the story of the calling of Peter and Andrew, and James and John, Luke tells us that they were moved to follow Jesus because of the miraculous catch of fish. They had not caught much that night. But Jesus told them to take their boats out a ways and then drop their net. They then hauled in so many fish that it filled the boat. These young men were so impressed by what they had heard and seen in Jesus that Luke said, “They left everything and followed him” (Lk. 5.11). It takes a lot for men to leave their jobs and their wives and their homes and devote themselves to a guy they had just met. Their commitment to him says something. On the other hand, the world is full of clever charismatic leaders who have gained a fanatical following. But not many go on following when the leader dies in disgrace. And fewer still are willing to die for their belief in that leader decades later. James was beheaded. Peter was crucified. John was boiled in oil. Bartholomew was flayed alive. On top of all the other miracles they had seen him do, they were beheaded, crucified, boiled in oil and skinned alive rather than deny that Jesus had revealed himself to be God by raising himself from the dead. Who but God could do such a thing? Their enduring faith in Jesus speaks volumes, does it not?

The skeptics will argue that the Apostles’ devotion to Jesus was impressive but that they were mistaken about his miracles. That although we can’t yet explain how Jesus did whatever he did, that there must be a natural explanation for all of it. And one day science will explain it and on that day don’t you know we’ll all be rising from the dead. It’s inaccurate to say that the modern age is faithless. The modern age lives and dies by a blind faith fanatically held in the power of science to explain everything about life and this universe. And that is why so many millions today are lost souls, wandering hopelessly through this valley of tears with no clue as to the true meaning and purpose of life. When you fall victim to a fallacious philosophy that denies the soul and insists that human beings are no more than the sum of their chemical parts; when you begin to see yourself as nothing more than a random collocation of atoms, a complex piece of tissue no different in essence from an amoeba, a direct descendant of apes, don’t be surprised if you begin to act like apes and wiggle through life aimlessly like amoebas. It matters greatly what you think a human being is. The great gift that Christ came to give us is knowledge of ourselves. What is a human being? We are all sinners in God’s sight. What dignity then have we? Who are you that I should care about you more than any other beast in the jungle? We are the creatures for whom Christ died on the cross; that‘s who we are. We are the reason there is a universe and you, my friend, are the reason Christ redeemed it.

After Peter had hauled in that enormous catch of fish, he fell to his knees and begged Jesus, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” But rather than depart from him, Jesus called Peter to join him on the mission. “I will make you a fisher of men,” he said. What Peter would learn was that Christ came into the world to save sinners, a task he would accomplish by dying on a cross for the sins of us all. Christ came to lift Adam’s heirs out of the abyss of idolatry and paganism into which we had fallen and reveal to us the truth about life. We are not on this beautiful earth by chance for no reason. We are each here for a very specific purpose. God made us in his own image, as a living souls, so that we might love him and love others and by so doing prove ourselves worthy of the kingdom of Heaven into which he calls us each by name. That is why Jesus did not depart from Peter. Jesus loved him. And when you love someone you don’t give up on them.

The modern age has given up on God. But don’t you give up on God. Trust in God, as the prophet said, and for your faith God will reward you. Don’t be among those who discount Jesus’ miracles as so many transparent fictions. Believe in him as the Bible says and by the power of God’s grace that came forth from him, Jesus will heal you. On the deepest level, Jesus will give you the reason for living. Living is not easy. He will not make it easy but he will fill your heart with the sure and certain hope that all the suffering we have to endure in this world is worth the glory yet to be revealed (Rom.8.18).

You may feel like saying, “Okay, but the people back then could actually reach out and touch him. That made it easier for them to believe in him.” But Our Lord, foreseeing that difficulty, went to great pains to make up for it. He knew that future generations would need to touch Him as well, so He gave them the means to do that. “I am with you always even to the end of the age,” He said before ascending into heaven. He ascended to the Father but Christ has not abandoned us. He is present among us, really and truly today, as he was then. “Where two or more of you gather in my name, there I am in the midst of you,” He promised, (Mt. 18.20). Jesus Christ comes to his faithful people around the world every day disguised under the appearance of bread and wine, and when the faithful reach out to receive Him, the power of God’s grace flows forth from Him. Just as He did then, so He does today. Whatever your suffering, whatever your sin, when you come to the altar of God kneeling before Him, give it all to Him and He will give his grace to you. And there will come a moment in that exchange when you will know that everything, absolutely everything, written about Jesus in the Bible is true. And then you will have learned the hard way, as repentant sinners must do, that the true purpose of life is to know Him and to love Him who loves us without end.

Fr. Jansen String