Sunday, May 25, 2014

A tangible hope! (Easter 6A)

I am a stronger and more confident Christian today than I was last Sunday.

Would you like to know what happened? A retreat maybe?  No: my annual retreat doesn’t start until tomorrow.

Perhaps a minor miracle? No such luck—I wasn’t healed of anything and my cold is worse than it was.

One breakfast and one dinner was all it took to refresh my faith and lift my spirits.

At breakfast on Friday, one of the members of our early morning men’s prayer group told the story of his faith journey. I felt like those Samaritans in our first reading listening eagerly to Philip describe the great works of God.

Friday dinner was less dramatic, but no less moving. I met a young scientist for the first time and found myself asking about his faith. With his wife and two children beside him at the table, he shared the ways in which God had shaped him and called him to be a fervent and joyful Catholic.

When I mentioned how encouraged and uplifted I was by his simple story, and how I’d felt the same thing just that morning, the man paused for a moment, then said “I think you’re experiencing a tangible hope.”

A tangible hope. A hope you can touch. Something near, not far off.

Don’t we all need that from time to time?  When raising your children in the faith seems an uphill battle?  When your own spiritual life is dry, when ministry doesn’t seem fruitful—all of a sudden there’s hope that warms the heart and keeps us going.

Hope springs up in many ways and in many places, but let’s look at my day on Friday. What did it take to lift up my drooping spirit? Two people, one a parishioner, and one someone I’d never met, telling their stories.

In our second reading today, St. Peter calls each one of to do the same. “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.”

Always be ready to explain your hope—it might be more realistic to say “get ready,” because witnessing to our faith can seem a very big challenge. Some of us might even feel it’s beyond us.

Yet St. Peter “is describing nothing less here than the task of evangelization that belongs to every Christian.”  [Daniel Keating, First and Second Peter, Jude, 85] He’s not talking to priests or good public speakers or to extroverts—sharing our hope is everyone’s duty—and everyone’s privilege.

It is a privilege because ultimately witnessing is a joy that strengthens our own hearts. Consider the e-mail I got this week from another parishioner: 

“Outnumbered six to one at a lunch-time discussion group where the subject was “Why modern society no longer needs religion.” Present: a professor from UBC, two retired captains of industry, one retired specialist physician, two retired self-made entrepreneurs; two Oxford Ph. D.s among them, all atheists.

“I am now really exhausted.....and happy.”

How could someone be happy after facing such a trial?  St. Peter gives us the answer: “Do it with gentleness and reverence.”

It’s clear from the rest of the reading that the people of St. Peter’s time were just as tough on Christians as atheists are today—maybe tougher. But he tells us not to respond to harshness with harshness.  Instead, we share our faith gently, and reverently.

We give reasons for our faith. We don’t impose; we propose. We don’t argue—we speak gently and with deep respect for the other person, as Peter tells us to do.

“The medium is the message,” concluded the Canadian intellectual Marshall McLuhan. When we answer our critics not like cutthroat debaters but with gentleness and reverence “we reflect the spirit of Christ himself.”  What’s more: it works. St. Peter’s approach is the effective one, since the goal is not “to win an argument, but to win others to the faith.” [Keating, 85]

Let’s look again at McLuhan’s famous saying. Certainly the way we witness can be called the medium. But the one who witnesses is also the medium, the means that transmits the message. And in this regard St. Peter makes two key points.

The first is that we need to have Christ in our hearts before we can share Christ with our lips. The men I’ve been telling you about today all have a living relationship with the Lord; that’s why they can tell others about him.

To sanctify the Lord in your heart means to put Christ first, to make my relationship to Him my life’s greatest value. "Aha!", you think. I can wait to evangelize until I’m the world’s best Christian.

Nice try. We can’t wait until we’re perfect before we start to preach. What’s more, we’ll find our relationship with the Lord grows stronger the more we share it.

On the other hand, St. Peter tells us to keep our conscience clear.  If the friend or acquaintance to whom we’re speaking knows we have serious unrepented sin in our lives, they’ll tune us out.  Getting our own house in order is certainly the first step of evangelization.

Let’s not forget that the most compelling argument we’ll ever offer is the argument of our own life.  We can preach wordlessly by our good example. And we can just as effectively contradict our words by bad example. Nothing is easier than dismissing the hypocrite—he says one thing, he does another. Or as the atheistic philosopher Nietzsche said “For me to believe in the Redeemer, his followers would need to look a lot more redeemed.”

Many of us feel a bit timid about evangelization. There are still plenty of Catholics who hear that word and want to duck under the pew. They think of earnest young Mormons knocking on doors, or Jehovah’s witnesses standing in the cold with their newspapers.

But that’s not the way we’re usually called to evangelize.  We do it at White Spot, at Starbucks, at dinner parties, at backyard barbecues with the neighbours. We do it even in the parish, when opportunities arise to share our journey.

But we do it.

And we don’t always wait for the invitation. When someone at work defends abortion in front of us, they’re opening the door for us to defend the unborn.  When someone who’s joined you on the golf course to make a foursome is critical of the Church, they’re giving us the chance to defend our faith.

In other words, this is everyday stuff.  The fortitude we need to put St. Peter’s words into action isn’t the courage of martyrs: it’s the “stuff” of every Christian.

I think my own experiences this week demonstrate how important it is for Christians to share their faith. My spirits soared because three people gave me tangible hope for the present and future Church. Imagine the results if this became the experience of the people who challenge us at home, school and work about what we believe and why.

Let’s offer our world “a tangible hope”!