|Thursday, April 8, 2021|
Pontifical Urban University, Vatican City (Rome)
"Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?' Who are you, Lord? He asked, and the answer came, 'I am Jesus Christ whom you are persecuting" (Acts 9:3-9).
his article serves as Part 2 and conclusion of our earlier article, titled: "Easter and Precariousness of Bearers of Cross Today" (Part 1). Our aim in the present article is to highlight once again, how the post-Easter community of the apostolic church and disciples of Jesus, were gradually, led by their faith in the Risen Christ, to weld the storms of the post-Resurrection trials and persecutions they encountered as believers in Christ.
What are the lessons of this for Christian communities and disciples today, those enduring all kinds of trials and persecutions because of their faith in Jesus Christ or the way society is drifting or changing nowadays? What example Christians and Churches of today could draw from the experience of the apostolic Church and first century Christians? This is the trust of our present article!
The Challenge of Faith in the Risen Christ!
In his teaching on faith, Pope Francis says, "Faith is born of an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals his love, a love which precedes us and upon which we can lean for security and for building our lives." (Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter "Lumen fidei" (June 29, 2013), n.4).
In the Gospel of Luke, we read, "When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:8). Defending his disciples for acclaiming him, before some Pharisees, Jesus said, "If these were silent, the very stones would cry out." (Luke 19:40). William Shakespeare, in "Macbeth", tells us, "A traitor … is one that swears and lies."
When those who claim to profess Christ as their Lord and Savior, decide to remain silent before the Pilate, Herod or 'Pharisees and Sadducees' of today, the society and people will be disoriented. Because 'someone deprived of the light of faith is like an orphan, who never knew his father or mother. It is sad and dehumanizing to have neither father nor mother.'
In the words of Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea Conakry, for the first Christians of early Church, the faith, being an encounter with the living God manifested in Christ Jesus, was a "mother." Because it brought them to light, "it engendered in them the divine life, a new experience, a luminous vision of life for which one had to be ready to give public witness even to the shedding of one's blood, even to death." (Robert Cardinal Sarah, "The Day Is Now Far Spent", Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2019, p.27).
The question is, 'How did the early Christian community and disciples, under heavy persecutions and trials they passed through, were able to sustain their faith and to eventually, pass it onto us, to make it survive till our present day?' Speaking about John the Baptist, in the light of the trials and persecutions believers in him would often encounter, Jesus said:
"Since John the Baptist came, up to this present time, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence and the violent are taking it by storm." (Matt 11:12-15).
People often ask: 'What should we do in the midst of all these unpalatable things and trials we are passing through today as Christians and believing communities?' The lives and survival of Christians and Christian communities has nothing to do with the evil and violence existing in the world today. Neither is it a question of lack of sufficient human attempts on our part, to wrestle the trials and persecutions of our day through our human efforts and strength, all alone. That is, without anchoring it on daily prayer and in constant renewal of our faith in God through the power of the Risen Christ!
Because, there will always be trials and sufferings in this world until the renewal of the entire cosmos at the Second Coming of the Risen Christ. Any attempt on the part of man to anticipate it in the present circumstance will continue to be in vain. As is often said, "Peace does not mean absence of war or violence." The kingdom of God inaugurated in Jesus Christ, dwells in our hearts. It is the 'indwelling' of the Spirit of the Risen Christ, the Trinitarian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in our heart, soul and spirit. Peace in Christ, is a thing of the spirit, the indwelling spirit of God in us!
It is a thing of the spirit, since God is Spirit Himself. It is the 'indwelling' of the Spirit of God revealed in Jesus Christ in our innermost life, heart, soul and spirit. This is where God meets us as humans, and where we commune with him as our Creator, Redeemer and Savior through the power of the Spirit of the Risen Christ.
The life and sustenance of Christians and Churches has its source in the heart of the Risen Christ. In whatever circumstance Christians and Churches found themselves today or tomorrow, they must stay close to the heart of the Risen Christ, and in it. 'This heart that was pierced by the lance so that we might be able to take refuge there will be our house.' The life and continued survival of Christians and Churches rests on their union with the Risen Christ.
Without union with God revealed in the Risen Christ, all human attempt to survive as Christians or Churches, and the faith, will be in vain. Strong faith in the Risen Christ, prayer, love for God and neighbor, the Church, and mutual charity must become the priorities of our soul and all our activities as a Church and disciples of Jesus Christ. Otherwise, we sink to the level of world ideologies and 'media hypesters who make a lot of noise with their narrative of lies and deceit, producing nothing but wind.' In other words, prayer must become our innermost respiration. Prayer brings us face to face with God, and sustains us in the Spirit through the power of the Risen Lord!
The Fragility of the Early, Apostolic Christian Communities
As mentioned in our earlier article, the Risen Christ is alive today in his Church and in his followers - Christians and other good people. Another thing is that enduring patience in suffering and precariousness for the sake of the triumph of truth and the reign of God's Kingdom in our lives and society, is one of the greatest gifts of the post-Resurrection Christian community and early disciples of the Risen Christ to Christians and Churches of our day. It is an experience of the Apostolic Church of the first century Christian community, which tells us how the Risen Christ sustained and accompanied the post-Resurrection early disciples and the Church. This has continued to serve as paradigm for Christians and Churches in subsequent years throughout the ages.
The joy of the Resurrection from death of the Crucified Jesus and full comprehension of its significance was not something that came automatically to his traumatized disciples and believing community, so to speak. It took some time to mature in their faith and comprehension of the mystery of our redemption achieved for us by Jesus Christ through his death on the cross!
However, none of these early post-resurrection apparitions of Jesus was able, to yet, awaken the consciousness of his 'traumatized' disciples to the new reality, especially, their 'new state' of life in Him, now shaped by the story of "the empty tomb" and the Resurrection. No wonder, the Holy Scripture tells us that, the disciples, disappointed as they were, and following the story of the 'empty tomb', had to return to their traditional business of fishing and other occupations they were doing before they were called by Jesus at the beginning of his earthly ministry.
The disciples continued to live in fear of their lives from the political, judicial, religious and cultural authorities of the time that crucified Jesus on the cross. After the powers, that be, had crucified and killed Jesus, his disciples themselves became a target of all those powerful establishments that put Jesus to death.
Not until after the Pentecost Day, however, when they received the gift of the Holy Spirit - the Spirit of the Risen Christ, as promised them by Jesus Christ himself , that the disciples' fear and timidity became a thing of the past. These simple and 'unlettered' Galileans began to speak boldly with courage, and in different languages and tongues, in a way that marveled all those who had assembled at Jerusalem that year for the annual pilgrimage and feast of Passover.
From that moment onward, every fear of persecution or death in the name of the crucified Jesus Christ vanished from the heart and soul of his disciples, thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit they had received on the Pentecost Day. On the Pentecost Day, the Risen Christ inaugurated his new community, the Church.
The Church was born on Pentecost Day, some forty days after the Resurrection-Event. It was also, the day persecution of the Church and the disciples of the Risen Christ started, and has never ceased ever since. Ironically, as history testifies, the growth of the Church and Christian mission throughout the world had often been marked with the blood and sacrifices of persecuted Christians and the Church itself.
Therefore, persecuted Christians and Churches are the bearers of the cross of the crucified Messiah, Jesus Christ, in today's world. They are the 'prolongation' of the mystery of Jesus Christ crucified on the cross by the sinful men and women in the world today! Persecuted Christians and Churches of today are the ferment, divine presence of the crucified Jesus Christ in the world.
It is through the witness of persecuted Christians and Churches that Christ lives amongst us in the world today in a more visible and dramatic way. To persecute Christians or the Church is to persecute Jesus Christ himself. Persecution of Christians or the Church therefore, is the most visible way the world continues to crucify Jesus on the cross every day! All these are the initial instances of how the Risen Christ, gradually, led his apostles and other early disciples to the comprehension of their faith in him and significance of his death on the cross.
As noted in the earlier article, this is evidence from Paul's conversion experience on the road to Damascus, recorded by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts, chapter 9). Paul never met or knew Jesus Christ during the pre-Easter earthly life and ministry of the Son of God. Paul knew only Jesus Christ crucified and who rose from death. This revelation is thanks to Paul's conversion experience on the road to Damascus.
In his conversion experience, as we said earlier on, Paul learnt two principles lessons: Firstly, he learnt about Christology (who Christ is), and secondly, about ecclesiology (the Church). Paul learnt that Christ, although was crucified and died, but he is still alive. That Christ is still alive in his disciples and in his Church today, and until the end of time!
Another thing Paul learnt in his conversion experience is about the 'new era' or rather state of life the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the death has inaugurated for humanity and entire cosmos. In the Letter to the Romans, Paul writes, "The night is far spent, and the day is at hand. Therefore, let us cast away the worms of darkness and put on the amour of light" (Rom 13:12). In another context, Paul writes, "If God is for us, who is against us?"
In other words, there was never a time the early Christian community lost sight of the ever-abiding presence of the Risen Christ and the power of His gift of the Holy Spirit, amongst them, as individuals and as a believing Christian community, the Church. Christ is ever-present in the world, through his Church and disciples. To persecute Christians or the Church is to persecute Christ Himself. The Church is the body of Christ. And as believers, we are members of that body of Christ, the Church. Through his Church and members, Christ is ever-present today in the world, in the power of His Holy Spirit. (Cf. 1Corinthians 3:16-17; 2Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians2:19-22; 5:25-32).
The Experience of the Early Churches of North Africa and Ethiopia
The survival of Christians and Churches in any place or country for that matter, whether in times of manifest persecutions, or in times of relative peace, has never depended and will never depend on human efforts or good will. Bible tells us that the battle is God's and victory is always on His side, no matter how long it may take (1Samuel 17:45-47).
In the Gospel of Matthew, we meet the episode of the disciple who thought it was through the sword he could defend Jesus before his tormentors and executioners. Jesus cautioned him thus:
"Put your sword back, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, who would promptly send more than twelve legions of angels to my defense? But then, how would the scriptures be fulfilled that say this is the way it must be? " (Matthew 26:52-54).
However, this does not diminish in any way, the Christian teaching on self-defense. Rather it re-enforces such Christian teaching on self-defense as the battle of God in which, Christians in the long-run are destined to triumph as victorious. This is the lesson of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Good always triumphs over evil. The children of death and darkness will never prevail over the children of God and light.
Therefore, in times of trials and persecutions, we should not expect that the survival of the Church and Christians would come from political maneuvering of compromised Church leaders or Christian politicians. No. The survival of Christianity in times of trials and persecutions as we learnt in Church history - experience of early Christian communities depends, to great extent, on the faith of Christians in the Risen Christ. If the faith of Christians today in the Risen Christ is shaky and compromising, then the future of Christian community in that particular geographical locus is at risk!
Again, as history teaches us, Christianity thrives more in times of trials and persecutions than in times of compromised relative 'peace'. Christian Saints and Martyrs are born and produced in times of trial and persecutions. In times of trials and persecutions, the people of God are challenged, not only to defend themselves and their faith with all their strength and might, but also and especially, to bear witness to that faith even unto martyrdom. Thus, the saying, "The blood of Martyrs is the seed of the Church." In times of trial and persecutions, what is expected of Christians is simply a strong faith in the power of the Risen Christ. This is Christian conviction on the efficacy of the power of the Resurrection, the triumph of the Cross of Jesus Christ over the powers and principalities of this world.
Another thing to be noted in the experience of early Christian communities is that those who stand firm in their faith and stay put in their ancestral lands to defend their faith and fatherland from the vandals and enemies of the faith, often come from the class of peasants and common villagers. Not necessarily, from the upper class or the so-called elites and politicians in big cities. This was the experience of the Coptic Church in Egypt and the Ethiopian Church of the early Christian centuries.
In those areas of North African Patristic Church in Egypt and Ethiopia, when vandalism and persecutions of Christians and Churches ensued, what happened? To the surprise of all, both politicians, church leaders and famous theologians, scholars and elites at the Metropolitan centers of power who had been calling the shoot, all ran away to Constantinople in Greece, leaving the peasant and poor Christians living in peripheries to their fate. However, as Providence, would have it, these peasants were the ones that rose up to the challenge, defended their faith in Christ, saved their Church and fatherland from total eclipse at the hands of the enemies.
Therefore, if anybody today, thinks that at the time of crisis and persecution, those who will fight and save the Church and Christians will come from the members of the upper class - the ruling class or elites in big cities who control political power and influence in the society, the person is deluding himself. History teaches us, that at the time of crisis, persecutions and trials of Christians and the Church, it is the poor, peasant Christians living in the remotest part of the land that will take the horse by the horn and save their local church and fatherland from the vandals and enemies of the faith.
It is often the poor Christians and peasants living in villages and remote areas, who having fed-up with the incompetence and complacency of their leaders, Christian elites and politicians, that would rise up to the occasion. Take their destiny by their own hands, to say, enough is enough; it is time for us to defend ourselves, and community. 'We have waited enough for our leaders to do something but they have abandoned us to be killed like fouls by our enemies and oppressors.'
The poor masses would say, 'our leaders and politicians have left us and run into exile in foreign lands. Some of them have compromised with the enemy, sold our land and abandoned the faith of our fathers. Therefore, it is time for us, the peasants of the land, to defend ourselves and fatherland.' This was the experience of the remnant churches of the decadent Christianity of North Africa, which survived in the present Coptic Church of Egypt and Orthodox Church of Ethiopia.
As I wrote elsewhere, Christianity survived in Egypt and Ethiopia till our day, in spite of Muslim onslaught on the Churches in North Africa in the early centuries of Christianity. This is, thanks to the sacrifices and faith witness of peasant Christians of those Churches in that era. However, the vibrant Churches of the ancient Carthage in the Maghreb and those of the three Kingdoms of ancient Nubia (present-day Sudan), did not survive the Muslim onslaught because these were Churches of Metropolis, which left their vast rural areas unreached and un-evangelized.
In Egypt and Ethiopia, however, rural areas were centers of evangelization and monasticism. In these two Churches also, monastic life thrived in remote areas than in Metropolis. This wasn't the case, with the Churches of Carthage and Nubia, which were built around feudal centers and cities, neglecting the evangelization of the people living in rural areas. So much so that when the Arab Muslim invaders arrived Carthage, for example, all the Bishops, Priests and nobles in that city and elsewhere left the place and ran to Rome. The poor people in remote areas became targets of the invaders and were easily absorbed into Arab culture and Islamic religion.
This is why there is no presence of Christianity in that part of North Africa today, as such. The flourishing Church of Carthage, which produced such great theologians like Tertullian, Cyprian and Augustine, just died like that, and has never risen again ever since!
On the contrary, the Coptic Church in Egypt survived till present day, many years of Arab-Muslim conquest and persecutions, thanks to the resistance and faith conviction of ordinary Christian natives and simple monks living in remote villages, mountains and river valleys of the country. In fact, immediately the Arab invaders landed at the big cities of Alexandria and other places in Egypt, all the great Church leaders, theologians, scholars, elites and Christian politicians living in those cities were the first to run away to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), the then capital of the Roman Empire. Poor Christians living in villages were abandoned and left on their own, to be killed by Arab Muslim invaders, and with nothing to defend themselves.
Fortunately, these peasant Christians, relying on their faith in God alone and the power of the Risen Christ, mustered an extraordinary courage and strength, and with it were able to defend their land and Church. The Coptic Church we see in Egypt today was founded on the blood of those peasant Christian martyrs from villages who refused to run away like their Church leaders and politicians to the big cities and metropolis in Greece and other parts of Europe. The poor Christians living in villages and remote areas stayed back at the time of persecutions to defend their fatherland, local Church and Christian faith in Egypt.
This was also how Christianity in Ethiopia survived almost a millennium of isolation from the Christian world when Arab-Muslims took-over the control of Trans-Saharan routes and Horn of Africa. When Arab Muslims took over the Trans-Saharan Route and Horn of Africa, the Church in Ethiopia could not travel again to Alexandria in Egypt to consecrate a new Abun (Bishop), as was the custom until the Arab Muslim invasion of North Africa. For many centuries, the Church in Ethiopia had no Bishops and Priests. Under such circumstance, the peasant-natives, majority of whom were mere illiterates, took over control and maintenance of their Church. With that, they were able to keep Christianity alive in Ethiopia till our modern time.
In spite of difficulties of the present time, there is every reason for optimism for the survival of Christians and Churches experiencing persecutions and difficulties of any kind today. Because in the final-analysis, what is at stake is not so much about the survival of Christianity or Christians, which no human power can ever accomplish, otherwise it means evil people prevailing over the Church of Christ.
What is at stake today, in my estimation, as far as the survival of Christians and Churches are concerned, is the level of our comprehension of our faith in the Risen Christ. If on the one hand, for example, our faith and comprehension of who Christ is in our individual lives and as a believing community is low and inactive, then we are putting into danger the survival of our local Churches and people.
If however, on the other hand, our faith and practice of it, as well as comprehension of who Christ is, is as high as that of the Christians of the early Church, then we shall continue to bear witness to the power of the Risen Christ in our communities and fatherland. We shall save our faith, local Church community and fatherland from today's vandals and enemies of the Church and Christians.
Today more than ever, what we need are Christians convinced of their faith in the Risen Lord; Christians who are determined to bear witness to the Crucified Son of God, Jesus Christ, no matter the prize. This is the meaning of the following passages from the Gospel of Matthew about the calming of storm by Jesus:
"Why are you so frightened, you who have so little faith? And then he stood up and rebuked the wind and the sea; and there was a great calm." (Matt 8:26).
There is no cause for alarm about the future of the Church and Christians in our troubled world and societies today. Even for many years to come, until the Second Coming of the Risen Christ, the Church of Christ will continue to flourish and in good hand, through the power of the Risen Christ present in the lives of his disciples and believing community.
This is the meaning of the charge of the Risen Christ to his disciples when he appeared to them after the Resurrection, in Galilee: "Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations; … And look, I am with you always; yes, to the end of time." (Matt 28:19-20).