Give Me Jesus
As I have been of late studying early Christianity and its meteoric rise in the ancient world, what stands out — as sociologist Rodney Stark points out — is that its rapid expansion resulted from a courageous, consistent and person-to-person witness of faith in the Risen Jesus. The gradual conversion of the Empire prior to the Edict of Milan, you might say in sum, was effected by the word of mouth and shedding of blood.
And Christians brought with them a very specific worldview, and ethos that flowed from a Jewish heritage read through the Gospel of Jesus. A second century Christian author described this remarkable and radically new ethos:
…there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.
They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.
Reason informed by faith
As I thought about this, I realized how important it is to affirm that many of the moral ideals Christians are presently fighting to defend as true (e.g. monogamous and heterosexual marriage, sexual acts as marital acts, abortion as homicide) have a history, and are intimately linked to the distinctive theological worldview that emerged from a specifically Christian history. Early Christians largely operated under the assumption that the best way to convince others of their moral beliefs was to expose them to the life-giving power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and invite them to receive the Holy Spirit in a community of faith laden with grace-filled sacraments and divinely revealed teaching. And while reasoned arguments in support of the truth of their claims could help pave the way for others to receive this Gift, there could be, for Christians, no substitute for the the reception of Gift itself; for to receive the Gift was to receive both the whole truth (divine revelation) and the means to live the truth (the gift of grace).
I guess what I’m saying is that while the use of persuasive reasoned arguments about the natural moral law in regard to marriage, sexuality and abortion are an absolutely Catholic approach to cultivating a culture of life and a civilization of love, we can’t rely on this approach to the marginalization or exclusion of what is the Church’s most fundamental mission: to evangelize. Living faith, Christians affirm, not only clarifies, affirms and grounds in us what is true and good, but gives us the inner resources to do what we know is true and good. Or as Ezekiel 36:26-27 would have God say it:
I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you so that you walk in my statutes, observe my ordinances, and keep them.
Let me offer an example of the importance of this “distinctive,” the gift of faith. While she was suffering terribly at the end of her life, St. Therese made this astonishing admission: “Yes! What a grace it is to have faith! If I had not any faith, I would have committed suicide without an instant’s hesitation.” Her caretaker, after Therese’s death, said:
Three days before she died, I saw her in such pain that I was heartbroken. When I drew near to her bed, she tried to smile, and, in a strangled sort of voice, she said: “If I didn’t have faith, I could never bear such suffering. I am surprised that there aren’t more suicides among atheists.”
Let us embrace our faith, give thanks for our faith, and share with others around us the hope that is within us: Jesus Christ, dead and risen! Alleluia!