We Must Obey God Rather Than Men
by Fr. Chrysostom Baer, O.Praem.
“[The apostles] left the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.”
If you were listening carefully, you might have scratched your head over exactly what dishonor the apostles were rejoicing about. They were simply commanded to stop preaching Jesus as the Christ Who was put to death at the envious instigation of the Sanhedrin. The answer is something strange, even within the context of the Bible translation we use. We hear, “The Sanhedrin ordered the apostles to stop speaking in the name of Jesus, and dismissed them,” but when this very same passage was read previously we heard, “After recalling the apostles, they had them flogged, ordered them to stop speaking in the name of Jesus, and dismissed them.” The dishonor was each of the twelve getting a royal beating in front of the ruling council of chief priests and Pharisees.
Why the editors of the lectionary couldn’t be bothered to copy and paste the same way twice may forever remain a divine mystery, but at least what it means to suffer dishonor for Christ is now manifest. And as we instinctively apply the principle to our daily lives, we recall the Coptic Christians who were beheaded on ISIS shores in recent years, or the Missionaries of Charity in Yemen, and we rest assured of their great, eternal exultation. But what of that witness to Jesus which leaves no welt, no bruise, no scar? How can we rejoice?
There are kinds of dishonor that surround us and are interwoven into the fabric of our society until we don’t even think of them as the same ilk as what real martyrs suffered. And yet they are. Recently in Time Magazine there was an article on pornography, in which a young man relates how he swore it off not for the sake of morals but for greater stallion-like performance. Now wait a minute. How insulting is that, that Christ Jesus is considered not a sufficient or relevant motivation to abjure an addiction most universally censured, even by the addicted?
When I attended a Catholic High School here in Orange County, one teacher asked us, “How many of you are Catholics?” And when most of us raised our hands, she further asked, “Now, how many of you believe everything the Church teaches?” What is the insinuation, if not that, rather than the revelation of God being the rule and measure of our judgments, the unformed minds of teenagers were the rule and measure of the truth of God’s revelation?
Examples abound beyond reckoning. A faithful husband to a less faithful wife is quickly counseled to cut ties; and this, of course, is followed by encouragement to find another, more faithful wife—even though Jesus is crystal clear that marriage lasts until death as a sign of His unbreakable love for His Church. The federal government is happy to impose upon Catholic employers violations of conscience for the sake of so-called health care, a euphemism for artificial contraception. One final instance: What is the most usual way to portray a Catholic priest in entertainment? In all these ways, little snubs, subtle undercuts, laughing behind their hands follow us everywhere we go. It’s a gentler, more civilized form of persecution, but the difference between us and the apostles is one of degree, not kind. If they could rejoice at the dishonor of flogging, we should too at whatever insult gets hurled our way.
But how is this possible? The reality of the situation not only lies completely hidden but is also inverted, standing on its head. We get a glimpse of this in the Second Book of Kings, when the army of the Arameans surrounded the town where the prophet Elisha was staying to capture and kill him. His attendant feared for their lives, until Elisha prayed for God to open his eyes, and then the youth saw the angelic armies filling the mountainside to keep them safe. But what Elisha and his aide saw on earth was a faint echo of what goes on in heaven.
The apostle John heard angels and elders and living creatures cry out, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing.” There is a correspondence here. Jesus dies on the cross, and the heavenly host sing, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.” The apostles are given a good, sound beating, and the heavenly host sing, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.” We endure the urbane persecution of our culture, and still the heavenly host sing, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.” How?
When we were made one with Christ Jesus in Baptism, we did not simply assume the accolades for His victory over sin and death, nor is it merely that we can now be seen by God as God, though both of these are true and infinitely above what we deserve. No, to be one with Christ means, more profoundly than our being with Him, His being with and in and through us. When we love, He loves in us. When we persevere, He perseveres through us. Or better said, when He loves in us, then do we truly love; when He perseveres through us, then only do we persevere. Our little victories, therefore, are nothing less than the universal victory of Jesus Christ crucified refracted through us. “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain”—in me, in you, today, in California.
Lift the veil from this world, and then we see the inverse of what we thought was happening: cosmic struggles, powers of angels and demons, God and Satan—the most signal victories or defeats in the smallest matters by ordinary people. Those who barely have strength to withstand gentle religious harassment are in reality supported by the heavenly host, whereas Scripture tells us that those who seem unstoppable in this world God laughs to scorn. And when God laughs, so do all the angels and saints. But even more poignantly, it’s not as if there are parallel chess boards, one down here below and one up above. The suffering of dishonor for the sake of the name of Jesus and the angelic cry, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain,” happen in the same place. You and I are the battlefield, and if Christ is victorious through us, then He takes His triumph in us, too, right here.
This may become all the clearer when we recall the most beautiful instance of this reality hidden from mortal sight, a reality that inverts conqueror and conquered, a reality that brings God’s conquest within us to act through us. I’m speaking, of course, of the Holy Eucharist. When we receive Holy Communion worthily, we acquire the very power of God to be victorious over sin and death concealed in the sign of His death for sin. But unlike other food which changes into us when we eat it, we by eating become the Lamb that was slain.
We read that after the apostles left the Sanhedrin, “all day long, both at the temple and in their homes, they did not stop teaching and proclaiming the Christ, Jesus.” Surely, they were not flogged always and everywhere; much more likely they encountered one form of resistance or another of a less bloody nature. But they let nothing stop them. Why not?
“We must obey God rather than men.” Great tagline. This should be the motto of twenty-first century Catholics in America. We must obey the eternal, permeating truths of reality—that God’s power works best when our worldly defeat is most unequivocal, that the most meager insult to our faith is a victory for the Lamb that was slain, and that the angels and saints praise that victory in us when and where it happens—this we must obey rather than obey the ephemeral appearances of convenient self-delusions—that the power of men is too great so we must capitulate to it, that Christ’s truth is simply irrelevant to modern man, and that heaven is not here because its strength is not within us.
“We must obey God rather than men.” When we receive Holy Communion, may this be our prayer and our watchword and our glory as we face our forthcoming dishonor for the name of Jesus, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we are to be saved.
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