Fourth Sunday in Easter

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All Nations Shall Serve Him

I have made you a light to the Gentiles,
that you may be an instrument of salvation
to the ends of the earth.
Acts 13:47

I, John, had a vision of a great multitude,
Which no one could count,
From every nation, race, people, and tongue.
They stood before the throne and before the Lamb.
Revelation 7:9

How Paul and Barnabas fulfilled the mission that brought every race and nation before the throne of God is the mystery of grace that works in the world to the glory of God, fulfilling John’s vision of the conversion of the vast multitude of the elect, citizens of the Kingdom of God.  It is a kingdom spread not by violence but by loyalty to its convictions and love in its witness to the world.  Daniel prophesies of Christ: “To Him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, races, and tongues should serve Him” (7:13–14).  

          Blessed John Henry Newman in the sixteenth of his Sermons on Subjects of the Day described the Church as an imperial power, and scripture is insistent that the kingdom of Christ is not an idea or a philosophy but a kingdom whose king rules hearts in a way that commands their first loyalty, so that the Church of God in history is aggressive, not with an army but through an invincible, unbending witness. That witness begins in Hebrew Scriptures.  The Three Children will not worship the king’s idol (Daniel 3:8–4:30).  In 168 Mattathias the Maccabean cannot tolerate the conquest of the Jewish heart and nation by the culture of the Greeks (I Maccabees 2).  For three centuries, from Pentecost to Constantine, the martyrs would die, until their witness brought the Roman Empire into the empire of Christ.  The apostles will seek peace but when the day comes they will obey God rather than man.   Thomas More and the Carthusians do not attack the King for his unlawful marriage but they will not bend to it. In the exercise of its authority and discipline the Church offers not anger but steadfastness witness.

          Much of that witness does not overtly challenge the world by refusing to abandon loyalty to Christ in persecution but offers an example of life that is steadfast and full of converting power.  Leo XIII, when novel apologetic methods that involved suppression of hard truths so as to be appealing to the world were proposed,  described what ought to be the great Christian apology to the world in his letter to Cardinal Gibbon in 1899:

The scriptures teach us that it is the duty of all to be solicitous for the salvation of one’s neighbor, according to the power and position of each. The faithful do this by religiously discharging the duties of their state of life, by the uprightness of their conduct, by their works of Christian charity and by earnest and continuous prayer to God.

These actions lack the drama and sentimentality of twentieth century apology, but such witness has conquered kingdoms.  It is a device of Satan to collapse the charitable duties of Catholics into ‘service’ and to break the strength of Christian steadfastness with a sentimental rhetoric of mercy, when in fact the greatest charity the Church can show the world is its witness to the immutable truths of God, to direct our love to Him, the absence of which love, in Eliot’s unforgettable image, leaves a grey world of dead souls marching over London bridge.

          The presupposition of the kingdom of God as it makes its way in the world is justice.  With regard to nature it is the justice that makes the stars move in their appointed patterns and the seasons follow in right order, and although nature like man bears the mark of the fall, and is itself groaning and travailing (Romans 8:22), there is in it a striving for order and a rejection of chaos.   This is the justice that is the eternal rightness that God has put in creation.  In His dealings with mankind, ever impaired by primordial disorder of the will, God’s justice is not an abstraction but is directed toward the good of every creature.  God’s justice, says Saint Thomas, is rooted in His mercy, and of His mercy He gives to each creature what properly belongs to that creature.  The great Dionysius will say “We must needs see that God is just, in seeing how he gives to all existing things what is proper to the condition of each, and preserves the nature of each one in the order and with the powers that properly belong to it.”  Mankind is unique among creatures, for while the justice of God may steady the planets in their orbits and ensure the pattern of the seasons, God’s  relation to His fallen creatures must begin with an act of mercy because unless He gives us something of Himself, His grace, there is nothing in us that deserves   mercy.  And the greatest gift is the gift that enables us to answer His call. 

But His gift of mercy is not given in order to obviate God’s justice but to fulfill it, so that we may through God’s love be brought to conform with His will which is always for the eternal rightness. It is among the particular follies of modernity that, broadly, we its citizens find it easy to understand justice in superficial ways and difficult to grasp its deeper meaning.   It is easy among a race blinded by ignorance to conceive justice as nothing more than an instrument of punishment, but while God’s justice is the ground of punishment, before it punishes it first educates, for it first teaches the beauty and goodness of the justice of God to which all honor and obedience is due.  It is also part of common contemporary understanding that justice is the ground of my rights, sins against which we are quick to call unjust, little realizing that such violations cannot be unjust, but must merely be impositions or exercises of power unless they are grounded in the transcendent justice of God.   And again there is the willed ignorance of the guilty, among whom the thought that there is a judge eternal immediately casts up a fog of denial.     

            The Church and its citizens have as their character and mission the recasting of experience from a world of grey and wandering irresolution into the strong colors of reality representing the justice of God, which in both its righteousness and its mercy informs the apostolic empire that seeks through its witness and its holy power to conquer human hearts until the end of the age, when the King will return, and when the great multitude from every race, nation and tongue will stand before the throne of the Lamb to sing His glory.  

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