Karl Marx famously described religion as the opium of the people, by which he meant that religion was a comforting message that distracted people from the horrors of life. There is no doubt that religion can be used by the oppressor to act as a sort of social glue to keep the show on the road, support the status quo, and help people to whistle past the graveyard. But all of this is radically at odds with the message of Jesus who pulls no punches when he describes what lies ahead for all of us. He speaks of a time when there will be wars, revolutions, earthquakes, plagues, famines, and fearful sights. Then there are the sufferings that will be there only for believers: persecutions, imprisonment, treachery, family disarray, being reviled and even killed. There is very little comfort in this kind of religion; no opium here to help one cope with the pain and stress of life. On the contrary it is a call to open your eyes and view the suffering around us without any false hopes or illusions.
How seriously should we take these gospel predictions about the end of this world and the day of judgment?” Certainly, at a personal level we need to keep in mind life’s one great certainty, that one day we will die. The moment of death will put an end, absolutely and beyond recall, to all our works, all our plans, all the seemingly vital concerns which lend a certain purpose to our daily involvement. Every human soul that has cast off this worldly body goes forth into the unknown like a traveller entering into unexplored territory. Cardinal Newman once wrote about the hereafter, “Do not fear that your life shall come to an end, but rather that it shall never have a beginning.” It is when our new life begins that understanding of our present life will be clear to us, how we carried out our role in the spread of God’s kingdom.
When Luke was penning these pages around 80 AD, his church was already experiencing wave after wave of persecution. Many of the apostles were already dead and Christianity was a banned religion throughout the Roman Empire. What Jesus has prophesied had become a stark reality. In our own uncertain times, there are still wars and rumours of wars, earthquakes and disasters. Our Christian brothers and sisters are being brought before the tribunals, harassed and persecuted. Even where the church is at peace not all is well. There are profound and unsettling changes taking place in the world today that are shaking the very roots of Christianity. This crisis calls for us to be alert and to seek in Jesus the light and energy that we need to read and live out these times clearly and responsibly.
Even though Jesus paints a gloomy picture this is not what he wants to emphasise. Rather, his emphasis lies on his disciples’ life in the world in the meantime before his return in glory. And this “meantime” is the crux – “but before all this happens…”. His Christian disciples are to be women and men and children of hope and courage and joy, each in their own time and place.
For some strange reason the second reading ends at verse 12 instead of verse 13 which forms a natural conclusion to the paragraph. It reads: ‘my brothers and sisters, never grow tired of doing what is right.” In the meantime, this is what Jesus is calling us to do, to never grow tired of doing what is right. St Paul is wise in recognising the fragility of our resolutions, the wearing down and wearing out of our good intentions in the abrasiveness of daily living. It takes courage to stick at what is right over time. Courage and large-heartedness, – what used to be called magnanimity – being big-souled in putting up with the hassle, bustle, the inertia, and all the various frustrations of life, with a warm hearted, strong-minded, large souled perseverance.
In these disconsolate days, Christ calls us now, in our time, to become courageous–and even long-distance–bearers of hope and joy. Difficult times are an opportunity to testify, to be loyal to Jesus. It is not a time to wallow in nostalgia, discouragement or resignation. Rather it’s precisely now that we need to reawaken in ourselves the call to be humble but convincing witnesses of Jesus, of his message, of his project. The Christian vision does not deny the reality of evil, of brokenness, of suffering and sorrow and the fragility of goodness. But there is a transformative agenda to all Christian engagement. In the transfiguring light of the Risen Lord his disciples are called to confront evil and even to suffer under it, but also to curtail its power, to cherish signs of life and light and love and help them to flourish.
The heart of today’s gospel is not about doom sayings or apocalyptic sign but a call by our Master to a lifestyle of transfiguring Hope, large-heartedness, courage and joy. We are to avoid Utopian dreams on the one hand and cynical world weariness on the other. “My brothers and sisters never grow tired of doing what is right.”
Sunday, 13 November 2016