Sunday, May 16, 2010
Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.
There is a wonderful story in the life of St. Francis that tells of a certain day when the Saint asked one of his brothers to accompany him into a nearby town where they would preach God’s word. The two spent the day walking from one end of town to the other and back. Finally, a bit frustrated, the brother asked, “But, Father Francis, when are we going to preach?” The Saint looked at him and said simply, “My brother, we just did.”
There is a quote frequently attributed to St. Francis that you’ve probably heard that follows the same theme, “Preach the Gospel at all times, when necessary use words.” Both this quote and story make a powerful point that I think we all know is true: people are moved more by sermons they can see than by sermons they can hear.
I couldn’t help but think of this story as I was reflecting upon our Scriptures for today – especially the powerfully dramatic story of the martyrdom of St. Stephen that we heard in our first reading. We heard, “As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them;’ and when he said this, he fell asleep.”
This incredible story of St. Stephen is a very fitting one for us to contemplate today. Chapter 6 of Acts, just before what we heard today, says, “Stephen, filled with grace and power, was working great wonders and signs among the people…certain [people] came forward and debated with Stephen, but they could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke.” These people were infuriated with Stephen because he is preaching about Jesus, and so they knock him to the ground and take his life through the violent means of stoning. But, in perhaps the most powerful preaching of his life, with his final breaths, Stephen did not hold the crime against his attackers. Instead, he forgives them. Again, from our reading, Stephen “fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’” In this moment we see what we see in the lives of virtually every saint, that St. Stephen lives and dies in the same way that Jesus did. He is a martyr, a living witness, to what it means to be Christian.
In this act of forgiveness, we see in Stephen, in a very real way, how he carried out the command that Jesus gave to His followers just before He ascended to His Father. Jesus said, “Make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” St. Stephen did just that. And, he did it in the most powerful way that anyone can teach another – not through lengthy monologue or intellectual rhetoric – he did it by example. With the very last moments of his life, St. Stephen quite literally preached a sermon that people could see. He preached the good news of Jesus Christ by the example of his life, right down to the very moment of his death.
Where did Stephen get that kind of strength? Stephen found that strength in something that Jesus did just before He ascended into heaven. Jesus prayed for His disciples in the words we heard in today’s Gospel, “Father, I made known to them your name…that the love with which you loved me, may be in them, and I [may be] in them.” Stephen was able to bear witness to Jesus by the example of his life and death because Jesus had prayed for him, and because the Father’s love and the presence of Jesus Himself dwelt within Stephen.
My friends, the same is true for each and every one of us here today. We, too, celebrate the fact that what Jesus promised just before He ascended into heaven has come to pass. The love of the Father and abiding presence of Jesus Himself are within His followers – this divine indwelling, this love of God are within each of us - enabling us to carry the Good News to the very ends of the world, not only by word, but perhaps even more profoundly by example.
And, what Stephen and so many other martyrs and holy men and women who followed did, we too are called to do. We also are called to bring the Good News, if not to the ends of the world, perhaps at least to the ends of our world – to the ends of New England, or Massachusetts, or Boston, or even just to every corner of the North End; and we are called to do this in the same way; by word and more importantly by example.
And to help us carry out this task, Jesus promised that the love of His Father and He Himself would be with us. It is this promise of Jesus that we celebrate in this liturgy. It is this promise of Jesus that makes it possible for us to be like St. Stephen – witnesses of Jesus Christ in our world. If we carry out this task, we too will someday share with Jesus and the Father the joy of eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Lord, help us remember always that without You, we can do nothing. But with You, all things are possible. Help us to be Your witnesses. My friends, preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.
May God give you peace.