Fr Billy Swan
Dear friends. During the pandemic a few years ago, a phrase we exchanged often and saw on posters and notices was ‘STAY SAFE’.
However, when Jesus sends out his disciples on their mission, he does not tell them to ‘STAY SAFE’. In fact, he tells them the opposite. He predicts that they will not be safe. He warns them that they will suffer for being faithful to him and his word. Some of them will lose their lives. Remarkably, having said this, he urges them not to be afraid of death because the loss of our lives is not the worst fate that can happen to them: ‘Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; fear him rather who can destroy both body and soul in hell’.
With these extraordinary words, Jesus is telling us that the preservation of our physical existence though important, is not the highest good we should fear losing. Rather the greatest tragedy of all would be to lose God’s friendship and risk the destruction of our souls and our eternal salvation.
This message is timely but challenging. We may try to stay safe as best we can but being a disciple of Christ and being faithful to his Word will place us at risk and cost us. If the first disciples of Jesus tried to ‘Stay Safe’ then the Church would never have grown at all. It would never have got off the ground. Like Jeremiah in the first reading, being a prophet for God today will result in being denounced at times, ridiculed and dismissed. In some parts of the world, being a Christian will almost certainly result in persecution, discrimination, prison or death.
There are some things to fear worse than physical death. After all, we all have to die sometime. ‘Staying Safe’ is good but not the highest good. Being faithful to Christ is. We might guard our physical bodies from viruses and other harmful things but what use is that if we are dying of a spiritual virus that kills our intimacy with God? We might stay alive by staying safe but might be dying of misery and sadness. We might be dead spiritually long before we die physically - by choosing other false gods before the One true and living God and seeing those false gods crumble and disappoint one after another.
Last Thursday 22nd June was the feast of St Thomas More who was threatened by King Henry VIII with the loss of everything if he did not sign an oath that rejected the authority of the pope. When moral pressure was applied to Thomas to sign the oath of supremacy recognizing King Henry as head of the Church of England, one of his colleagues urged him to sign the oath as he and others had done for the reason of “fellowship”. To this pressure, Thomas replied: “And when we die and you are sent to heaven for being faithful to your conscience and I am sent to hell for not being faithful to mine, will you join me in hell, for fellowship?” (From the movie ‘A Man for All Seasons’).
Thomas is an outstanding example of someone who internalized the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel. Thomas did not fear King Henry even though he would eventually kill him. Above all he feared the loss of God’s friendship and the loss of heaven by being unfaithful to his conscience and unfaithful to himself and the truth. May the Lord raise up an army of courageous Christians like St Thomas More who see beyond their own safety and existence and prize the value of truth and blessed union with God above everything and everyone.
Yes friends, ‘Stay Safe’ but stay faithful first. Never let fear or self-preservation come before declaring ourselves for God in the presence of others and remaining steadfast for all that is right and true.