The Season of Easter is a certainly a time to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ. But it is also a time to take a fresh and very serious look at what it means to be a Christian: a person who believes in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, and who lives according to that belief.
The scriptures for the Masses of Easter time give us a window onto the early days of the Church. They also reveal Jesus giving His apostles their proximate preparation for leading those first Christians. In these Scriptures, we see the basic building blocks of the Christian life, not just for that time, but for every time.
There used to be a saying—used somewhat in jest— that the basic duty of a Christian was to “pray, pay, and obey,” meaning, say your prayers, give the Church financial support, and obey the Church’s teachings. To adjust this saying a bit, in keeping with the readings appointed for the Third Sunday of Easter, all Catholics, clergy and laity alike, are called to pray, obey, give witness, and then pay.
First, all Catholics are called to pray. This point is obvious and uncontroversial. Prayer is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry, that of the apostles, and is at the heart of any authentic Christian life. It is impossible to do anything to please God or that will bear good fruit without prayer.
Second, all people are called to obey God. Pope Francis once said in a homily, “To obey God is to listen to Him, to have an open heart, to go on the road that God shows us. This is what makes us free.” In Acts 5:29, Peter gives voice to all the apostles when he stands up to the Sanhedrin and says, “We must obey God rather than men.” There is a period at the end of that sentence, but if there were ten exclamation points it would not fully convey the power of Peter’s declaration. The apostles were willing to be imprisoned and suffer for Jesus, and so must all the Church’s members be. Fulton Sheen once said, “If the new crime be, to believe in God, let us all be criminals.” The Christian is one who obeys God at all times, with no exceptions, no matter what the cost.
Obedience is not just unpopular today, it is held by most people, at least here in the United States, to be ridiculous. But the fact that obedience is unpopular does not make it less important by one iota. Catholics do not follow trends, or those people who try to make us submit to the cultural enthusiasms of the day. We follow Him Who said, “I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me” (John 6:38) and Who said, “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first” (John 15:18).
A critical part of being obedient to Jesus is to give witness to him, to testify to the truth about him. “You will be my witnesses,” (Acts 1:8) Jesus tells His apostles, and in telling them He is telling us, too. And it is clear throughout Acts that the apostles took Jesus seriously. They knew that their job, to put it in its most simple form, was to tell the truth. And so it is for Catholics today.
The Church does not need fancy marketing campaigns, or sophisticated technology, though marketing savvy and technology can be helpful tools. She certainly does not need “spin,” which is really a way of turning the truth into a lie. What she needs to do is simply to tell the truth, all the time, with love and without compromise.
All Catholics have a responsibility to follow Jesus in this way. Jesus said to Pilate, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (John 18:37). It sounds so simple, yet telling the truth can get you killed, as Jesus knew very well.
So that brings us to the “pay” element of the Christian life. There is a cost to obeying God, to giving witness to the truth, and even to praying, since this is where real prayer will always lead.
The cost of the Christian life, in a word, is love. The account of Jesus’ dialogue with Peter in John 21 makes this clear. In this exchange, we see Jesus restore Peter by drawing out of him a triple affirmation of his love for Jesus to heal the wound of his triple denial on Holy Thursday night. Love is the hallmark quality of the Church’s first pope, and it needs to be the hallmark characteristic of everyone who dares to follow Christ.
The word “dares” in this context is quite intentional, because this love is not squishy, sappy love. It is the love of the cross. It is the love of service. It is the love that caused a fisherman named Simon to leave his whole life behind in obedience to God, and to give witness to Jesus even though it meant being crucified for the sake of that witness. That is why one can speak of love as the “cost” of the Christian life. In the John 21 dialogue, Jesus predicts that Peter’s death will be a direct consequence of his love. Or better to say that it is the ultimate expression of Peter’s love.
This is the love of the apostles, and countless martyrs throughout the Church’s history, and it needs to be the love that fills the lives of all the members of the Church today. Those who are not willing to stand up and face death for giving witness to Jesus, for obeying God rather than men, are living a deformed version of Christianity.
The prospect of paying such a price for one’s faith in Christ can be frightening, especially in a world so often hostile to Christianity. But Jesus sees this fear coming, too, and reminds His disciples, “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, Jesus offers us a mega-dose of what His disciples need to persevere—His Body and Blood, the power of His death and resurrection, His grace, courage, and love.
There is no need to be afraid to stand up for Jesus Christ. Though Catholics may seem to be “losers” in the sight of the world, believers know the truth: Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat! (“Christ conquers! Christ reigns! Christ commands!”)