There are two factors that are usually at play when it seems the mission of the Church is faltering or failing. This might surprise you, but the factors I have in mind are not cultural pressure brought to bear on the Church from the outside, but they come from within the Church- from Christians. The two factors are indolence and fear.
I will speak about indolence at greater depth another time, but I will say it really is a deadly and pernicious vice and it is a real mission killer.
Fear is the great issue in terms of Saint Paul’s testimony this morning in today’s brief excerpt from the Letter to the Romans. The Christians of Rome to whom St. Paul is writing had good reason to be afraid- they were a tiny, drop of a minority immersed in a pagan culture that, if not openly and violently hostile to the Church, was brutal in its indifference.
In the face of real and evident threats, St. Paul insists on courage. Why? Because Christians are disciples of the Lord Jesus who faced down the dark powers of sin, death and the devil and proved himself more powerful than the combined forces of all three!
A disciple cultivates those habits that imitate their Master and a Courageous Christ compels his disciples to be courageous. St. Paul is brought to Rome in chains under a sentence of death and yet he still insists on giving witness to his faith in Christ and inviting people to know Christ in the Church. What are the Christians of Rome to whom St. Paul writes really afraid of? What are we afraid of?
The fear of Christians usually manifests in an unwillingness to appreciate the urgency of the Church’s mission, a “no” to the immediacy of the demand of love. The bold risk of the Gospel is downplayed and then replaced with a languid maintenance of institutions and an insistence that the Church exists simply to promote my own causes and fulfill my own needs.
A courageous missionary resolve is repudiated in favor of endless discussion and debates about what we want the mission to be. Being a disciple of Jesus becomes a matter of telling him what to do and getting the Church to do what we want. The end result is that the Church ends up doing little or nothing at all. As you can see, the movement from fear to indolence is made in but a tiny step.
The Gospels are filled with conflict and today’s excerpt from the Gospel of Luke highlights Christ’s conflict with Herod. The Herod mentioned in today’s Gospel was one of the sons of King Herod, who was in worldly sense, one of the greatest rulers of the Israelites. He was also a cruel tyrant and he had hoped to create a dynasty by propping up his claims to power with the lie that somehow he was the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy regarding the Messiah.
Herod’s kingdom fragmented at his death and was divided among his sons, of which one, who shared his name, is mentioned in today’s Gospel as an antagonist of the Lord Jesus. The scheming propaganda of Herod and his successors was exposed as a lie by the truth of Christ’s revelation. The Lord Jesus is the true Messiah, not the wicked dynasty of Herod. Christ’s ominous words in his Gospel signal the fall and destruction of the kingdom built and sustained by the lies of Herod and his successors.
The Messianic pretence of Herod continues to play itself out in the elevation of politics and other worldliness to our ultimate concern. The Kingdom of God in Christ is refused in favor of kingdoms of our own making- kingdoms of politics, economics and culture. Seeking our redemption and salvation in these things we create idols, and in our idolatry we display our refusal of the Kingdom of God in Christ. The same truth of Christ that exposed the lie of Herod’s claims, exposes the lies of the kingdoms of worldliness we create and sustain today.
Christ’s lament and warning in today’s Gospel is not just offered for the Herod’s of long ago, but for the successors of Herod who rule today.