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06/02/19 Seventh Sunday of Easter - Fr. Reggie

Why didn't Jesus save St Stephen from being killed? Had Jesus forgotten about his faithful disciple, his holy deacon? Not at all. Jesus did save St Stephen; he did come to the rescue. And the way he did so teaches us a crucial lesson about what Jesus really cares about.

The scene we just listened to takes place at the end of a long speech that Stephen made.  He was on trial in front of the Sanhedrin, Jerusalem's Supreme Court. In his speech, Stephen summarized the whole history of salvation, explained that Jesus was the Messiah, and courageously rebuked the leaders of Jerusalem for rejecting Christ. Instead of believing him, though, the members of the Sanhedrin flew into a rage.

That's when Jesus made his move. The Book of Acts tells us that Stephen saw Jesus "standing at the right hand of God". The New Testament describes Jesus at God's right hand many times, but this is the only time he is standing there - every other time he is sitting. Jesus has stood up - he has actively come to Stephen's aid by giving him this vision. The vision didn't save Stephen from his enemies' violent anger. It didn't save him from suffering. But it did renew his courage. It strengthened him to stay faithful to Christ in the middle of a horrendous trial. Jesus doesn't save Stephen from the evil that others commit against him; rather, he saves Stephen from committing evil, from giving into the pressure and faltering in his faith.

This teaches us clearly that what interests Christ most is not our comfort, but our fidelity

He wants us to stay true to our King and his Kingdom, and he will never fail to help us do so.

Understanding that this is Christ's priority helps us make sense of a lot of things that happen in life - especially the bad things.

Jesus allows, and sometimes sends them, precisely because he knows that true happiness comes not through comfort, but through virtue.

Jesus knows in the face of suffering, we are able to exercise our fidelity. Love shows itself not on the honeymoon, but in the crisis.

Jesus knows that suffering can actually become a stimulus to salvation and holiness - it can open our hearts to the vision of glory, just as it did for St Stephen.

I recently read a clever analogy for this.  Suffering is like boiling water. It has a different effect on people, depending on how they choose to react. If you put carrots in boiling water, they get soft. That's like the person who has made comfort and pleasure the goal of life. When suffering comes his way, it drains him of all his zest for living. If you put an egg in boiling water, it gets hard. You get a hard-boiled egg. That's what happens to the arrogant and self-centered. When life gets hard, they also get hard. They clench their fists and lose their smile. They become angry and cynical. If you put coffee in boiling water, the water releases the coffee's hidden flavor. It fills the room with a delightful aroma, and makes the water delicious. The soul that courageously trusts God in the midst of suffering, clinging to Christ's cross and staying faithful, learns to love like Christ, to be humble, to persevere in what is right. That person's life lets off the aroma of mature joy and is filled with the robust flavor of purpose and wisdom.

In a fallen world, we will always have to face suffering. Christ permits it, because he wants us to release our full potential.

Jesus is always watching over us.  Like St Stephen, there are times when following him is especially tough, when we feel the pressure, when we feel like giving in. He allows those tough times, and sometimes actually sends them, but he never leaves us to face them alone. At those moments, Jesus no longer sits on his heavenly throne; he stands up and comes to our aid.

The question for us is, how can we recognize his help? How can we latch onto it in moments of trial, or when Jesus is asking us to take the narrow path?

Spiritual writers tell us of at least two things we can do.

First, we can prepare ourselves ahead of time. No good soldier waits for the battle to begin before readying his weapons and studying the battle plan. As Christ's good soldiers, we have to stay close to him even in the good times. We must strive always to get to know him better, never taking him for granted. Then, when trials or hard decisions come, we will be strong with his strength.

Second, during the trial itself, we can turn our thoughts to Christ, instead of turning in on ourselves.  What did St Stephen do when they began to stone him? He prayed, by entrusting his own soul to Christ and asking God to forgive his murderers. Those are two of the same prayers that Christ made when he was dying. That shows us that Stephen was focusing on Christ in the midst of his trial.

This week, some of us will find ourselves in the midst of trials or tough decisions. Let's follow St Stephen's example and pray, focusing more on Christ than on ourselves.

This week, some of us will find ourselves in peace and prosperity. Let's be sure to stay close to Christ while the sun is out, so that we can easily find him when the darkness comes.

 

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