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Pursuing Jesus

The Quiet Power of Daily Discipleship

Nathaniel Peters

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Digging Deeper: Issue 6

Further Reading on Christian Witness

Two titles on Christian witness that deserve special notice.

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This year as Christians celebrated Holy Week and Easter, images of segregated lunch counters flew around the internet, accompanied by calls to boycott the state of Indiana. Instead of tar and feathers, the mob had Twitter, which proved more effective. Despite the protest of legal experts, it rapidly became public opinion that if Indiana’s religious liberty law was allowed to stand, gays and lesbians would become like Southern blacks under Jim Crow. For many, apparently, the New Testament’s moral claims had become the equivalent of white supremacy. That week brought to a head a growing animosity to traditional Christian faith that we have seen over the past few years.

In the coming years, we will debate what our churches should do in a time of such hostility. We will be tempted to look for quick answers to that question, to think that living out our faith means dramatic action with immediate results. Instead, what we and our society now need most is Christian discipleship – men and women who love Jesus and seek to conform their lives to him. This answer seems frustratingly obvious, but it still remains true. What we can do most to change the world is to change our children’s diapers, take them to school, serve our customers, and love our spouses – all because of, and for the sake of, the love of God.

This witness will be lived out in ordinary ways, often without any visible results. It will not be about big campaigns, but small, daily choices made by people insignificant in the eyes of the world. Our witness for Christ will require three sometimes neglected aspects of Christian life: hope, mercy, and communities of friendship. Only by this slow fidelity to the gospel can we follow the Lord we love and bring about the renewal we seek.

painting of fishing boat on water Janice Earley, Morning Light
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Contributed By Nathaniel Peters

Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Boston College.

Hope

At the end of his beautiful hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13, Saint Paul writes that “these three remain: faith, hope, and love.” Most Christians are pretty clear on faith and love, but less so on hope. We tend to think that hope is another word for optimism. We hope that the Bills or the Red Sox will win the game, or that it will be sunny this weekend. The apostles meant something much stronger by hope. Their proclamation of Christian faith began with the astonishing fact that Jesus rose from the dead. In Byzantine iconography, Christ has ripped the doors of the underworld off their hinges and stands astride them. Below in the abyss lie countless locks, now useless. His muscles flex as he grabs Adam and Eve by the wrists and pulls them out of their graves. Hope takes this victory of Christ seriously. It is not a feeling but a spiritual habit that the Holy Spirit gives us as a gift. Hope remembers the promises and protections of the Lord. It reminds us that the goal of our lives is fellowship with God in heaven, forever. It strengthens us along the path of life and helps us keep our lives directed heavenward.

The greatest man of hope I ever met was Richard John Neuhaus, the noted Lutheran-pastor-become-Catholic-priest who was also a civil rights, anti–Vietnam War, and pro-life advocate. Optimism, he liked to say, is just a matter of optics. Hope, on the other hand, is founded on the reality of Christ’s triumph. Neuhaus devoted himself to fighting for what he thought were the greatest causes. In this he met with some success. The civil rights movement largely succeeded in its goals, and America did eventually get out of Vietnam. Yet he had far more opportunities for despair. “The Movement,” he argued, died because it became more concerned with protecting the lifestyles of elites than fighting for the well-being of the most vulnerable. What were those to do who were committed to the kingdom of God rather than the mantra “if it feels good, do it”? On the ecclesiastical front, most of Neuhaus’s life was spent trying to bring about reunion between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. When he became convinced that his fellow Lutherans did not see this as imperative, he became a Catholic.

Despite these setbacks, and despite plenty of verbal swashbuckling in the public square, Neuhaus was never a man of despair. Giving an account of the authors who had influenced him, he concluded with “Paul, above all Paul, always Paul.” He attributed his own confidence to 1 Corinthians 4:5: “Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts” (KJV). For the bedrock of that confidence, he offered Romans 14:8: “Whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.”

Greater hostility to Christian faith and practice forces us to reckon with where we put our hope. When we can no longer trust prestige or influence, we are forced to focus on Christ as our strength and protection. When we see the world in light of his resurrection, we are seeing it in the light of truth. This leaves no room for despair, for he has conquered what we fear most.

painting of cooked fish in bowl Janice Earley, Catch of the Day

Mercy

Seeing the world in light of Christ’s truth also means seeing it in mercy. Like hope, mercy is a fundamental Christian trait. It is a mark of a life formed by Christ, in his image. Contemporary culture frames issues in terms of acceptance or hatred. Christian mercy refuses to choose between these false dichotomies, rejecting the way the dominant culture frames them.

Too often, of course, Christians have succumbed to the categories of the world. They have responded with the hatred expected of them and offended others with lives opposed to gospel teachings. Conformity to the world betrays the truth of Christ and makes it less intelligible. When Christianity occupied a more dominant place in our culture, we were allowed to overlook mercy many times. Losing that dominance gives us many occasions in which
to show mercy.

We can learn important lessons in Christian mercy from our brothers and sisters who have not felt at home in their countries in the same way we have. Who can forget the videos of mothers and spouses, chests heaving with grief, forgiving the man who came into their church’s Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina, and slaughtered their loved ones? They called him to repentance and urged him to seek the love of Jesus. After decades of injustice and blows upon the bruise, and as the defendant refused to make eye contact with them, they forgave him.

Something similar happened in North Africa when ISIS beheaded twenty-one Coptic Christians. On a video seen all over the world, masked men cut their throats. The last words of some of them were “Lord Jesus Christ.” Later, on a Christian television show, Beshir Kamel, the brother of two of the martyrs, thanked ISIS for not editing out the men’s last declaration of faith in Christ because it had strengthened his own faith. He then added that the families of those killed were “congratulating one another.” He said: “We are proud to have this number of people from our village who have become martyrs…Since the Roman era, Christians have been martyred and have learned to handle everything that comes our way. This only makes us stronger in our faith because the Bible told us to love our enemies and bless those who curse us.”

When the host asked whether he could forgive ISIS, Kamel relayed what his mother had said she would do if she saw one of the men who killed her son: “My mother, an uneducated woman in her sixties, said she would ask [him] to enter her house and ask God to open his eyes because he was the reason her son entered the kingdom of heaven.” When the host invited him to pray for his brothers’ killers, Kamel prayed, “Dear God, please open their eyes to be saved and to quit their ignorance and the wrong teachings they were taught.”

Our brothers and sisters in Charleston and Libya are heroes of the faith. Their incredible witness should challenge us and spur us on. They are beacons of mercy, showing us how to respond to those who hate Christ and harm his flock. As we stand in awe of them, we should remember that their heroic acts stem from simple lives of faith. As Kamel observed about his mother, these men and women are not great in the eyes of the world. But they love Jesus, and their ability to perform these great acts of love comes from many small ones. Because they take their faith seriously, they were able to respond with Jesus’ mercy when evil attacked.

Mercy is also the best answer when we have nothing else left to offer. So many things that trouble us lie outside our control. We turn on the news and see more stories of martyrs in the Middle East and of black churches burnt at home. We see friends whose sin ends up wounding those around them, and other friends who blindly encourage them to persist. We hear our brothers and sisters in Christ hated and reviled by those we consider friends. And we know our own sin, and the sins of our fellow Christians. So much is wrong and we can do so little about it. Mourning the sin of the world and meeting it with love is part of our Christian vocation. More often than we make arguments for our faith, we must call on the mercy of Jesus in prayer. When we don’t know what we can do, we can and should offer those we love back to the one who loves them even more.

We can so easily forget how much prayers matter. Some weeks ago, I was reading outside on my university’s campus. A woman passing by on her way to Mass said that she was praying for students like me during the week of final exams. I smiled and explained that I wasn’t taking exams, just reading for my dissertation. She assured me that she and others were praying for me too. Then she called down the Holy Spirit on me to illuminate my research and writing so that I might set the world on fire. And she went on her way. I suddenly was reminded that I was sustained by countless prayers I would never see. Men and women who did not know me interceded for me and my work, and the help God gave me was an answer to their prayers. We must be such men and women. When we can do nothing else, we should pray for mercy, confident that the Lord will answer us in ways we may only discover in heaven.

Friendship

The cultivation of mercy and hope takes place in communities of Christian friendship. The ancients considered friendship vitally important to human existence and to society as a whole. Aristotle and Cicero both offered famous treatments of it. Today, friendship is somewhat neglected. Due to American culture’s hyper-sexualization, it is difficult for some to imagine non-sexual love between friends. In their focus on marriage, Christian churches have also neglected the importance of friendship. But companions on the way to heaven are essential. In the Middle Ages, an English abbot named Aelred of Rievaulx wrote a book on the nature of Christian friendships. A Christian friendship, Aelred writes, is hard to get into and hard to get out of. If it does unravel – especially if we lose friends because of our fidelity to the gospel – we should question what the friendship was founded on in the first place.

Christian friendship is founded on the holiness that you see present in another person, despite his sin, and vice versa. Since both friends love Christ and want to found their friendship on their love of Christ, Christ becomes the third person in their friendship. The love the two friends share helps them love Christ more. Their own greater intimacy brings greater intimacy with Christ. As friends go through life, they encourage each other in holiness and correct each other. They enjoy each other’s company and share each other’s fears and confidences. When praying for a friend, remarks Aelred, a person ascends “from that holy love with which he embraces a friend to that with which he embraces Christ.” The love that exists between Christian friends is a foretaste of heaven.

Randy Boyagoda’s recent biography of Neuhaus describes how Neuhaus created communities of friends that would pursue deep questions together. Some of these communities became well-known, and sometimes controversial: the journal First Things or the ecumenical group Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Far from the public eye, though, was another community Neuhaus founded: the Community of Christ in the City. When Neuhaus was transitioning out of Lutheran parish ministry, he and another pastor, Larry Bailey, bought a townhouse. Over time, they turned it into a Christian community, whose members prayed nightly and ate dinner together on Saturday nights. The community had a simple rhythm of life that formed those who were a part of it. It nursed one of its members as he was dying of AIDS in the early 1990s. It prepared many for their vocations to marriage and ministry.

I was a member of the community from 2007 to 2009. It became my home, a home in which Christian friendship flourished. While Neuhaus’s personality was the driving force behind the house’s life, Bailey was its unsung hero, in many ways. A quiet man, he was a polymath who taught languages, history, and theology at a high school in Brooklyn. He became a father figure to young men whose schooling he and the community helped finance. Those evenings of prayer, the long dinners, and the conversations and adventures with the other members – some now married, one now a nun – remain a gift I will always treasure. Slowly over time, the community formed, healed, and taught me. It truly was a school of hope, mercy, and friendship.

Images from www.janice-earley.co.uk

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