Liturgical Colour : White
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, today we heard about the death and martyrdom of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Church from the Acts of the Apostles, our first reading, and we also heard from the Revelations according to St. John, about the promise of the world to come, and the promise that our Lord and Saviour, Jesus, will come again at the end of time to succour His people.
And in the Gospel, we heard about the prayer which Jesus our Lord made to His Father, for the sake of His disciples, all who believe in Him, and ultimately, for the entirety of the whole Church. He prayed for their sake, that God His Father through Him would bless those multitudes of people, and that He would bring them into the salvation and the glory which He had promised the faithful ones.
In all these, what we have heard from the Scripture readings pointed out to us about the nature of our faith in God, on how persecution will be part and parcel of our life, but as mentioned, God will not leave them alone, and He will continue to guide them and show them the path towards eternal life. God will be their strength and their foundation. If they are to keep their hold on Him, they will not be disappointed.
Why does this matter, brethren? Jesus mentioned to us the troubles that is facing the Church, and another had been presented by the tale of St. Stephen and his martyrdom. External pressures and persecution against the Church and the faithful are a reality, and these will not go away. Since the very earliest times of the Church, there had been those who opposed the message and the truth of Christ, from the Romans to the Jews, and then from the heretics and the other unbelievers, the Turks and now we have those who refused to believe in God, the atheists and those who rejected Christ.
And we can still recall quite clearly how in the past century, and in some places even until this very day, persecution of Christians is a reality. The horrors of the persecution especially by the atheist and the hostile Communist regimes in Soviet Union, its satellite regimes in Eastern Europe and beyond, and then the terrible persecutions in China and in North Korea, which for the latter is still continuing even unto this very day, and for the former persecution also still happened from time to time.
In the Middle East and in other parts of the world, Christians are also still persecuted, rejected and ridiculed for their faith in God. They are facing difficulties for keeping their faith, were blocked from being able to live out their faith lives freely, and some were even persecuted and tortured, and martyred for their faith, just as St. Stephen was, for standing up for their faith and for being courageous in not fearing the persecution of the world.
In this matter, with regards to the external persecution of the Church and the faithful, we have to keep praying and hoping. We have to keep in mind what Jesus our Lord had said, and what St. Stephen had shown all of us. Jesus said that once it was such that if someone made another lose an eye, then it is ought to be that the one who made the person to lose an eye, also lose an eye as well. But it should not be so with us Christians.
The principle of justice by revenge no longer applies to us Christians, for that law in the past was given by God as a means to rein in His often rebellious people, who frequently disregarded His laws and commandments, and thus harsh measures as a deterrent was appropriate to keep them in check. Yet, the purpose of the Law remains the same, that is for mankind to be able to discover and to love their Lord.
It is in our human nature to hate and to hold grudge against another. And to those of us who have experienced grudge before, most of us I believe, and including me as well, we know how dangerous and powerful hatred and grudge could be. We tend to keep it inside us, and it causes us to feel anger and indeed, it can make us do dangerous things, even to the point of inflicting harm and pain on others.
This world is running on the principle of reciprocation such that, if someone caused us harm and pain, then we also want to inflict harm and pain upon that person as well. But do we all realise that in doing so, we are merely perpetuating the cycle of hatred, pain, anger and suffering? We inflict pain on someone, and that someone did the same to us in revenge, and then we having been slighted one more time, decide to retaliate, which leads to even more retaliation of even greater degree. It is a painful and endless cycle which only leads to more and more hatred, pain and suffering.
Instead, as Christians, we ought to show love, true love that is unconditional and pure, just as the Lord Jesus Himself had shown to us. The love that Jesus our Lord showed us can be summarised also in the words He had spoken in the same occasion as He condemned those vengeance justice. He told us that we ought to forgive those who have sinned against us, and we ought to pray for those who hated us and persecuted us.
And even in the Lord’s Prayer, when Jesus prayed in another occasion to the Lord God His Father, one key essential element of the Pater Noster is that we pray that God will forgive us our sins just as we have forgiven those who sinned against us. And that was exactly what St. Stephen did just moments before his death. He forgave them and asked the Lord not to hold their sins and faults against them. The same action has also been done by our Lord Himself, as He hung upon the cross, forgiving all those who have called for Him to be crucified.
This means that, as Christians, we have to pray for perseverance and strength, that amidst the persecutions and the challenges presented to us by the world, we may not give up and surrender ourselves to the demands of the devil and the world. And yet, we must also pray for the strength to love and to forgive, that we may forgive those who have persecuted us, and love them even though they have hated us first. Hopefully through that love, they may be healed from the hatred and grudge they had against us, and be able to find repentance and forgiveness for all of their sins by God.
And lastly, just as I have mentioned that great troubles had always come from the outside of the Church, Jesus also mentioned about the coming troubles that would come from within the Church. He always warned His disciples against the false prophets, the wolves dressed in sheep clothing to deceive the faithful and to lure them away from the salvation in God.
And these false prophets and selfish men and women had brought about divisions and disunity within even the Church itself, with peoples making followings among themselves by spreading inaccurate and wrong teachings about the Lord in order to serve their own purposes, desires and ego. Throughout the centuries since the earliest days of the Church, we have been aware of those who have brought about this disunity, from the Gnostics, Arius, Nestorius, and then to Martin Luther, to John Calvin, Zwingli, King Henry VIII of England and many others who have misled the faithful and brought great divisions in the Church.
Jesus prayed to the Father that He will always keep His faithful people in the Church united, and He prayed hard for that unity, repeating again and again and emphasising of the need for the unity, so that the faithful may all be united as one people and one body in the Church, just as He Himself, the Father and the Holy Spirit are perfectly united in one Godhood, the Most Holy Trinity.
Therefore today, and indeed from now on, in addition to praying for the persecuted faithful around the world, and praying for the faith of the Church, we also should pray and work for the complete unity of the Church of God. The Church of God does not just consist of the buildings and the structures, and it does not consist only of the priests, the bishops and all the religious. Instead, it is the one and only body consisting of all, without exception, the faithful people who believe in God, who through the Church are journeying together towards their salvation in God.
And we all should realise that the unity of the Church had been long shattered, and many who claim themselves as faithful are outside the Church. There is no salvation but through God’s only Church alone, Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. Therefore, while there is hope for all others, our brethren in faith outside the Church, but for them to receive God’s salvation, they must find their way back to the Holy Mother Church, and thus, it is our task and responsibility now to welcome them, to help them and to encourage them to return.
Let us all pray for one another, and for all the faithful, that everyone may return and reside within the embrace of the Holy Mother Church, the Body of Christ, so that together, all of us God’s people may praise and worship Him together as one people, and we may find our way to His salvation. Let us all work together, so that each and every one of us may draw ever closer to God’s love. May God help us, and may He restore the unity to the Church, and may He help all those who are persecuted for their faith. God bless us all. Amen.