The Letter to Diognetus, which was written in the Second Century, says that “the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world … They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven … It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly it is by Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together.”
This is what the Gospel of John means in Chapter 17, verses 14-19. Jesus prays for a Church in, but not of, the world. He prays not that we be taken out of the world, but that we be guarded from the power of the world. We are to be distinct and recognizable as disciples of Christ.
Scripture calls Satan the “Father of Lies” for a reason. We need to get it into our heads that the Gospel is the real world, but again and again in daily life we hear that the Church is old-fashioned, or irrelevant, or inflexible or unrealistic. These are all lies. An interviewer once asked Mother Teresa, “Why are you so holy?” She answered, “You sound as if holiness is abnormal. To be holy is normal. To be anything else is abnormal.”
C.S. Lewis once wrote that “heaven is an acquired taste” — but only because we've addicted ourselves to sin and its delusions. What some people call “the real world” is usually just the configuration of all those forces which are organized against God. This is not the real world — but the devil wants us to think it is. The devil wants us to believe that the Gospel view is an idealistic dream. That's insidious, because it traps us in the status quo of those “powers and principalities” who have the world in a death grip. So we constantly need to ask ourselves: Are we an accommodated Church? Have we assimilated too well? Socrates warned that we should be wary when people praise us. As Christians, we should be worried when nobody wants to persecute us.
Gaudium et Spes tells us that only through Jesus Christ can men and women find eternal life (10). But where do we find Jesus Christ? We find Him above all in the suffering and wounded.
In “The Odyssey” (Book XIX), when Odysseus finally returns home to Ithaca after years of wandering, he disguises himself as an old man. Not even his wife or son recognizes him. That night, just before bed, the aged nurse who cared for Odysseus in his youth bathes him … and she recognizes a scar on his leg. She couldn't recognize him until she saw his scar.
Read the Gospel of John, Chapter 20, verses 19-31. The Risen Christ appears to His frightened disciples, and they recognize Him in seeing His scars. The Risen Christ has scars. So if you want to see the Risen Christ today, begin by looking for Him in the people who have His scars — the homeless person, the AIDS patient, the mentally handicapped child. The First Letter of Peter says, “By His wounds you have been healed” (2:24). The suffering among us are not some kind of embarrassing mistake. They're Christ's invitation to each of us to really live, to really believe — to find Him, by serving them. Even the Apostle Thomas only really believed when he placed his fingers in Jesus' wounds. We need to do the same.
In the early centuries of the Church, one of the great heresies was called Docetism. Docetism was the belief that since Christ was divine, He couldn't really suffer. He only appeared to suffer. Like most great heresies, it seems to make some sense on the surface. But it leads to “over-spiritualizing” Jesus and turning Him into a kind of “idea” disconnected from physical reality. That's false teaching, and the Church rejected it. The body and physical suffering are intimately connected to Christ's mission of redemption. So Christians must really be involved in the suffering world, or we're spiritual Docetists.
And our commitment to the suffering world reminds us of one other important thing. Justice needs to be at the heart of all our evangelization efforts. Chief Dan George once said that, “When the white man came, we had the land and they had the Bibles. Now they have the land, and we have the Bibles.” There is no Gospel life without a foundation in justice.
Our theme should be “Go, make disciples of all nations.” That's the last command Jesus gave to us before returning to His Father. And it's a big one. How can a few simple people like us convert the world? That brings us back to Mary, and to the Apostles at Pentecost. They changed the world by letting God change and work through them. We don't need to be afraid. We need to be confident in the promise made by Christ Himself: “I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
Don't be afraid of the world. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley once sneered that “I could believe in Christ if He did not drag along behind Him that leprous bride of His, the Church.” But Shelley's long gone, isn't he, and the Church is still here, still bringing life to the world.
Don't be afraid of the world. Charles Spurgeon once said, “The way you defend the Bible is the same way you defend a lion. You just let it loose.” So much of the world is already dead without knowing it — and that's exactly why people respond to the truth when they hear it. Robert Farrar Capon wrote that, “Jesus came to raise the dead. The only qualification for the gift of the Gospel is to be dead. You don't have to be smart. You don't have to be good. You don't have to be wise. You don't have to be wonderful. You just have to be dead. That's it.”
Understand the purpose of your life. You're going out into a struggle for the soul of the world. That's how the Holy Father describes it. That's your vocation. Nothing is more important than that work. C.S. Lewis once said that “Christianity, if false, is of no importance; and if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
At the end of every day, we need to ask ourselves this question: I have paid one day of my life to do what I did today. Was it worth it?
For Jesus, you and I were worth it on Good Friday. So how will we answer the question today?
(Archbishop Chaput serves in the Archdiocese of Denver.)