Sermon on the third Sunday after Easter

By a Dominican friar

“I beseech you, as strangers and pilgrims, to refrain yourselves from carnal desires which war against the soul, having your conversation good among the gentiles.”

One of the things which every believer must experience today, at least in this country, is the difficulty of having different “first principles” from the world around him. A single lifetime ago, this was far less true. Take the question of cohabitation outside marriage, for example: just one lifetime ago, in England, this was considered a shocking thing, not just by Catholics, but by majority of people. Today, that sense of shock has entirely vanished from the population as a whole; and yet we must hold that cohabitation outside marriage is still a mortal sin — just as much today as it was in 1950. 

That is just one example of what I mean by a disagreement in first principles between ourselves and other people, and it would be easy to add others.

This increasing separation of the attitudes of Catholics from those of others, as well as often being awkward or painful in itself, can also be dangerous. It can lead us to feel that non-Catholics are impossible to influence, as though a great gulf had been fixed between us and them, which no one could cross. We seem to find this same attitude in the Jews, in the time of Our Lord, in relation to the gentiles among whom they lived. Remember how, when St Peter went to preach at the house of the centurion Cornelius, the Holy Ghost came upon Cornelius and the other gentiles so that they began to speak in foreign languages and to praise God. St Luke says that Peter’s fellow Jews were astonished “that the grace of the Holy Ghost was poured out upon the Gentiles too” (Acts 10:45). The Jews had been so used to thinking of the Gentiles as being separate from God’s people — idolaters and sinners, hardly rational beings at all — that it had never occurred to them that the Gentiles might be raised up to share the same divine adoption which they themselves enjoyed. They had written them off.

St Peter, probably having shared this sentiment when he himself was a Jew, is keen that it should not subsequently become a part of the attitude of Catholics toward those outside the Church. Writing to the faithful, living in various parts of the Roman empire, he says: “Have your conversation good among the gentiles: that whereas they speak evil against you, as evil doers, they may by the good works which they behold in you, glorify God in the day of visitation.” Conversation, of course, has here its very old-fashioned meaning of “way of living”.  But it includes the modern sense of “way of speaking”. So, among other things, St Peter is saying: “do not join with your non-Catholic acquaintances or work-colleagues in speaking ill of others behind their back, or in saying indecent things, or in returning insults for insults”. He tells them not to use their liberty “as a cloak of malice”. I think what he has in mind is Catholics who say to themselves: “these other people are so bad already, that it does not really matter if I do not set them a good example; I may as well fit in with them”. 

This is a mistake: we are constantly influencing other people, without knowing it, for good or bad. No one is so bad that they cannot be scandalised and become worse; no one is so bad that they cannot see a good example and become better. Not that we should usually, consciously, set out to influence our acquaintances or colleagues for their own good by our way of acting or speaking; that would probably only end by making us ridiculous, or objectionable. No, but we should have in mind that we will influence many of them, one way or another, whether we try to or not; and, says St Peter, if we influence them well then, by the good works which they behold in us — even if it is just the good work of not joining in the mockery of some unpopular person — they may glorify God in the day of visitation.

What does he mean by “the day of visitation”? I do not think he means the day of judgement, whether the private judgement or the general one. After all, if someone has not converted during his life-time, it is too late once he is judged. The day of visitation is the day when a person is visited by God’s grace. It is the same sense that Our Lord gives to the word when He laments over Jerusalem, and foretells what is going to happen to the city because it has not known the time of its visitation (Lk 19:44), that is, the time when He came to save it.  

You see, this heathen with whom I share an office, or with whom I work in a supermarket or on a building-site, is someone for whom Christ died. And, having died for this person, Our Lord is not then going to ignore him. No, Christ is going to offer this person graces, and if the person responds to those graces well, he will be led, little by little, towards conversion.  

Now, it may be that the person in question has already been offered graces, and has rejected them so determinedly, that he will no longer be offered any more. That is a possibility, since God does not go on forever offering people the chance to repent, for otherwise sinners would never die. But we can never know in a particular case whether that possibility has been realised, and so we should never assume that it has been. At any moment, God may use my kind act or honest word to set in motion a process which will end in the conversion of this other person.

Only if that does happen will he or she also become what St Peter calls a “stranger and pilgrim” in the world. For that is really what separates us from those around us: not firstly a disagreement about this or that moral principle, but rather a difference in what we consider our home to be; a difference in where we place our hopes. Other people, even if they have a theoretical belief in the afterlife, are seeking to build their happiness in this life: that’s what they focus on. We are looking for what St Paul calls the “city that has foundations”: the home that awaits us in Heaven. That is why Our Lord tells us that there will always be a basic incompatibility between His followers and other people. A Greek philosopher once said that what is characteristic of friendship is that each friend finds the same things pleasant and painful as the other one does. Jesus, on the other hand, says to the apostles: “You shall lament and weep, but the world shall rejoice.” So, we must never write off those around us, though we shall never be at home in this world. Something will be pressing on us — sometimes more lightly, sometimes more heavily — resembling what the expectant mother suffers as she prepares to give birth; or, we should say perhaps, something resembling what the child itself experiences. For we are still in the womb of our Mother the Church; not made for this world, but made to be born into the light.