July 24, 2019

Bearing Witness to Christ

The Release of St. Peter', by Bernardo Strozzi, 1635.

Once there was a teenage boy who was not very religious; in spite of his mother’s best efforts and some friendly advice from his pastor, he did not want to come to church, read the Bible, pray, perform acts of Christian charity, or be publicly recognized as a follower of Jesus. However, right after Mass one day the mother came up to the pastor and said, “Father, my son finally memorized a Bible verse, and he uses it all the time!” Delighted, the pastor asked, “That’s wonderful—what verse is it?” The mother answered, “Luke chapter 24, verse 41—the one from today’s Gospel in which Jesus asks the apostles, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’” (Fr. Joe Robinson, Guiding Light, Year B, p. 74).

Many young people have been known to be a bit self-centered, but God’s grace can change this—even in cases of tragedy. In 1963 a young man named Brian Sternberg, a student at the University of Washington, was considered America’s trampoline champion and the best pole vaulter in the entire world. He also took himself very seriously, for all his success had made him proud and even a bit arrogant. Then one day he was seriously injured while practicing. The rule was that, for safety’s sake, no one was supposed to work out alone in the gym, but Brian didn’t believe the rules applied to him. He did a triple somersault on the trampoline, but came down off center, and his neck was snapped when he hit the edge of the trampoline, leaving him permanently paralyzed, and a very bitter, angry young man. Five years later, however, at a convention for coaches and athletes, a film was shown of Brian’s athletic success. Then Brian, who was a limp figure of only 87 pounds, was carried out onstage. Speaking into a microphone with a raspy voice, he said, “My friends, I pray to God that what happened to me will never happen to any of you, and that you will never know the pain and frustration I live with daily—unless that’s what it takes for you to put God in the center of your life.” The audience was spellbound as Brian described how, a few years earlier, someone spoke to him of Jesus Christ, and how the Lord’s grace transformed his heart and gave him a new hope and purpose (Mark Link, S.J., Illustrated Sunday Homilies, Year B, Series I, p. 35). It shouldn’t take a tragedy to help us recognize what really matters in life. As baptized followers of Jesus, we are supposed to center our lives around Him—and the more we do,the more we’ll have opportunities to witness to Him, and we’ll find great joy in doing so.

It’s natural for us to see things from our own point of view—but answering God’s call should slowly transform us, so that we try to look at everything from God’s perspective. Only then will life truly make sense. In the Acts of the Apostles (3:13-15, 17-19), St. Peter was calling the people to this new outlook, urging them to repent of their sins and be converted, so as to accept the gift of salvation offered by Jesus Christ. As St. John (1 Jn 2:1-5) tells us, however, this can only happen if we honestly acknowledge our sinfulness and try to obey God’s commandments. If instead we’re self-satisfied and self-centered, our hearts are closed to Divine Grace, and we are living a lie. The apostles were good, honest men, but due to their doubts and fears, it took them a while to believe in the Resurrection of the Lord and understand the mission He gave them. When Jesus appeared to them on the night of Easter Sunday, He not only opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, but also commissioned them to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth. It was by answering this call that the apostles rose above their self-centeredness and became great saints.

In the 2nd century a pagan Greek philosopher named Publius Aristides was asked by his king to report on the Christians of the region. After studying them, he wrote, “The Christians, O king, know and believe in God, the Maker of heaven and earth. They walk in all humility and kindness, and falsehood is not found among them. They observe scrupulously the commandment of their Messiah; every morning, and at all times, on account of the goodness of God toward them, they praise and laud Him, and over their meals they render Him thanks. On account of them, there flows forth much beauty in the world” (Roy B. Zuck, The Speaker’s Quote Book, p. 413). Two centuries later, the Roman emperor Julian, who had been raised a Catholic, but renounced his faith, tried to reintroduce paganism. He failed, in large part because by then Christians were widely known and admired throughout the empire for their acts of charity and compassion.

What a wonderful world this would be if today all Christians were known for their love of God and neighbor; our society would be transformed almost overnight if all the followers of Jesus bore witness to Him by putting their faith into practice every day. There are so many people hurting, despairing, or living lives of emptiness or fear—persons without meaning or hope. You and I are meant to be God’s instruments in reaching out and touching them by our Christian witness. Instead of being afraid or embarrassed, or self-centered or self-satisfied, we are called to place ourselves in the hands of God, to open our hearts to the fullness of Christ’s grace, and to seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance as to what to say and do in every situation. If we pray each morning, “Dear Lord, please give me the chance to bear witness to You sometime this day,” He will give us the opportunity, along with the wisdom to recognize it and the courage to take advantage of it. A friendly smile or encouraging word on our part, an example of integrity and a refusal to compromise our morals values, or a simple act of kindness and compassion, may very well inspire someone else to consider the truth of the Gospel, or open his or her heart to the working of Divine Grace—thereby changing that person’s eternal destiny.

Knowing we are cooperating with God’s plan brings a happiness and peace far superior to anything this world can offer—and when our simple example inspires someone else to give his or her life to Christ, we’ll have a reason to rejoice with that person for all eternity. Instead of being self-centered, every follower of Jesus is meant to live in a way that bears witness to Him—and only if we’re willing to do this can we be sure of finding our true purpose in this world, and our true home in the next.

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Written by
Fr Joseph Esper

REVEREND JOSEPH M. ESPER is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit and pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Anchorville, Michigan. He received his Master of Divinity degree from St. John's Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. Through the years, Father Joe has lectured at Marian conferences, appeared on EWTN, spoken on Catholic radio, and written more than a dozen articles for This Rock, The Priest, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and other publications. He is also the author of numerous books, including Saintly Solutions, More Saintly Solutions, After the Darkness, Lessons from the Lives of the Saints, and Why Is God Punishing Me? In addition to Amazon, many of his most recent books are available through Queenship Publishing.

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Written by Fr Joseph Esper