I also think sometimes it is worthwhile to focus on the first or second reading, which are often neglected in preaching. Of course, during Easter, instead of taking our first reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, we read from the Acts of the Apostles, which is without doubt one of the most exciting books of Sacred Scripture. It is also the case that our reading for today from Acts follows nicely from my post yesterday about fearlessly speaking the truth in love to power.
Our reading is from the fifth chapter of Acts (verses 27-32 and 40b-41). It begins with some of the apostles being dragged before the Sanhedrin, the same body that participated in Jesus' trial and condemnation. They are reminded by the high priest no less that they (the apostles) had been forbidden to teach in Jesus' name. In reply Peter boldly says, "We must obey God rather than men." He does not leave it there, but testifies- "The God of our ancestors raised Jesus, though you had him killed by hanging him on a tree God exalted him at his right hand as leader and savior to grant Israel repentance and forgiveness of sins. We are witnesses of these things, as is the holy Spirit that God has given to those who obey him." In a tweet earlier today, Pope Francis summarized this well, tweeting, "Let us not forget: if we are to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus, our lives must bear witness to what we preach."
There is often a price to pay for bearing witness to the truth in word and deed. It is important to grasp that only bearing witness with words is probably not much of a threat to anyone. Peter's words had power only because of the deeds he, along with the other apostles, had been doing in Jesus' name.
Turning again to Pope Francis, particularly to one of his famously succinct homilies given at one of the daily Masses he often celebrates in the Casa di Santa Marta (this one from last Saturday, 6 April), the Holy Father broached the subject of religious freedom really for the first time as pope. Being a thoroughly post-secular pastor, he didn't spend time or effort lamenting the hostility Christians often face in living and standing up for the truth of the Gospel. But neither did he castigate those who are hostile to what is said and done in the name of Jesus. Here's what he said: "To find the martyrs it is not necessary to go to the catacombs or to the Colosseum: the martyrs are living now, in many countries. Christians are persecuted for their faith, today, in the 21st century, our Church is a Church of martyrs."
He then preached on the necessity of bearing witness to the faith in its fullness: "The faith is not negotiable. There has always been, in the history of the people of God, this temptation: to cut a piece away from the faith, perhaps not even very much. But the faith is how we speak of it in the Creed. We must overcome the temptation to do a bit as everyone does, not to be so very rigid, because right from there begins a road that ends in apostasy. In fact, when we begin to cut up the faith, to negotiate the faith, to sell it to the highest bidder, we start down the road of apostasy, of infidelity to the Lord."
Finally, as Sandro Magister observed in his article about all of this, "The Unprecedented 'Presumption' of Changing the World," "For Pope Francis, religious freedom means above all 'having the courage to bear witness to faith in the risen Christ.' A faith that is complete, and public. A faith that presumes to transform society."
Our readings today are not chronological. Our first reading from Acts shows what happened after St. Peter's amazing experience with our resurrected Lord, in which Jesus restored him after his three-fold betrayal. Peter begins to see for himself just what the Lord meant when He said,
"Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, "Follow me"As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship- "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." This dying, paradoxically, is the only way to eternal life (Luke 9:24).