Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Through Many Tribulations

There are many exhortations in the Scriptures concerning the Kingdom of God. We like to hear about the beauty and the glory and the joy of the Kingdom, and we are comforted to know that faith and baptism open the gates of the Kingdom for us. But here’s one that might not be a frequent theme of our meditation: “through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

It is not just faith but perseverance in faith, with all that this implies, that will lead us to Heaven. In fact,
St Paul, immediately before uttering the above admonition, was “strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith…” St Paul ought to know about going through tribulations. There are several lists of them in his letters, the beatings and floggings and persecutions, etc. The one he just emerged from (which may have been the basis for the saying on tribulations) was quite dramatic. In Lystra, Paul’s enemies attempted to kill him and almost succeeded. In fact, they stoned him so severely that they thought he was dead and left him lying there. His disciples gathered around him (and presumably prayed), and he got up alive. So did he go to a seaside spa for a quiet and comfortable convalescence? No, he immediately went to the nearest town and started preaching the Gospel again!

For him, that brush with death was just one of the many tribulations that are part of the path to the Kingdom of God. Perhaps you and I will not be stoned or flogged for our Christian witness (though we may be verbally flogged at times), but we must accept that disciples of a crucified Master must carry the cross. No servant is greater than his master. “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer and thus enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26). Even in the context of his consoling Last Discourse, Jesus reminded us: “In the world you have tribulation; but take courage, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Our consolation is in Christ’s overcoming the world and all that it hurls at us. To overcome, however, is not to avoid but to confront, engage in battle, and emerge victorious. So we will experience the sting of trials and sufferings. We have to send down deep roots so that we do not wither under adverse conditions. Jesus warns us about shallow Christians: they are the ones “who hear the word [of God]…yet have no root in themselves, but endure for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away” (Matthew 13:20-21). And thus they bear no fruit for the Kingdom. In his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis writes: “Only long-term fidelity to…its Sower’s intention can produce the whole healthy plant and its fruit… Disagreement, opposition, contrary winds, sunlight grown too intense—in other words, pain—are the test that determines whether Christ’s word in us has been received as a pastime or as the treasure of our hearts… Mature faith, faith that has managed to sink roots in the earth below the rocks, does not have pleasure and pain as the chief criteria for judging the quality and rightness of the situation. Mature faith keeps its gaze steadily on the contemplation of its Lord…”

After Paul and the apostles with him had exhorted the faithful and appointed presbyters for the local churches, “with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed.” Here is a call for endurance and faith, says the Seer of the Apocalypse (Revelation 13:10 and 14:12). Commit yourself to the Lord in whom you believe, and you will be able to weather the storms, be they great or small. You will grow strong through steadfast reliance on God’s grace in times of adversity. And best of all, you will gain access to the Kingdom of Heaven.