One of our most primitive human needs is to feel accepted by our peers. From our earliest years we feel the need to measure up to what society expects of us. In fact, psychologists tell us that children fear being rejected and ridiculed by their peers even more than they fear their own death or the death of their parents. Whether we admit it or not, the need to fit in colors many of the choices we make including what clothes we wear, what job we choose and even whom we decide to marry. Society uses our fear of rejection to induce us to accept its rules and values.
On the other hand, we are a people who have come to know Jesus Christ in a personal way. Our lives are guided not by society's values but by the word of God. Alive with the Spirit of God which was given us at our baptism, we reject much of what the culture around us holds up as good and valuable so that we can follow Christ. At the same time, we have to live and work among people who are not yet convinced of the power of God's love and the truth of his word. Because we have one foot in the world and the other foot in the Kingdom of God, there are times when we are confronted with a co-worker who ridicules a teaching of the Church or a friend who questions why we no longer want to gossip.
When we have the opportunity to witness to and defend our faith, do we let our fear of rejection silence us or, in the Spirit, do we stand up for the beliefs we hold dear? It is a question that all Christians who seek to live their faith with integrity must ask themselves. It is a question that all those who have come to accept the word of God have been faced with throughout the centuries. And as always, the Scriptures give us insight and inspiration in dealing with this question in our own lives.
The first reading is taken from the book of the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel lived in a time when the people of Israel were tempted to worship the idols of other nations. They saw the political power and great prosperity of the nations around them and wondered whether by worshiping the gods of those peoples they too could become mighty. It was at that time that the Babylonians invaded Israel, destroyed much of Jerusalem and took thousands of Israelites into exile in what is now Iraq. The people were under great pressure to accept the pagan values of the Babylonian society that surrounded them. But God sent the prophet Ezekiel to speak his word that they should remain faithful to the Lord and to his commandments. God warned Ezekiel that his message would be rejected by many, yet he should continue to proclaim the word with boldness. The confidence of the prophet would come because he understood that it was not his own message he was delivering but God's. Ezekiel understood that it was not him they were rejecting but God himself. Though Ezekiel was killed for preaching God's word, the people did recognize that a prophet had been among them as God said, and his words continue to be proclaimed throughout the world today.
The prophet Ezekiel teaches us to be bold in witnessing to and defending our faith because it comes from God himself. It is not our opinion, but the truth of God which has been passed down through the centuries. And that truth endures forever. Societies and their values come and go, but the truth of the gospel message remains the same. Only historians of the ancient near east could tell us about the gods and values of the Babylonian society which seemed so powerful in Ezekiel's day. They did not last. But we know what Ezekiel taught, and we draw inspiration and courage from it to this day. In the same way, the values of the society around us - the lack of respect for human life, the blind pursuit of wealth and pleasure, the worship of celebrities - will not last. We have been entrusted with something that has stood the test of time - the gospel of Jesus Christ - and we must be bold in proclaiming it and living it even if it means being rejected and ridiculed by our family, friends and neighbors.
If the prophet Ezekiel teaches us to be bold in proclaiming the truths of our faith, Saint Paul teaches us to be humble. No one besides Jesus himself had as much success spreading the good news as Saint Paul did. Yet he knew his share of failure, persecution and suffering because of the gospel. Nonetheless, as we see in the second reading, he accepted the failures along with the successes to make it clear that it was God at work in him.
Most of us would admit that what often keeps us from witnessing to our faith is not just our fear of rejection but our fear of failure. We worry that we do not know enough to counter another person's argument or to convince others about the truths of the faith. But faith is a gift from God. Only God can change the human heart and enlighten the mind to receive it. If God places someone in our lives we must believe that he will use us somehow to plant a seed of faith. When it looks as though we are failing, God very likely is hard at work. We may never know what effect we may have on a person by witnessing to our experience of Jesus. But if we choose faith over fear and speak up with boldness and humility about Jesus to others, God will make something incredible happen.
Jesus faced rejection and ridicule from the people he cared about most, his family and friends. If we want to follow him, we can expect the same. But we are not alone. There is a community of the faithful - the Church - which is always there to support us and welcome us even when the world rejects us. The Church is our real home where we encounter Jesus and celebrate the mysteries of our faith. Until we reach our eternal home in heaven, let us ask the Father to give us the boldness and humility to witness to his word both when it is convenient and when it is difficult so that all people can receive the gift of faith which we hold so dear.