The reading from Acts tells of the opposition the apostles encountered from the Jewish authorities. They came out of it with great credit, especially Peter. It’s hard to believe that this is the same man who a short time before this denied Jesus three times. Now he stood his ground and courageously bore witness for Jesus. And suffered for that stand: he and his fellow apostles were flogged. But they were glad to suffer for the sake of Jesus. From where did Peter get his new-found courage? He got it from the Holy Spirit, and from the support of his fellow apostles.
Fortunately, ever since the time of the apostles there have been Christians who, by the grace of God, have been able to overcome fear and witness to the Gospel, even in the most difficult circumstances.
In March 1983 the Russian poet, Irina Ratushinskaya, was sentenced to seven years hard labor and five years internal exile. Her crime – writing poetry which the communist authorities didn’t approve of. In prison she suffered beatings, forced feeding and solitary confinement in freezing conditions. She developed heart, liver and kidney trouble, as well as chronic bronchitis. Even in such conditions she continued to write, smuggling the poems out on scraps of paper given to sympathetic warders, soldiers and visitors. She was released in October 1986.
Her Christian faith was vital to her survival. She says: “When you are in trouble, under pressure, God always seems closer. God was like a hand on our shoulder in the camp.”
People like Irina are an inspiration to us. They expand the possibilities of human love and courage. It’s easy to believe in God when you are on your knees with your eyes closed, just as it is easy to be a Christian far away from the clamor and the trials of the world of people. But it’s a poor religion that believes God is to be found only in places far removed from the world. God can’t be confined in this way.
We are disciples of Jesus. He depends on us to bear witness to him in the world today. Few of us will be called on to suffer what the apostles or people like Irina suffered. But we may have to face something which is almost as bad – the deadly indifference of our fellow citizens.
We can’t tell in advance where the Christian vocation will take us, or what it may demand from us. If we could see those places, perhaps our hearts would grow faint and courage would fail us. In that respect we are like Peter. When he first responded to the call of Jesus, he had no idea that it would lead him to martyrdom. But whatever the Christian vocation demands of us will be returned with a hundredfold increase.