His name was John Fisher and he was a witness. He was many things to many people and loved by almost all, but above all else he was a witness. What he witnessed to was his faith in Jesus Christ.
John Fisher bore witness to the God who made him, to the Catholic faith he was ordained—as a priest and eventually a bishop—to proclaim and profess. He witnessed to the teachings of the Catholic faith handed down to us from Christ. And for that witness, under King Henry VIII in sixteenth century England, he died.
That is the ultimate expression of what it means to be a witness. The word in Greek for witness is martus (µαρτυς) and it is where we get the word martyr. To be a martyr is to bear witness with one’s body, one’s earthly existence itself, for faith in Jesus Christ. St. John Fisher did that and for that reason we celebrate his feast day today…but not only his. He shares this feast day with perhaps a better known saint, St. Thomas More.
St. Thomas More was also a witness but unlike St. John Fisher he was a Catholic layman, not a priest; not a bishop. He was a brilliant lawyer and held the highest appointed office in all England: Chancellor.
St. Thomas More loved his family, loved his work and the country of England. He even loved King Henry VIII (no small feat, that). But above all these he loved God. If you have seen the movie A Man for All Seasons, then you will remember the final scene, which is taken directly from the life of St. Thomas More. Immediately before his execution he announces to the crowd gathered there:
I die here the King’s good servant, but God’s first.
That is at the heart of what it means to be a witness: to place God above everyone and everything. Christ this weekend challenges us to be witnesses to Him and the gospel message.
“Fear no one,” He says (Matthew 10:26).
When it comes to being a witness for Jesus Christ we are called to do so without any fear of anyone or anything on earth.
What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.
We are called, every one of us, to be witnesses.
“Everyone who acknowledges me before others,” Jesus assures us, “I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father" (Matthew 10:32). Can you imagine what that would be like? To stand before God in heaven, surrounded by all the saints and angels, and to have Christ point to you and say:
This one, Father. This one was my witness on earth.
But if we deny Him…
Whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.
Our message for the gospel this weekend is a sobering one indeed. We are called to be witnesses, to bear witness to Jesus Christ in this world so that we can live forever with Him in the next. How are we called to do that?
I would suggest there are at least three ways we are called to be witnesses. The first is given to us by way of example in the lives of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More. They were witnesses for Christ by defending the teachings of the faith handed down to us by God through the apostles. They died defending that faith. We are called to bear witness to that same faith and defend it when necessary.
What are the teachings of our faith that are in need of being defended in our own time and culture? The number one teaching under fire today and one that every Christian man and woman is bound to defend is the dignity of every human life, from the moment of conception until natural death.
The world we live in does not accept that teaching, as you know. Abortion on demand is the law of the land here in our own country and in many other places around the world. The state says we can decide—each one of us—which unborn child lives or dies. Or we can decide to experiment on life in its tiniest and most vulnerable form: the human embryo.
It is never acceptable to take another human life, or to do embryonic stem-cell research on a living human being, no matter what the possible results or outcome may be. We are called to defend the dignity of all human life and to speak out boldly and clearly for those who cannot speak for themselves.
Life at the end of our earthly journey, our faith teaches, is equally sacred. There are several countries in Europe and one state here in our own country (Oregon) where that teaching is thoroughly rejected. Euthanasia or “mercy killing” is an accepted way of facing death for the elderly and those who make their own decision that life is no longer worth living.
Will we have the courage to stand up and defend the sacredness of human life, from the moment of conception until the moment of natural death, when necessary in our own country or our own state? We will have the chance to do that this election year, when we can speak up and be heard and let our beliefs be made known to those we will choose to represent us. May we be faithful witnesses in that!
Marriage: another key tenet of our faith and a foundational institution given to us by God, which is under attack daily in our nation. That was the issue in sixteenth century England, as well. King Henry VIII had no problem with the Trinity. He believed that Christ was the Son of God, and Mary was the Mother of God. No problems there. It was marriage that he had a problem with.
King Henry VIII said that he was going to decide when marriage begins and when it ends; not the Pope, and not the Church. He would be the head of the Church in his England, and he would tell them what marriage was.
St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher said: No you won’t! They opposed King Henry VIII because we already have a Head of the Church, Jesus Christ, and He has to told us clearly what marriage is. For that opposition they were executed.
God, right now, is asking for a lot less from you and me. But He is asking us to defend this teaching of our faith and the institution He has given us in the Garden of Eden, a covenant relationship of love between one man and one woman. That is marriage; not two men or two women.
And if you give that witness, if you defend marriage as God has revealed it, you will be criticized! They will say that you are a bigot, or that you do not love people with another lifestyle, or worse: that you hate them.
Yet being a witness is more than being defensive. We are also called to live out our faith with great love and great passion, so that others may see what we have and be brought closer to God. I will give you an example: saying grace before meals. Sounds simple enough, right?
Do you pray before meals, thanking God for the food and the people around your table? But do you do that in public, in a restaurant? If you do, I promise you people around you will look. They will notice, and maybe even stare. But one thing they probably will not do is tell you what they are thinking inside. They will not say that they are thinking:
If only I had that kind of faith, maybe I would be able to get through this struggle or trial in my life right now.
If only I had faith like that, maybe I would be more joyful or more at peace in my life.
And that leads us to the third reason why we are called to be witnesses: not for ourselves, or for God, but for them. We are called to be witnesses for the men and women who do not yet believe in Jesus Christ, or the ones who do believe but are not living that faith the way God wants them to. We are called to be witnesses to them, sharing with them the message of the gospel and the overwhelming mercy and forgiveness already shown to us.
Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi, said the reason why the Church exists in the first place is to evangelize. We exist not for ourselves but for the world around us, to proclaim the gospel and to lead other souls to God and eternal life.
Do we have the courage to do that in our lives, and are we willing to ask God to help us to live our faith in that way? If so then, please God, may Christ point to us when our lives here are complete, and say about us:
That one, Father. That one was my witness on earth. Come.