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Watch 2022-2023 online sermons » Robert Barron » Robert Barron - Stand Strong in the Spirit

Robert Barron - Stand Strong in the Spirit

Robert Barron - Stand Strong in the Spirit

Peace be with you. Friends, for this week I'm going to preach on our second reading. I don't do that all that often, but it's very powerful today. It's from Paul's second letter to Timothy. Scholars are divided about whether Paul himself actually wrote this letter. It was kind of customary in the ancient world sometimes to write something and then claim a famous person as the author. And there's evidence on both sides of this. I've always been persuaded that Paul did indeed write it. At any rate it's filled with Paul's spirit. It's written from prison. Paul spent a lot of time in prison.

As I've said before, when you declared the Lordship of Jesus in the ancient world, you were not just trading in bland, spiritual speech. You were making a subversive claim because Caesar was Lord. You're claiming, no, not Caesar, but Jesus is Lord. You're upsetting all the social political conventions of the time. Therefore, it's not surprising that Paul spent a lot of time in prison. From prison he writes to Timothy and there's something very charming because Timothy is a much younger man. And there's something of a mentor-mentee, a master-disciple relationship between Paul and Timothy. And the fact that Timothy was part Jewish part Gentile just adds to the charm because, of course, Paul, the Jew who was born in Gentile territory and whose whole mission was to bring the God of Israel to the nations, in a way Timothy kind of symbolizes that dual nature of Paul.

There's something of, call it an old soldier giving advice to a young soldier. I'm using that image on purpose, because Paul often saw the spiritual life in these sort of military terms, of a struggle, of a battle, of a conquest. Listen now to what he says to Timothy. "I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God bestowed when my hands were laid on you. The spirit God has given us is no cowardly spirit, but rather one that makes us strong, loving, and wise". There's so much to unpack there. "Stir into flame the gift of God bestowed when my hands were laid upon you".

As I record these words, just a few weeks ago I had the enormous privilege as a Bishop to ordain young men to the priesthood, and it's done through this gesture of the laying on of hands. And I've had the privilege of doing that now a number of times. And whenever I have, in my mind I go right back to these earliest days. This was the gesture by which the power of ordination was passed on. So Paul reminds Timothy of when he ordained him. And then he tells him, "The spirit that you should stir into flame is no cowardly spirit". This is soldier to soldier. The implication is there's going to be something of a battle. You've got to have courage to face down the enemies you will face down. You got to be able to stand strong.

But notice something please? It's no cowardly spirit, but makes us strong, loving and wise. He's not telling Timothy he should be a soldier in the ordinary sense. He's not telling him to attach his courage to the weapons of the world. No, no. Rather to wisdom and to love. And there you've got the gospel, everybody. When one stands courageously, with wisdom, with love, with all the gifts of the Holy Spirit, then one is able to face down the powers of the world. When we try to fight them on their own terms, we try to conquer evil with evil, we make no progress toward the kingdom of God. But when this courageous spirit is stirred up and coupled with wisdom and love?

Now we make a difference. Now we move toward the kingdom. Now with that in mind, and this, especially that phrase that we have received no cowardly spirit. Can I rehearse for you the story of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko. Now maybe not a household name, but he should be. One of the great heroes really of the 20th century. Father Jerzy distinguished himself in the early years of the 1980s during the Solidarity struggle in Poland. When he was a seminarian, he was not a star. Sometimes you see a guy in the seminary and say, "Boy, he's got gifts of mind and compassion and pastoral skill. And boy that guy's going to really make a mark".

Well, Father Jerzy wasn't like that in the seminary, frankly. He was known as quiet and prayerful, but a little bit unsure himself, a little on the mousy side. Probably nobody in the seminary would've chosen him for great things. After his ordination, he becomes an associate pastor in a parish in Gdansk. And Gdansk, as you remember is the city where the Solidarity movement really was born. So I remember those times very well. I was a young guy, I was about 20 years old, when largely under the inspiration of John Paul II, who had come to Poland in 1979, stood there in Victory Square Warsaw and there in the presence of the Polish government and implicitly behind them, the whole Soviet government, John Paul, with no tanks or no army, no guns, began to speak these great truths about God, about the spiritual life, about the dignity of human beings, about human rights.

I remember the people began to chant. "We want God. We want God. We want God". And a social revolution as well as a religious one was unleashed that day. Well it took more concrete political form in the so-called solidarność, the Solidarity movement. And Gdansk is where it started. You remember, here's another name, maybe it's faded away a bit, but Lech Wałęsa, who was kind of a union organizer, dock worker, and he becomes the leader of this solidarity movement. Well, Father Jerzy was there in Gdansk as a young priest when all of this ferment was going on. Now, they certainly had their political leader in Wałęsa and they had, if you want, a long distance spiritual leader in John Paul II.

But I think what the people were looking for was someone on the ground who'd provide for them spiritual leadership. And I think to everyone's surprise, they found it in this mousy young priest who suddenly began from his parish church to preach these powerful sermons, very much in the spirit of John Paul II. Invoking the power of God, reminding people of human dignity, speaking against attempts to oppress, speaking in favor of human rights. And it galvanized the crowds. They came first in small numbers. Then they came in greater numbers, and finally they, they filled the church and they overflowed outside so that his sermons were carried on loud speakers to great crowds around the church.

One thing Father Jerzy insisted upon was the power of non-violence. Not to oppose their oppressors with the violent weapons of the world, the violent strategies of the world, but rather to walk with what Gandhi would've called soul force, the power of the spirit, the power of non-violent resistance. He gave the people a way to fight and they learned from him. Well, as was the case with Oscar Romero in El Salvador, the sermons of Jerzy Popiełuszko came to the attention of the government. They knew that he was a powerful opponent. They knew precisely because of his style of preaching and the content of his message that he was particularly dangerous.

If he had been a straightforward violent revolutionary, they could have just dealt with him, but they knew he was particularly dangerous. And so at the height of his popularity, one night, he was kidnapped by officers of the government. He was trussed up. He was beaten repeatedly and eventually he was dumped in the river and drowned. This vibrant young man, this spiritual leader, put to death by his opponents. When Paul laid his hands on Timothy, he stirred up in him a spirit that was no cowardly spirit. A spirit enabling Timothy to stand, yes, against the powers of the world. Not in violence, not using the weapons of the world, but precisely in wisdom and in love. There was Jerzy Popiełuszko.

For several days, the people of his parish prayed that he was missing. They didn't know where he was. They feared the worst, but they prayed. Eventually his body was discovered and some feared, "Well, this will overflow now into great violence. The people will be so angry. They will rise up violently against the government". It didn't happen. You know why? Because the people had taken in the lessons of Father Jerzy's sermons. They rose up, not in violence, but in prayer and in soul force.

And there's no question, John Paul II of course, is an animating spirit behind the Solidarity movement. But Father Jerzy Popiełuszko in death became also a very powerful spiritual force. It led eventually to massive change within Poland, and I think it's no exaggeration to say, it led in time to the breakup of the Soviet Union. These spiritual figures, through soul force, having in them no cowardly spirit, effected massive social change.

Let me close with a story. This goes back to that same era. I was a seminarian at the time. I would've been at Mundelein seminary, like maybe second or third year. And to the seminary one night came the man who actually confirmed me when I was in sixth grade, Bishop Alfred Abramowicz, he was an auxiliary of Chicago. He had been a good friend of John Paul II. He was active in smuggling things into Poland during the worst of the communist period. Anyway, there we were and we were pretty comfortable, mostly middle class, kids from the city or suburbs of Chicago, doing our seminary studies, but living a fairly easy, comfortable life.

But I remember that night after dinner, Bishop Abramowicz got up. And he spoke to us of Jerzy Popiełuszko and none of us at the time knew this story. And you could hear a pin drop in the room as we took in this extraordinary story about a man who wasn't a lot older than we were at the time and who gave his life and witness to the gospel, that he experienced stirred up in him the same spirit we were anticipating to be stirred up in us at our ordination. Well, we were so impressed. I mean, to this day, I remember that evening. There was a little group of us who formed a prayer group around Jerzy Popiełuszko, praying for his intercession. And even today as I stand here many years later, filled and stirred up, by his spirit, by his example.

Listen to Paul, and I'll close with this, as he speaks to Timothy. "Therefore never be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for His sake, but with the strength that comes from God, bear your share of the hardship which the gospel entails". So it goes, everybody, up and down the centuries for 2000 years. We do stand against a sinful world. We stand athwart a world predicated upon violence and hatred and cruelty and injustice. Therefore there is in us no cowardly spirit, but don't tie that spirit to the weapons of the world, tie that spirit to wisdom and to love. And you will take steps toward the kingdom of God. And God bless you.
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