Commentaries on the Readings: Acts 15:1-2,22-29; Revelation 21:10-14,22-23; John 14:23-29
[When the Ascension is celebrated on the following Sunday, the Second Reading (Rev 22:12-14,16-17,20) and the Gospel (John 17:20-26) of the Seventh Sunday of Easter may be used today.]
TWO SIDES OF CHRISTIAN LIVING are reflected in today’s readings. The Gospel radiates a calmness and peace and reassurance that we all need so much. The First Reading, however, reflects the areas of difference and conflict that are bound to arise when even Christians come face to face with new problems and new questions for the articulation of their faith. Such conflicts, when properly handled, are necessary, even desirable, if we are to have a deeper understanding of the real meaning of our faith in a changing world.
And God speaks to us through the changing situations in which the world finds itself. So, at first sight the answers are not always clear. There are different interpretations and even disagreements until we find where the Spirit is leading us. We have conflicts like that today in questions over married priests, women priests, problems about marriage and family planning, dealing with death and dying, questions about sexual relationships and sexual orientations.
Yet both calm and conflict have something in common. They remind us of the different ways in which God speaks to us. Through his Spirit, which Jesus promises to send after he has left his disciples in the flesh, he will continue to be present, to be with his community, the Church.
“If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home with him.” The proof of our “love” for Jesus is that we keep his “word” and in turn we will experience the “love” of the Father, and the Father and Jesus will “abide” (make their home) in us. If we only had those words from Jesus and nothing else, they would be enough to guide us through life and point us in the right direction.
Love a verb
Love, as has been said, is not a feeling – it is a verb. “There is no love in our marriage any more”, “There is no love in our family… our office… our group.” What is really being said is that there are no feelings of “love” for the simple reason that there is no love going on. There can be no love (feeling) without loving (doing). As Eliza Doolittle tells Professor Higgins in “My Fair Lady”, “Don’t talk about love – show me!” And anyone can start the process.
For Jesus, love, by which he means loving, is achieved by “keeping his word”. The “word” of Jesus must not be limited to what we were taught as “commandments” or “doctrines” or moral behaviour, although it obviously includes these. The “word” of Jesus embraces everything we know about him through the Scripture – his words, his actions, his relationships with people of all kinds, the guiding principles of his life, his values and attitudes. Above all, his blueprint for the setting up of the Kingdom.
Jesus is the “Word” of God not only because of what comes from his lips but from the whole impact of his life from his birth in an animals’ shelter at Bethlehem to the appalling last moments of agony and humiliation on the Cross. To “keep Jesus’ words” is to embrace all of that, to identify with it and make it real in the particular context of my own life.
We may say, too, that the “word” of Jesus also comes to us from all our interactions and experiences within the Christian community where Jesus still speaks to us. It comes to us through the whole of creation of which Jesus is the Head and with which he identifies through his Creator Father.
Nice and soothing
The words of today’s Gospel are relatively abstract. They sound so nice and soothing, which is perhaps why they are so easy to digest. But life is not abstract; it constantly puts us face to face with the nitty-gritty. The Church, too, is not abstract although we often speak impersonally of it in phrases such as “Why doesn’t the Church…?”, “What does the Church say…?” and so on.
The Church is much more than an organisation founded 2,000 years ago by Jesus Christ. It is, as the Second Vatican Council emphasised, a people. It is a community – at times a rather fractious, disjointed, flawed community – whose members in varying degrees share their faith and hope, their love and caring. A community which, with and in Jesus, is called to work for the transformation of our world of sin and weakness, to make it, in the words of Revelation today, “a city where the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple,” the focal point of worship.
It is through this community, with all its faults (and they are many), that the Spirit continues to speak as it did in the days of the first disciples. That Spirit of the Father and Jesus speaks not only through pope, bishops and priests but can and does speak through each and every one of the members of Christ’s Body – old or young, educated or illiterate, men or woman, friends or enemies.
Today, bishops and priests are urged to listen to each other and to listen to the whole community. In its Decree on the Lay Apostolate, par. 10, the Second Vatican Council said: The laity should “develop the habit of bringing before the ecclesial community their own problems, world problems, and questions regarding men’s (sic) salvation, to examine them together and to solve them by general discussion”.
We may think this is something new but we see it at work right from the beginning of the Church’s existence. We have a lovely example in today’s First Reading from the Acts of the Apostles. For there was a new problem arising in these early church communities.
Many non-Jews were becoming Christians but some of the Jewish Christians wanted the non-Jews to observe (as they themselves continued to do) the laws of Moses, especially the distinguishing badge (for men) of circumcision. It was difficult for anyone from a Jewish background to accept the abandonment of this very distinctive mark of identity for God’s people.
However, some of the Apostles and others working among non-Jews were opposed to this. (On the purely physical level, for an adult convert to be circumcised, given the limitations of ancient surgical practices, would surely be a very painful experience. On a psychological level, what would seem to non-Jews a mutilation of the male sexual organ would surely be regarded by some very difficult to accept. Even after Baptism, a man should still be a man!)
After a long discussion, which, we may imagine by reading between the lines, must have been quite heated at times, the leaders of the Church agreed that non-Jewish converts did not have to observe Jewish laws, especially that of circumcision. They did ask for some exceptions, namely, that all Christians continue to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from animals that had been strangled and from extra-marital sexual intercourse or marriages against prevailing Jewish law.
These were things that even non-Jews were expected to observe when living among Jews. Fornication was something taken lightly in Greek culture and often connected with temple prostitutes. However, the imposition of some dietary restrictions (long since abandoned) was surely to avoid unnecessarily hurting the sensitivities of Jewish converts. Paul speaks about this in his Letter to the Romans.
The Church leaders made it clear that their decision was not theirs alone. “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves…” This was only the implementation of Jesus’ own words that his authority would be passed over to the community of his followers. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven (i.e. acknowledged as binding by God).” And again, “The Helper (Paraclete), the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name [it happened at Pentecost], will teach you everything…” And he still continues to teach us in our own times.
This decision was reached ultimately by consensus because many of the community expressed their opinion and shared their experiences. The leaders, then as now with a bias for retaining the status quo, recognised the presence of the Holy Spirit in the arguments of those who had been called back from their mission fields and who had first-hand knowledge of the high calibre of the new non-Jewish disciples. It was clear that the Spirit of God had entered into these people’s hearts as much as any Jewish-born disciples.
It was a major turning point in the development of Christianity. It involved a “paradigm shift”, a radical alteration of the way truth and reality were to be seen. It happened because some people were open to what God was clearly saying through circumstances and experience. It is an openness that is both valid and needed in today’s Christian communities, large and small, and even in individual lives.
In subsequent years Paul had constantly to warn people against wanting to slide back to the old ways, people who wanted to re-introduce circumcision and other items of Jewish custom. “You have been liberated,” he told the Galatians. “Why go back to your old subservience?”
We see the same tendency in the Church today. People who want to turn the clock back and resurrect old customs and impose them on others. These people tend to make the Church an end in itself. The Church is primarily a vehicle, a means by which the experience of God’s love is extended to the whole world. And, if the Church is to be true to the Spirit, it must remain open to the world for it is the world which, in the words of one theologian, “writes the agenda for the Church”.
It was precisely because they listened to the situation of the new non-Jewish converts, that the Church realised where the Spirit was leading it. When the Church becomes an enclosed, elitist society sitting in unbending judgement on the rest of the world it is no longer the Church that Jesus founded.
Collectively and individually, we need to become aware of the wonderful ways that the Lord can come into our lives. If we give a little time to God each day, if we can remain completely still for even a short while, we can experience an overpowering desire to share in the loving that is reaching out to us from God. And then start reaching out ourselves. God wants to share with us more and more of what he has and is. The problem is that most of us hardly give him a chance. Loving is not only a verb; it is a two-way street.