by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“The apostles and leaders, your brothers, send greetings to you, our brothers of Gentile origin in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia. We heard that some men from our church went to you and said things that confused and upset you. Mind you, they had no authority from us; we didn’t send them…It seemed to the Holy Spirit and to us that you should not be saddled with any crushing burden but be responsible only for these bare necessities: to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood from the meat of strangled animals, and from illicit sexual unions.” Acts 15, 1-2; 22-29
“…the Father will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him.” John 14, 23-29

If we take nothing else from today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we have to grasp the reality that the very early Christian community struggled with disagreements around rules for belonging. Moreover, if we stop to reflect on the debate relating to circumcision, we will come to appreciate that Christians over the centuries have divided themselves into different camps in their attitudes towards devotional practices, some moral issues, and even prayers and liturgical practices. In some cases, personal opinions are so strong that, in the minds of those who have held onto them, they are enshrined as tantamount to God’s immutable law. Even in today’s Church, we can see evidence of people dividing themselves into groups that are so diametrically opposed that they see those in the opposite camp as threats, heretics or enemies, rather than as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Those in positions of leadership in the early Church were not always consistent. They demonstrated the same human frailties as some Church leaders do today. Paul, for instance, even though he took the common-sense approach of not requiring adult converts to Christianity to be circumcised, still seemed to agree that it was acceptable to put labels on people from some cultures. In his letter to Titus he approved of the way in which a commentator from Crete labelled his own people: “A man of Crete, one of their own prophets has testified: ‘Cretans have ever been liars, beasts and lazy gluttons’, and that is the simple truth” (Titus 1, 11).

Fifty years after the decrees of the Second Vatican Council were promulgated, there are still Catholics who insist that Mass should still be celebrated in Latin and that one should receive communion only on the tongue, as though one’s tongue is cleaner than one’s hand. Whatever their reasoning, there are some who insist that it is more reverent to receive communion on the tongue while in the kneeling position.

There is, however, no point in labelling one another as conservative, traditionalist or radical because of the opinions we hold or the practices we adopt in our prayer, liturgical celebration or theological stance. We are all sons and daughters of God, and sisters and brothers to one another and to Jesus. It is therefore vital that we treat one another with respect, tolerance and dignity,

Perhaps of more concern is the tendency of equating our beliefs and practices with the will of God. That’s something of which we are all capable whenever we slip into arguing that we have a monopoly on the truth, that what we do and say and believe is absolutely right.

Over centuries, there have been people who have designated themselves as Christian and, at the same time, have done their best to twist the will of God into justification for slavery, declaration of war (calling it a just war), and the assassination of leaders for their political views or their oppression of ethnic minorities.

In today’s gospel-reading, Jesus assures his disciples that God will give them the Spirit of Wisdom and Peace to guide them in bringing justice, compassion, mercy and forgiveness to those around them and to the people among whom they live and to whom they minister. Might it not have been that same Spirit who led the leaders of the early Christian community in Jerusalem to the very practical decision of sparing the Gentile converts in Antioch and elsewhere from the risk and fear that would surely have been linked to adult circumcision?

The words attributed by John to Jesus in his long exhortation at the Last Supper, just before Jesus went to his death, are words of promise, encouragement and hope, intended to stand them in good stead when he was no longer physically present among them. Through his presence among them, he had taught them to love, to be compassionate, to persevere in reaching out to others. After his resurrection, he breathed on them the gift of peace and promised them the gift of the Spirit to sustain them in whatever they had to encounter. We know from our own experience that we can be sustained by the inspiration of people who have guided us in life and are no longer with us. We can find ways of putting into practice whatever it was with which they inspired us. There is a richness of presence in the reality of absence, but, to appreciate it, we need to take time to reflect and ponder.

We know that there have been times in our lives when we have put our human expectations on God, on Jesus. We have wanted, even expected, them to act according to our timing. However, we have long since learned that prayer is not a tool for controlling God, that we can’t control God to act in our timing or in our way. We have an expression in English: “Expectations are a down payment on bitterness”. Whenever we project our expectations onto others, including God and Jesus, we might find ourselves disappointed or full of bitterness and resentment when they don’t comply with what we want or when we want it.

What Jesus says in today’s gospel-reading is his response to the question put to him by Judas, a disciple who is distinguished from Judas Iscariot, a different man altogether. Judas asked Jesus why he (Jesus) was entrusting his friends with his message: “Why is it that you are about to make yourself known to us but not to the world?” (John 14, 22) The answer which Jesus effectively gives him is: “Because a loveless world is a blind world, a deaf world…and this is God’s message not mine…it can only be delivered by those who love me and who love God.” What is fascinating about this is that it amounts to Jesus putting expectations on the disciples, on us who follow in their footsteps. And Jesus is patient enough to wait for us to do that in God’s time, in the Spirit’s time, for as long as it takes us to absorb the expectation which he is putting on us. And he loves us so much that he’s not going to rush us. Eventually it will dawn on us that his Spirit dwells with us, deep in our heart. Then we’ll spring into action.