Sixth Sunday of Easter 'C'

Sunday May 9, 2010

Going Back in Order to Go Forward

There is something about this time of the year that creates in many people a bit of nostalgia if not melancholy—a longing to go back home; to return to our roots and re-visit places which remain sacred in our individual and collective memories; to be with people whom we haven’t seen in years many of whom may have returned to God; to recapture feelings and experiences that console us and make us feel ‘at home’ again.

And of course, Mother’s Day brings its own brand of memories and stories of earlier times when our moms—living and dead—are given free reign to tell the way it really was.

We may indeed be able to go back to the place and though the faces have changed, the stories associated with the place bring back the experience and even bring loved ones back to life—at least ‘in spirit.’

But we can’t really go back to ‘as it was when we left it’ nor should we. The truth is that it wasn’t really that way anyhow. Our memories have deleted ‘stuff’ that we do not want to recall or have edited, revised and filed them under ‘Happy Memories’ even though they may be mixed at best.

Whatever, the “good ole days” were not always golden and surely not without episodic or even prolonged travail. Though we make them sound that way, our ‘war stories did not always end in victory at least for us.

In any event we go back not to escape from reality but to deal with reality with the assurance that we will get through, indeed, that all will be well, as a family, as a community and as a nation.

We in the Judeo-Christian tradition do the same thing with regard to our religious memory. We have the same urge to go back home, to return to our religious roots to revisit times and places familiar to our ancestors; to tell of their victories and put their defeats in clearer perspective. We do this to be assured that the God who soul food in the past is ever-present and remains the ground of our being today.

However, just as in the case of our nostalgia for the happy days of ‘yore,’ the religious memory of our Church within the context of its Jewish ancestry is very selective. The authors of the Bible redacted (retold) stories and sayings of prophets, sages and apostles, and of course, of Jesus in order to buoy up people of faith in latter days and to energize them and us into action.

With that belabored introduction, we turn now to the description of the early Christian community in the Acts of the Apostles. Though it was a time of grace and peace among the believers, dissension was inevitable. Recall that Christianity was initially a ‘sect’ within Judaism. However, as stories about Jesus spread to the gentiles, it was only a matter of time when serious questions about religious practice would arise both within the gentile community as well as among the Jewish Christians who still remained faithful to the Torah. “How come ‘they’ don’t need to be circumcised?” To you and to me, the issue may be ‘no big deal; but to traditional Jews, it had the potential for a major disruption.

Put in a contemporary context, “How can you say that ‘they’ can be saved without baptism into Christ? In order to live fully in Christ, one must live in full accord with all the rules of the Catholic Church. We have been told that we are the “one true Church!” As with the Torah, some rules are of divine origin; others though in some way rooted in divine revelation, with the aid of human reason are human applications and therefore able to be adapted and/or changed to accommodate ever changing cultures and new insights into human behavior and development.

The issue about the circumcision of gentiles was hotly debated ‘in council’ at Jerusalem and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the decision was made that the gentles should not have to undergo the burden of circumcision. “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities…” and then they mention forbidden foods and incestuous unions.

Notice in the description of the visit to Antioch by Paul and Barnabas, prototypes of our present day bishops, that they were accompanied two elders, ‘lay’ disciples, Judas (not the Iscariot) and Silas. A letter was not sufficient nor was it acceptable for Paul and Barnabas to travel unaccompanied by a couple of elders. With no disrespected to Paul and Barnabas, they were sort of voter watchdogs. The people needed to be assured that indeed the matter was discussed thoroughly in council and everyone’s opinion heard. It must be assumed therefore that the elders of the Church did not discuss the matter in isolation from the early Christian community at Jerusalem. Notice too, that the apostles and elders deferred ultimately to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit rather than to their own personal biases. Might we not call this the First Vatican Council of Jerusalem?

John’s vision of the ‘New Jerusalem’ in the Book of Revelations, Chapter 21, though in some sense an anachronism is also a look into the future. For John the ancient City of Jerusalem was a metaphor for the heavenly realm in which Christ would reign. No temple would be necessary—Christ is the new Temple and we are temples of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus said, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them and we will come to them and make our dwelling place among them.” This portion of Jesus’ farewell message constructed by John the Evangelist is the prescription for authentic Christian living. “Do not worry; I am sending you the Holy Spirit who will help you to understand the words I have spoken to you. Work things out. Be patient with one another. Compromise on your own opinions but always defer to the Holy Spirit rather than to your own political bias. You will know when the Spirit speaks because you will experience a sense of peace and unanimity among you and even joy.

This was the way of Jesus. Those who do not seek the wisdom of God end up on dead end streets. They need no accusers and make no mistake about it; the self-righteous indignation of so-called ‘believers’ is no guarantee of God’s backing whatever their authority and vesture. Religious leaders and commentators who revel in anachronisms and sanctions against those who express a view contrary to their own do not advance the cause of truth and justice.

During these days of religious wars and the desecration of the human spirit, we need to back away from the folly of pure human reason and the concomitant ‘get them before they get us’ strategy.

Whether it be a preemptive strike against our political or religious enemies, we need to turn to the wisdom of the God of all races and nations who will not be satisfied until full justice is achieved among people of every race and nation.

In the mind of many faithful believers, this is a utopian visionto be sure. Nevertheless as we prepare for the great feast of Pentecost, we pray that somehow God will ntervene or rather that we will recognize God’s continuing intervention and come to our senses; that we do indeed need to return to our roots—familial and ancestral—and discover again as if for the first time that evil will not be defeated by evil but by goodness and Godness.

And you know what? I think many mothers and grandmothers are way ahead of us in the wisdom that makes for healthy pursuit of justice. Wisdom (Sophia) is the feminine attribute of God, so listen up!

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