6th Sunday of Easter
Fr. Joseph Levine; May 9, 2021
Readings: Acts 10:25-26,34-35,44-48; Ps 95:1-4; 1 Jn 4:7-10; Jn 15:9-17
Many errors, dangerous and destructive errors, arise from taking the words of Scripture out of context. When people take Scripture out of context, instead of truly hearing the word of God, they hear what they want to hear.
Listening to today’s 1st reading some people might hear: God shows no partiality … in every nation people are acceptable to him. They will think that this means that it does not matter what you believe, only how you act; others will even hear that it doesn’t matter so much how you act, because God is merciful and accepts you anyway.
They will not consider that these words were spoken by St. Peter whom we heard just last Sunday insist that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation.
Neither will they consider the historical context in which these words were spoken. Before the time of Jesus there was one people in all the earth that had been specially chosen by God as his people, the Jewish people. As God’s chosen people, they divided all the world between Jew and Gentile. God himself had made the distinction; God himself had shown partiality to the Jews. In the event narrated in today’s reading, a Gentile, a Roman centurion, Cornelius, together with his whole household, comes to be baptized. In the process, Peter learns that now, because of the salvation wrought by Jesus Christ, access to God does not go by way of the Jewish people, the covenant on Sinai, or the Mosaic law, but by way of Jesus Christ. Now, God no longer shows partiality; all nations have equal access through Christ.
Finally, in today’s reading, St. Peter did not actually say that everyone is acceptable to God; rather he said that in every nation whoever fears God and acts uprightly is acceptable to him. This does not take place without the help of divine grace. Further, acting uprightly is not enough, the person must also ‘fear God’. Finally, while Cornelius, before receiving baptism, before hearing the preaching of St. Peter, already feared God and acted uprightly, this had prepared him to hear Peter, to believe in Christ, and to be baptized. Salvation is through Christ. The grace by which a person, apart from faith in Christ, fears God and acts uprightly, is meant to lead to Christ and to baptism, which means also to incorporation in the Church.
The Second Vatican Council, in its Decree on Religious Liberty, laid down as a fundamental principle:
“It is in accordance with their dignity as persons – that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility – that all men are at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth.” (Dignitatis Humanae, 2)
The Vatican Council here enunciates what we could call the most fundamental moral obligation. It is the obligation to fear God and act uprightly, or at least to seek the truth about God and act accordingly. To fear God and act uprightly is the path of the Christian, but it is also the path that leads to Jesus Christ.
Surely, anyone who, being ignorant of God and of Christ, acts under the impulse of grace and so seeks to know the truth and to do what is right, whether he knows it or not, is on the path towards Jesus Christ. We can expect that such a person will be saved by Christ, even if he only comes to know him at the time of his departure from this world.
Nevertheless, such dedication to truth and righteousness is a very rare quality, even among those who profess to believe in Christ. Sure, many people more or less want to do good and will try to avoid things they see as really bad, but mostly they put the priority on their own interest, getting ahead in life. How many really dedicate themselves to learning and pursuing the right way to live? Catholics have received the truth as a gift, but how many make little or no effort really to learn it and build their lives upon it?
Jesus refers to dedication to truth and righteousness, fearing God and acting uprightly, as the narrow gate and the hard way that leads to life, found only by a few. (cf. Mt 7,13,14) By way of contrast the gate is wide and the way easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. (Mt 7:13)
But why such a fuss? All you need is love, right? Isn’t that what St. John tells us? Let us love one another because love is of God. Isn’t that pretty simple?
Well, the words are pretty simple, but not the reality. Isn’t that the experience of married couples everywhere?
Let me again return to a theme I addressed last Sunday. St. John told us that words are not enough, but that we must love in deed and in truth. (cf. 1 Jn 3:18) I developed that theme in a particular way as regard the need for us, sinners, to bear with one another in love, in the Church, neither separating ourselves from the Church, nor cutting others off.
I had picked out one of the paths of love highlighted by St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians. He has named other ‘paths of love’: compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, patience, and mutual forgiveness. (cf. Col 3:12-14) We can add that love does not seek itself but seeks the good of the other person. (cf. 1 Cor 13:4-7) Further, on the 3rd Sunday of Easter, I showed that this way of compassion and kindness needs to follow the way of the commandments, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness.
Yet again, all this comes from God and returns to God. Love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable.
In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him.
God’s love is made known to us through what Jesus Christ, the Son of God, did for us and what he gives us thereby: he died on the Cross to expiate our sins and he gives eternal life to those who believe in him.
In the last analysis, love of God and love of neighbor are unintelligible without the goal of eternal life; eternal life is impossible without Jesus Christ. This is precisely what gets lost from view in today’s world; the result is that the simplicity of Jesus’ command, love one another, gets twisted into something quite different from what Jesus meant.
When love of God is set aside and love of neighbor is proposed by itself, we are left with an irreconcilable conflict between selfishness and altruism, between my good and my neighbor’s good. There is no true common, shared good that unites both of us.
These days people like to put an emphasis on personal uniqueness. Really, what is common is more important. What is common is what unites and our greatest uniqueness comes from the way we respond to what is common.
Someone who grows up in The Dalles and someone who grows up in McCall, Idaho, live beneath the same sky and the same sun, but their lives are shaped differently by the uniqueness of their different homes. Yet, without that same sky and same sun, they could never come to know one another, or become friends with one another. Indeed, the uniqueness of their different homes would be impossible.
The supreme common good is God himself and the supreme sharing in that good is the face-to-face vision of God, which constitutes eternal life. Here in this life that common good is our common goal. That good and that goal is made concrete and anticipated here and now in the Body of Christ, given us in holy communion.
Our response to God is what makes us most truly unique; that is why the saints are the most perfect personalities. Our response to God is what makes us truly unique, while God himself gives us something we can truly share, without envy or rivalry.
Love of neighbor is like the love of companions on a journey towards the same goal. The unique gifts that each person receives in life are given us that we might serve each other, helping one another on the way to our common goal. Nevertheless, since some people are not walking the path, Christian love can be like the love of men on a ship rescuing other men from drowning in the ocean, and bringing them home to port with them, not to abandon them, but to share their life at home with them. That home is the city of saints, the house of the heavenly Father.
All the compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, patience, and mutual forgiveness of love needs to be set in this context. For Jesus Christ and for the salvation of souls one can even put his own life in this world on the line for another, because he will receive what he gave a hundredfold and more in the world to come, in the vision of God.
Jesus said, I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.
We are not called to a love of blind obedience. Yes, we must obey the commandments, but we should obey them gladly, in a spirit of intelligent collaboration as friends of God.
The Virgin Mary gives us the perfect example. When the angel brought to her the message of Christ’s conception and birth, she asked a question in order to better understand God’s will, before she gave her ‘yes’ of faith and obedience. Growing in the understanding of God’s plan, she was finally able to bring that ‘yes’ with her and collaborate with her Son at the foot of the Cross. In this way she merited to be called ‘Co-Redemptrix’.
Because Jesus wants not slaves, but friends and collaborators, he has made known to us the goal, the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, and the way to the goal, Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man and born of the Virgin Mary.
God shows no partiality, all who choose to believe in Christ are given access to eternal life through him.