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May 6 2018 (B)  Sixth Sunday of Easter (B)

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection and Dialogue with Questions of the Day: Loving God and believing in Christ: The usefulness of believing

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

First Reading (Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48). The Holy Spirit has been poured out on the pagans too. Jesus openly told the non-Jewish Canaanite woman that he was sent not to preach immediately to the non-Jewish nations, the gentiles, but to the lost sheep of the House of Israel (Matthew 15:24).  Sending out the Twelve Apostles to preach he gave them instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6). He came to fulfil the promises made to his own, the Jewish people. After the resurrection the message was preached to the Jews only. Very often the bringing of the message to the Gentiles is associated with Paul and his conversion. Today’s reading offers a correction to this. The breakthrough, really, came at about the same time as Paul’s conversion by Peter, and at the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit. At divine inspiration Peter went to the house of the pagan Roman official at Caesarea, who expressed the desire of becoming a Christian. The Holy Spirit descended on all the pagans in the house, as a second Pentecost, leading Peter to the conviction that God has no favourites. The Gospel message was not for Jews only, a point that the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem would accept when informed of it by Peter.

Responsorial Psalm ( Psalm 97[98]). The Lord has shown his salvation to the nations

Second Reading (1 John 4:7-10). God is love. This reading, as so often in the Gospel of John and in the First Letter of John, is about love: God’s love for us, our love for God and for one another. It is important to put the recurrent ideas together: First of all there is God’s love for us shown in the incarnation of his Son Jesus and his death to take away our sins. Believers are part of this divine family of Father and divine Son. They are born of, begotten by, God, by faith. That is their dignity. What loving one another implies is not spelled out, but it must entail helping one another to live the Christian life, keeping the commandments as preached in the early Church, founded on belief in the divinity of Christ, in Christ as Son of God. It would imply for John’s community cohesion within the community, not allowing itself to be absorbed by foreign influences, and many other things besides.

Gospel (John 15:9-17). No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. This passage of John’s Gospel has much the same message as that found in the First Letter of John read as second reading. It centres on love, God’s love for Jesus’ followers, and Jesus’ commandment to remain united in love with himself, the Father and one another. Jesus has revealed the Father, the Father’s love for humanity. This secret of the Father’s love has been revealed to Jesus’ disciples, not for themselves but to be communicated to the world – that is through the Church of later centuries. They are commissioned to bear fruit, fruit that will last. In the Church’s mission there are no solo runs for individual charismatics. The Church has the task of building on Christ the one foundation, presenting and reformulating the Christian message for its own day, but open to the future.

B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day: Loving God and believing in Christ: The usefulness of believing

Today’s readings are about the gift of faith, believing, and Jesus’ commandment to his followers to love one another. A few Sundays ago we read in the First Letter of John of two commandments: to believe in Jesus as the Son of God and to love one another. The implication of love, so much stressed in today’s readings, is not spelled out, but clearly involves mutual support for faith in Christ, with a corresponding Christian life. The early Church, both by Jesus and Paul in his letters, was very concerned about those whose faith in Christ and his Church could be endangered. Jesus refers to them as “those little ones who believe in me”, not infants (there was no infant baptism in Christ’s day) but those who might easily be led away from following Christ. Paul refers to them as “the weak”. The readings for Good Shepherd Sunday, celebrated a few weeks ago, and today’s readings, present an occasion for us to reflect on the message of these passages for our own day. When speaking of himself as the Good Shepherd Jesus says: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full”. Jesus’ message, then, is life to the full. In our day the Christian religion, or at least Catholicism, is often presented as something quite the opposite of this – as an oppressive force, calling for liberation from it for true human development. Forces working for a post-Christian culture are hard at work in our own day. There is probably a case for taking up the advantages of the Christian message for true human, as well as Christian living. It will be a case to be presented to members of Christ’s flock, as well as those not within the fold – as Jesus would wish.  What is the advantage of religion, not to speak of the Christian religion, in today’s world? A similar question may have been put, and in part answered, in the early Church. A reply given in the letter 1 Timothy 6:6 is: “Religion, of course, does bring large profits, but only to those who are content with what they have”. St Augustine in the late fourth century wrote a work with the title: “On the usefulness of believing”, one which has little relevance for us today since it deals mainly with problems arising from the Manichaean heresy of his own day. But any religion believing that Christ, the Good Shepherd, who came and died to bring life, and life to the full, should argue its case strongly in our own day, against any arguments to the contrary. The welfare of the individual and humanity was central to Christ’s message. He healed to sick and transferred this power, and its implications, to his apostles. True religion and belief, orthodoxy, are not conservative. Quite the contrary. Orthodoxy (from the Greek) means “right thinking” -- right thinking, and consequent right action, about God, about the Good Shepherd, about the individual, society and the human race.

In a sense, orthodoxy is revolutionary, in the best sense of that word of changing as required. Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, proclaimed the good message as the Father willed, first to the Jews, God’s own people. In due time, the Church, under guidance of the Holy Spirit, moved (and not without painful soul searching) beyond Judaism to become a religion for all, without the restrictions of Mosaic ritual laws. It has proved faithful to its mission to the poor and neglected in society. It has served both the humble and the learned. Belief in God and Jesus whom he has sent gives a direction in this life, apart from its belief in the beyond. Its sexual ethic is often criticized, and a certain amount of this criticism has to do with actions at the lower end, so to speak, of sexual morality. Sexual morality has do with actions from rape to anything at the other end, such as what used by called impure thoughts. But neglect of those at the lower end does not take away from the message of sexual morality as such. One could go on and on in relation to this topic: the usefulness of believing. It has to do with issues governing one’s entire individual and social life. Christian history has not, and is not, without its sinful side, sins brought to light by its own message, or at least admitted to because of this. However, the riches of the Christian message are something worth dwelling on as we reflect on each Sunday readings and their relevance for our own troubled times, mindful of the advice to us in the First letter of St Peter (1 Peter 3:15-16): “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting of the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence”.