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”.