Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
Sixth Sunday of Easter: Three Cultures
Today’s first reading presents the solution to the great internal struggle of the Primitive or Earliest Church. Externally, it was the question of whether or not gentile Christians had to practice Jewish customs. It was a lot deeper than that, though. The real question was: “What is Christian culture?”
The original problem as presented in the first reading resulted from the Early Church’s view of itself as the proper development of Judaism. Up until the last decade of the first century, the Christians were seen by many to be nothing more than a form of Judaism. This really makes sense. The New Testament was the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Moses and the prophets pointed to Jesus. Jesus himself was born of a Jewish maiden and was of the line of King David. The earliest Christians did not reject Judaism. They believed that they were good Jews, true Jews, the real chosen people. That’s why the Book of Revelation will often refer to the Jewish persecutors of the Church as “Jews who are not Jews.” They are not being faithful to their choice as God’s people because they were rejecting His Son.
The Jewish religion of the ancient times had more to do with laws than beliefs. A Jew did not have to believe in the afterlife, in heaven and in hell, as we see in the dispute between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. A Jew had to keep the law strictly. If he didn’t keep the Sabbath, have his sons circumcised, and follow every law, he was a heretic.
The ancient Jews had a particular culture that the first Christians realized was not their culture. Christians were more concerned with faith than law. The Gospel of John was written for the purpose that “all may believe that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God and in so believing might have eternal life.” Life came from faith, not rules. Jewish Christians broke away from Jewish laws. They celebrated the Sabbath on Sunday instead of Saturday, because Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday. They reasoned that God had given them all life to care for and to use; dietary rules were eliminated. They no longer offered sacrifice in the Temple. The One Sacrifice was that of Jesus Christ. No other sacrifice was necessary. The center of their lives was not the laws, it was spirituality, the nourishment of the spiritual in their midst, the Holy Spirit. The earliest Christians of the Jewish background were non conformists with their own Jewish society. They no longer shared in Jewish culture. They formed, or through the Holy Spirit were formed, into a Christian culture.
But how about the Christians who came from a gentile background? Did they first need to become Jewish following Jewish laws and then become Christian. It seems easy for us to say, “Of course not,” but to the ancient Christians, this was a conundrum. After all, Hebrews commonly referred to the gentiles as “the dogs”. The gentiles were to be avoided. There were many in the primitive Church who thought that the gentiles needed to follow the progression the Jewish Christians had followed: they needed to embrace the Jewish culture before they could be admitted into the Christian culture.
Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Church realized that the gentiles didn’t need to be Jewish. But they could no longer be pagan. All Christians had to avoid pagan culture. Pagans cloak immorality under the feasts of various gods. Gentile Christians could not join these celebrations, live immorally or participate in any aspect of pagan culture. The Gentile Christians were told that they could not conform to paganism.
Nor can we.
Consider the pagan culture. The pagan deifies nature. This is more than just worshiping water goddesses, tree gnomes, etc. The pagan places the highest value on the material world. To the pagan anything physical and any physical action is not just acceptable, but is seen as good, even if the action is morally reprehensible. Therefore the pagan has no problems with unnatural relations between people, with destroying life to make his or her own life easier, with gaining wealth at the expense of others, etc.
This sounds as much like our world as it does the ancient world. We exist in a world where many elements of society say that if it feels good, it is acceptable, even if an action in innately wrong. For example, the destruction of human life is innately wrong. It is not up to a person to choose to destroy a life, be that a life within a girl, or a life that is physically or psychologically challenged. Yet, our society has turned abortion into a right. That is just one demonstration of society’s modern expression of paganism.
The problem is not that we here are pagan. The problem is that we are often tempted to straddle the issue, doing our best to be Christian but still keeping one foot in the pagan aspects of our society. So we go to Church, we pray, and then we attend a party where we know that drugs will be available. We say that we are committed Christians, but we support those who are in favor of positions that are in conflict with morality.
This brings me to one of my favorite true stories, that of Charlie Miller. Charlie was a wonderful young man, a seminarian with me way back when I was in college. On Sunday’s we would all dress up in our best suits for Mass, then we would have a bit of a break, about 45 minutes, before Sunday dinner. One Sunday after Mass we all went for a walk out by the lake on the seminary property. Charlie decided to take one of the rowboats out. None of us would go with him because we didn’t want to mess up our suits. That, and because we all knew that Charlie didn’t know all that much about boats. So we watched him untie a rowboat, then put one foot in the boat while leaving one foot on the dock. It was a wonderful sight to behold. It happened in slow motion. The boat started moving out and Charlie, ever so slowly got stretched out and fell into the water. We cheered. Why did he fall into the water? He fell in because he didn’t commit. He got soaked.
If we don’t commit to Christianity, if we keep one foot in pagan society, we are going to get stretched out. We are going to get soaked. We have to commit. That means that we have to be at odds with what many are saying around us.
Where do we stand in relationship to culture? We need to be strong members of the Christian culture. We cannot be members of the pagan culture. This means that we are called to be non-conformists. We are called to be in the world but not part of the world. We are called to be citizens of the New Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God. We cannot allow pagan culture to have a part of our lives. We are Christians. Our culture is that of Jesus Christ. He has offered us the spiritual. We can neither conform to the pagan elements of society nor can we straddle the issue, attempting to be both Christian and pagan.
Jesus Christ brought a new culture to the world. Christian culture is neither Jewish nor pagan. Christian culture is not concerned with laws, nor does it use religion to justify immorality. Christian culture avoids all that is self-centered, all that is immoral. Christian culture is concerned with whom we are: reflections of God’s love in the world. Christ is the center of the Christian’s life.
That is our culture.