Today’s first reading present 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 where does a Christian stand in relationship to his or her
The original problem 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.
But the Jewish religion had more to do with laws than beliefs.
A Jew did not have to believe in the afterlife, in heaven and in hell,
but if he didn’t keep the Sabbath, he was a heretic.
A good Jew had to keep the dietary restrictions, have their infant boys
circumcised, etc., but did not have to believe in the Christ.
The early 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. The Christians
from the Jewish background refused to conform to 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. But spirituality,
the nourishment of the spiritual in their midst, the Holy Spirit, that had to be
the center of their lives. The
earliest Christians of the Jewish background were non conformists with their own
But how about the Christians who came from a gentile background.
Shouldn’t they first become Jewish and follow the Jewish laws?
It seems easy for us to say, “Of course not,” but to the people of
ancient Jerusalem who commonly referred to the gentiles as “dogs”, the
gentiles were to be avoided.
Still, 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
either. The pagans cloaked
immorality under the feasts of various gods.
Gentile Christians could no longer 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.
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
with gaining wealth at the expense of others, etc.
So 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.
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. The pagan says, “If it feels like
the right thing to do, have the abortion.”
The problem is not that we are pagan, the problem is that often we
straddle the issue and try to be Christian but still keep 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.
Let me tell you about Charlie Miller.
Charlie was a seminarian with me when I was in college.
One Sunday we all went for a walk out by the lake on the seminary
property. We were all in our Sunday
suits. Charlie decided to take one
of the rowboats out. Only Charlie
didn’t know all that much about boats. He
had one foot on the dock and one in the boat.
The boat started moving out and Charlie, ever so slowly got stretched out
and fell into the water. He
didn’t commit and got soaked. We
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
I began today by noting that the first reading asks the question,
“Where do we stand in relationship to our culture?” The answer is simply
this: 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 any aspect of pagan society to have a part of our lives.
We have been offered the spiritual.
We cannot conform to society, we cannot straddle the issue.
“Whoever loves me will keep my word,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel.
But then he adds, “And my Father will love him or her and we will come
and make our dwelling with him.”