Christian Non-conformity

 

            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 culture.

 

            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 Jewish society.

 

            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

easier, 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.

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. 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 all cheered.

 

            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.

 

            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.”