Today’s readings: Acts 15, 1-2.22-29; Apocalypse 21, 10-14.22-23; John 14, 23-29.
From the very beginning the Church has always had an issue to decide what needs to be kept and what needs to be left let in order to conserve its true identity. We were often given the false impression or even belief that somewhere there was a blueprint for the Church which established black on white how it should be structured, how it should function or what exactly should be believed. Nowhere is that to be found. With God there is nothing carved in stone.
Physicist and systems theorist Fritjof Capra once wrote that “In times of change, an organisation must change constantly... to keep its identity”. What we read from Acts today narrates an occurrence that has repeated itself a myriad of times throughout the history of Christianity. At every turn in history there were always prophets of doom who thought that change is a distortion of identity and that evolution of whatever kind is damned.
In the 6th century, after the fall of Rome, Benedict of Nursia understood with great foresight that in the midst of change, we should discern wisely the difference between tradition and traditionalism, between carrying on and hanging on. The imposition of the tradition of circumcision on the brothers in the reading from Acts today stands metaphorically for the manner we many a time subject the Word of God to our laws and traditions, forgetting how Christ himself went beyond cultural and religious barriers in his time.
Our issue today is the same with which the apostles of the early Church were faced, namely, to decide between carrying on and hanging on. The apostles dared decide on what was a crucial issue, empowered by Jesus himself who, as we read in today’s gospel, encouraged them not to let their hearts be troubled, and by John’s vision in the Apocalypse about new things in the face of major challenges for the Church’s proclamation.
It is the same story we are experiencing today with Pope Francis and the old guard doing its utmost to block changes that are badly needed and for too long postponed. In the 12th century Francis of Assisi dreamt of building the Church afresh at a time when structurally the Church seemed so secure. In the Reformation, Martin Luther had the foresight of prioritising, for which he kept being condemned for so long as a deviant monk when in truth he actually was a well-meaning reformer.
John’s vision in the reading from Apocalypse about “a city with no temple” should be an eye-opener for us all today as to the true identity of Christians and the impact of faith on the world around us. Our faith in the Lord of life cannot simply be bound to temple worship, important as that might be. Despite what we continue to perpetuate, the locus of a true encounter with God remains the heart, not the temple.
This was the mature conclusion the apostles came to when they had to decide to move on for the sake of the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ and to let go of a religious framework that risked blocking newcomers. Today, thank God, we are becoming more and more aware of the illegitimacy of all sorts of barriers in life. Though, of course, there are those who seek to invent and impose new forms of barriers in the name of identity or security.
Preaching Christ should empower us to pull down all sorts of barriers in order to create the city where, according to John’s vision, there is no temple. We need to ask what cities we are building and whether, as believers, we tend to block or unblock the ways of God. The clear identity of what makes a Christian and the false security of our communities cannot be achieved at the expense of those who are vulnerable or different.
The Scriptures make us aware of what can be a dangerous presumption on our part of being with Christ when actually we are sowing division and promoting discrimination.
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