Some of you may know that I was raised Roman Catholic. And not just any kind of Roman Catholic, mind you, I was raised a Pre-Vatican II Catholic! “How can this be?” you may ask. I was not even alive when John XXVI was alive so how could I not be pre-Vatican II? Well, my father was pre-Vatican II, and the Roman Catholicism that he learned is the Roman Catholicism he taught. So the faith that I learned at home had some major overtones of works righteousness and all that this entailed.
For those of you who may have not know what that the term, “works righteousness” means, it is the belief that we are only as good as the things we do and that the only way to get to heaven is to be totally exceptional and die right after having gone to confession. If you do not do this, then you have to hang around in Purgatory for a while, ok, you have to hang around in Purgatory for a LONG while, until you have earned enough, as my father would call them, “graces” to be allowed into Heaven. Now, it takes much longer to earn Heaven once you were in Purgatory, so, as I said, the best bet for Heaven was to go to confession, get absolution, have a massive coronary and die.
This really didn’t make for a comfortable childhood. There was always the thought that I could never be good enough. And you know, after a while, I got to feel that it really didn’t matter: If I could not EVER be good enough, then why bother. I would try to be “oh so good” but then something would happen and I would just give up.
Sometimes I still feel this in my life. When things are going badly, I feel that I must be doing something wrong or else God wouldn’t be letting this happen to me. And probably even scarier is looking at others and having the feeling that THEY must have done something wrong or else God wouldn’t be letting this happen to them. What really scares me is when people, in the name of Christianity, reject, vilify, and turn away others because the so-called Christians feel that those other people are not good enough or are worthy of God’s love.
As you can probably guess, this is not a new problem. In fact, it is a problem of BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS! It has been a problem that has been around from time immemorial! We, as people, are constantly grouping people. We are constantly deciding who belongs and who does not. It is something that we all do, and it is something that hopefully our scripture readings for today can help us to unlearn.
In our world today, whether we like it or not, we have a caste system. There are people who fit into our view of the world and there are those who don’t. We tend to like people who are like us and tend to avoid those who are different. In Biblical times, the same forces were at work, but it was much more codified. We know about Jewish dietary laws, that the Jews were only supposed to eat certain things, but the truly devout Jew was only to associate with other Jews. They were not supposed to have anything to do with the Gentiles. More so, they were not supposed to dine with the Gentiles or to consider the Gentiles as equals in any manner. In our world, we may make some disparaging comments in private about another group, but in Biblical times, there was nothing private about the comments.
We see this in today’s reading from Acts. When the people heard that Peter had gone to the Gentiles and that the Gentiles had accepted the word of God, they were not happy about it! Far from it! They were angry that Peter would have gone to them because they all knew that the Gentiles were undeserving of the Christ.
Why would they think that they were better than the Gentiles? Well, part of the reason, I am sure, is that they were taught their entire life that Gentiles were bad. And if you avoided the Gentiles, then you did not have anything to counter this belief. All you had to work from is the stories that you were told. The Gentiles also had no way of getting “right” with God, they did not follow the purity laws that the Jews followed so they could be nothing but profane. This would be similar to not going to confession in my Roman Catholic youth.
Also, if you are following all these laws to achieve God’s good graces, then you NEED to know that following the law is going to get you SOMETHING. If the Gentiles can get in God’s good graces without following the law, then the thought would be, “Why follow the law?”
This was the mindset of Biblical times, and quite often it is the mindset of our world yet today. And this is the mindset that is countered by our reading from Acts and our Gospel reading. In the reading from Acts, God is at work changing Peter’s view of the world. We have this weird story of the sheet and Peter not wanting to eat the food because it was not clean, or we might say that the food was not “lawful,” to eat. Now this whole thing of God telling Peter to eat happens three times! From last week, that this event happens three times should make you stop and think! Remember, in the Bible, the number three represent wholeness. The point that God is making is that the previous laws are no longer valid. God has made those things that were once considered profane, pure. And as if to say, “Now, show me what you have learned,” the messengers of Cornelius show up and want Peter to go to the Gentiles, whom, we need to remember, were considered profane.
If we need further confirmation that we are not to judge the pure from the profane in the people we meet, we just need to look to the words of Christ in today’s gospel reading. Christ gives us a pretty straight forward command; Christ tells us that we are supposed to love one another. And not just in the “Golden Rule” way of loving others as we would want to be loved, but we are to love in a radically new manner. We are to love one another as Christ has loved us! (Cue screeching brake noise!) We are to love one another is a manner that is probably beyond most of our comprehension! Most of us would probably have a bit of a problem laying down our lives for someone else, let alone lay down our life for someone who would betray us or abandon us, but that is what Christ did for us! Christ laid down his life for the disciples knowing that they would abandon him and knowing that Peter would even deny him. Christ laid down his life for us knowing that we were going to make mistakes, or even purposely go against what he had taught. Christ laid down his life knowing that we, as people were never going to reach the goal of sinlessness that my father presented as the ultimate goal of being Roman Catholic.
And this love we get from Christ is not to be kept in our little group. We are to love all people in this self-sacrificing manner. Jesus showed us through his life that he did not regard peoples’ station in life; he was as likely to dine with the people of the street as he was the people in the castles. He was probably MORE likely to be among the people whom we may consider “undesirable” than those who would be classified as “good Christians.” Christ was more likely to dine with us AS WE TRULY ARE than as we envision ourselves to be.
Ok, this is where things gets difficult, because it can sound like I am saying that we do not need to ever strive for anything other than our basest instincts. If Christ loves us, even when we are not being at all Christian, then we might as well do anything! Right? Well, this is NOT the point we are supposed to get. The point is that CHRIST LOVES US, ALL OF US! Period. Christ loves us, as we are, and wants us to love each other, as they are. Christ doesn’t want us to stay were we are and will send people like Peter into our lives to help us to change and grow; but we need to remember that none of us is ever too far gone. We are never outside of the reach of Christ. The one who died for our transgressions, even before we were born, continues to reach out to us and asks us to reach out to others. Christ calls us to reach out to the fellow sinners we find in the world.
God doesn’t consider us to be unclean. Christ loves us even though we fall short of what would be considered perfection. Christ loves us, all of us, as we are, but also loves us enough to not leave us where we are. And Christ then sends us out to bring the message to others, even those the world might consider profane.