If I were to give this sermon a title it would be ‘God spare us from the righteous.’ I’ve been reading a couple of novels recently about the time of Cromwell and Thomas More and Henry the 8th. They were harsh and cruel times in which to live. If you didn’t toe the line with whoever had religious authority at the time and stuck to your convictions you were either hanged or burned at the stake. You had Protestants killing Catholics and Catholics killing Protestants and both of them killing the Anabaptists all in the name of true religion. The intolerance found in the histories of world religions is amazing, both Christian and non- Christian. Everyone thought their way was the only way and any other way was to be mercilessly stamped out. The same is true in our own times. Religious fanaticism is alive and well in our day. There are people who are willing to destroy the lives of others convinced they are doing God’s will, convinced they are giving God glory.
We find this intolerance in the first reading of today’s Mass. We hear of Jewish Christians who basically resented the fact that the Gentiles, the non-Jews had received the word of God and that God’s spirit was working within them. They were convinced that for these Gentiles to be ‘real’ Christians they had to be circumcised and follow the Law. ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses you cannot be saved.’ But the fact of the matter was circumcision was a ritual of initiation into the Jewish people as the people of God but it was not a criteria for salvation.
For Paul and Barnabas a person’s salvation, a person’s relationship with God was sealed by the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. To settle this controversy Paul and Barnabas went to the church in Jerusalem for guidance. We read of the decision of the whole church, ‘it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials – they abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, the non-consumption of blood, the meat of strangled animals and they were to avoid illicit sexual unions.’
Those who made these decisions hoped this would bring peace to the valley but it didn’t. Paul still had troubles in the many churches he founded over this whole issue of circumcision. Paul always insisted on what is of first importance, ‘a truth that he himself received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures and that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.’ St. Peter would come to a similar insight when he wrote, ‘the truth I have come to realize is this, that any person of any nationality who does what is right is acceptable to God.’
In our long history as church we’ve always been afflicted by those who make it their business to decide who is or who is not a member of the church. They take it upon themselves to decide who is the ‘real Catholic.’ Someone once wrote, “One of the most seductive temptations of the believer is to identify the will of God with the will of the believer, and not the other way around. God’s will is squeezed into patriotism, leftism, capitalism, feminism, hierarchy, civil law, financial success, ecclesiastical tradition. In extreme cases, the supposed will of God can be harnessed to justify leaving a spouse, breaking a promise, even killing those who do not believe as they believe.” People have and are using religion to justify the domination or exclusion of women, the exploitation of the poor and even slavery.
We have good Catholics questioning the right of other Catholics to receive communion because they don’t agree with some of the church’s discipline. Some would put us back to the Latin Mass, limit the role of women in the church, object to the use of inclusive language all in the name of true religion.
We all should keep this in mind, people who push their way forward to rebuke the Christian practices of others need to be careful how they speak for God and what kind of God they are witnessing to by what they say. We might think twice before we set ourselves up as a mindless meddlesome officious busybody for the Lord.
Jesus always respected and accepted all those who came into his life, be they friend or foe. It is Jesus and his word that we ought first and always to remember, love one another as I have loved you.
We are all good people and as good people we are to accept and respect the good will and faith of others, whether they be of our faith or of another tradition. As St. Paul tells us, say only the good things people need to hear, things that will really help then. Then we will be building up the body of Christ, the church.