In Fr. Donald Cozzens' recent National Catholic Reporter review of Cullen Murphy's God's Jury: The Inquisition and The Making of the Modern World, the former seminary rector mentioned a passing supermarket encounter with an elderly man who looked in his direction and said, "Heretic!" When the well-known author eventually tracked down his accuser in the produce department and demanded to know why he had labeled him a heretic, he discovered, "He didn't like my questioning of mandatory celibacy for diocesan clergy." Hardly heretical material.
From today's second and third readings, it's clear it didn't take long before one Christian called another a heretic - long before supermarket produce departments even came into existence.
One need only page through Raymond Brown's classic The Community of the Beloved Disciple to surface the theological problems tearing apart the Johannine community. This particular church constantly had to deal with the question: How does one distinguish the truth from heresy?
Our Acts passage tells us this wasn't the first time followers of Jesus were confused over what to believe or to whom to listen. Fifty years before John wrote, Paul's initial post-conversion arrival in Jerusalem created parallel difficulties for many Christians. How do we know he's really a disciple of Jesus? Is his road-to-Damascus story just a trick to get us to come out of the closet and expose ourselves to persecution? Do we have to buy into his theology that Gentiles can become other Christs without first becoming Jews? Eventually the Jerusalem church reached the conclusion that Paul simply was too hot to handle. They shipped him off to Tarsus and the community finally achieved some peace.
Unfortunately, the Johannine community couldn't imitate their Jerusalem predecessors. They couldn't be unified by just ridding themselves of one person. Their only hope was to return to the essentials of their faith; precisely what the authors of I John and John's gospel encourage their readers to do.
The former couldn't have stated his thesis more clearly and precisely. ". .. We should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us." Those who continually try to imitate the risen Jesus' love for all people simply don't have enough time or space for heresy in their daily lives.
The author of John's gospel not only agrees, his Jesus provides us with a hard to forget metaphor. "I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in them will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither"
In a sense, our evangelist is simply saying, "Actions speak louder than words." If you're a loving, life-giving force in your community, then you must be getting that life and love from your connection with Jesus, not from any particular theology.
John would certainly agree with many of the pointed observations contained in Andrew Sullivan's recent Newsweek article, The Forgotten Jesus. All institutions which claim to be Christian must constantly go back to Jesus. Though we might be embarrassed by what we find when we do so, it's the only way to be certain we're doing what Jesus wants us to do. Those familiar with the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures are also familiar with their constant command: "Return to Yahweh!" Our modern Christian prophets, following the example of Vatican II, are likewise commanding, "Return to Jesus!"
If we dare do so, we might be surprised to discover that some of those most quick to label others "heretic," might actually be the most heretical people around.