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MAY 13, 2007: Sixth Sunday of Easter

Readings: 

Acts 15:1-2, 22-29
Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23
John 14:23-29

 Karl Rahner often mentioned that there have been only four radical changes in Christianity. “The first three,” he contended, “happened in the church’s first century and a half; the fourth took place in my lifetime.”

The original two happened so early that our Christian sacred authors have to deal with them. The first sprang from Jesus’ delayed Parousia, demanding a switch from a “short term” to a “long term” faith. Paul refers to it in his first letter to the Thessalonians; the earliest Christian writing we possess. The second, the subject of today’s Acts passage, was the switch from being a Jewish to a Gentile church. (the third came in the second century, after the scriptural canon was closed, replacing Jesus and our sacred authors’ Semitic thought categories with Greek categories.)

Though some biblical writers imply these changes took place quickly and decisively, students of both Scripture and psychology know such fundamental transformations come about slowly, with much confusion and pain.

Luke ends the Jerusalem Gentile/Jew discussion by having the apostles and elders state, “. . . It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities . . . .” Though cut and dried, we know these authoritative words informing Gentiles that they didn’t have to convert to Judaism before converting to Christianity aren’t going to settle the problem once and for all. Paul’s letter to the Galatians reminds us that the “discussion and debate” lasted long into the future. Some who remembered that the historical Jesus originally intended to reform Judaism, found it difficult to share his faith with people who didn’t know how to distinguish a lox from a bagel.

The transition would have been quicker and easier had everyone shared in the visions the author of Revelation experienced. The writer steps out of this world into a place in which reality takes on a different hue. “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb. The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb.” I presume God’s will would be well-known in such a place.

John’s Jesus reminds us that we don’t share such a glorious existence on earth. We depend on the Spirit to guide us in the changes we make. “The Advocate,” Jesus promises, “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have told you.” It’s no wonder, having lived through the first two basic changes that John goes even further in chapter 16. There Jesus proclaims, “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.” It’s clear to John that sometimes the Spirit leads us to truths which seem to run counter to what they believed the historical Jesus originally wanted them to hold.

That’s why John’s Jesus places his comments about the Sprit in the love context permeating his Last Supper discourses. Jesus states, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them and make our dwelling with them.” At least 35 years before the fourth gospel, Paul demanded his Corinthian community love whenever they’re doing anything under the Spirit’s inspiration. (I Corinthians 12-14)

Given human nature, it takes a while before love of one another wins out over the dissensions and debates prompted by the Spirit.

By the way, the fourth change Fr. Rahner claimed happened in his lifetime was Vatican II’s teaching that there’s no longer a sacred culture or language. Any culture and language becomes sacred when we employ it to express our faith.

We’ve got a long way to go before we begin to accept Swahili as sacred a language as Latin. Still lots of discussion and debate.