Anyone who thinks today’s tensions in the church between pre- and post-Vatican II theology and practice is unique lives in an historical vacuum. We’ve never existed without these tensions. There always have been those who believe Jesus wants us to keep repeating old formulas and behavior, and those who are convinced the risen Jesus constantly calls us to re-examine those principles and change our actions.
Even before the first gospel (Mark) was composed around 70 CE, the church had experienced some real knockdown drag outs. Except for Paul’s letters we don’t hear much written about those conflicts in our Christian Scriptures. But when one reads them carefully, after having first read Paul, they’re all over the place, just below the surface. For instance, why doesn’t Luke say anything about Paul’s martyrdom? He wrote his Acts of the Apostles sometime in the mid-80s; Paul was killed around 60. According to scholars like the late Raymond Brown, one reason for the omission was an embarrassment about the circumstances not only of Paul’s, but also of Peter’s death. Employing ancient Roman sources, Brown was convinced ultra-conservative Christians - those who contended that only Jews could follow Jesus - handed Paul and Peter over to the authorities to rid their communities of these two liberals. Luke ends Acts with Paul preaching unhindered in Rome simply because he was too ashamed to tell his readers what actually happened.
That’s why, listening to today’s well-known summary from Acts, we must understand that Luke is stressing how things should be in the future, not giving an exact account of what happened in the past. What a terrific day it will be when Christians finally have “everything in common.” We long for the time when we’ll have no needy person among us, when anyone who owns property or houses will sell them and distribute the proceeds “to each according to need.” As far as we can tell, that day has yet to arrive. It wasn’t there when Luke wrote.
Even our I John passage is the product of problems in the Johannine community. Had everyone accepted John’s gospel we wouldn’t have John’s three letters. John’s belief that Jesus was God from all eternity, and his emphasis on the Spirit as the sole guide to surfacing the will of the risen Jesus in the community was just too much of a theological leap for some in his church. Fr. Brown also mentioned in his book, The Community of the Beloved Disciple, that the gospel opened the door to a flock of heresies which taught that we’re saved more by what we know that what we do.
In this section of his letter, that author tries to correct the latter problem by reminding his readers that even if they know that Jesus is the Word, or can instinctively click off how the Spirit works in the community, they still must obey “God’s commandments.” (We’ll hear more about this in next week’s I John reading.)
Like it or not, Christian liberals gave us the vast majority of our Christian Scriptures. By and large, Jesus’ early followers rejected the idea that he wanted them to stay put. That explains why our progressive faith ancestors kept these particular writings and eventually discarded others.
As Jesus states in our gospel, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Yet, according to John, carrying on Jesus’ ministry revolves around a key action: employing the Spirit’s gift of forgiving on a daily basis.
A former bishop of our diocese, defending himself for being tough on progressives, but looking the other way when it came to conservatives, said, “I presume you liberals will always forgive me; conservatives never do.” Our sacred authors would have identified with his experience. If we have any doubts about that, we can always check with Peter and Paul when we get to heaven.