God plays no favourites

  • May 8, 2009
Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year B) May 17 (Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 4:7-10; John 15:9-17)

How would we feel if we saw God’s Spirit blessing our worst enemy — or one of a group we despise or fear? Would we rejoice or would we be overwhelmed by disbelief and outrage?

Perhaps that will help us to empathize with Peter, who just saw his neat and tidy symbolic map of the world go up in smoke. Gone were the clear-cut categories defining those favoured and blessed by God and those excluded, as well as those distinguishing marks of purity and holiness. The unthinkable has occurred: the centurion Cornelius has just been graced with the gift of the Spirit along with his entire extended household.

It means little to us but it would have been absolutely shocking to a first-century Jew, for Cornelius is a pagan and an officer in the hated Roman army occupying Israel — not exactly a prime candidate for the gifts of Israel’s God.

God’s way of loving is very different from humans — there are no distinctions or conditions, nor does God play any favourites. Peter declares that anyone in any nation who does what is right and fears God is pleasing to him — and that seems obvious to us.

And yet we give this insight more lip service than anything else. Through the centuries many nations have gone to war — often against other Christian nations — convinced that God was on their side. Often Christians were willing to relegate people of other races and cultures to subhuman status, or fill hell with those of other religious faiths. The notion of an impartial and all-loving God is not something comfortable for everyone. What would be our reaction were we to see tangible signs of God’s blessing falling upon those who make us feel uncomfortable or fearful? For example, a group of Muslims, illegal immigrants, gays or those holding opposing political or religious views?

But God is not owned or controlled by anyone. Only by fully understanding and accepting this fundamental principle concerning the nature of God can Christianity exercise completely its power for enlightenment and transformation.

The author of John’s letter understood this perfectly. He is convinced that God is love and that being the case the only way of knowing God is by loving. Using the metaphor of birth, John points out that when we love we are actually born of the God who is love — our minds and hearts are renewed and the veil of ignorance and fear is lifted. Of course John speaks not of romantic or emotional love but of the love that is accepting, compassionate, non-judgmental and always seeking the good of others. There is no way we can fake it — either we love or we don’t. And if we don’t then our religious and theological rhetoric barely rises above the level of empty god-talk.

In a similar vein, “love,” “joy” and “God” are woven together so closely in John’s Gospel that one cannot think of one separating from the others. Elsewhere in this Gospel Jesus describes His return to and union with the Father as something that will make His joy complete. That same complete joy — union with God — Jesus promises His followers. But there is a catch: they will have to dwell in Him continually — be immersed in His heart, mind and consciousness. Joy is so lacking not only in our society and culture but even in many churches. Ironically, unfeigned joy is one of the identifying signs of God’s presence. This has nothing to do with external circumstances: one can have every advantage and be miserable — and one undergoing suffering and struggle can actually experience a quiet inner joy. Everything depends on one’s inner state and the degree to which they live in God.

But Jesus offers something even more: friendship with the divine. He is clear about the nature of this friendship: it describes an intimacy and familiarity in which everything is shared between the lover and the beloved. Gone is the barrier and veil of fear and selfishness that usually separates us from God. It is the difference between knowing about God and actually knowing God. And John makes it clear that knowing God is something we can experience in this lifetime — in the body. God can be as near or as far as we want God to be.