To know God is to live a life of service

  • April 29, 2010
Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year C) May 9 (Acts 15:1-2, 2-29; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23; John 14:23-29)

Change does not come easily, especially when cherished and time-honoured traditions and ideas are challenged. And this is even more evident in the realm of religious beliefs as the struggle during our own time attests.

People like to paint mental images of God and to draw lines in the sand, labelling and separating the “saved” and the “lost.” In the pages of Acts and in some of the letters of Paul we can eavesdrop on the fiercest debate of first-century Christianity. This debate centres on what one must do in order to be identified with the people of God — the entrance requirements. For centuries the sign of the covenant between Israel and God had been circumcision and the observance of the Torah — the social, religious and dietary laws that served as the boundary markers between Israel and the gentiles.

But the life and teachings of Jesus were to bring profound changes in religious consciousness and practice. The familiar boundary markers were falling away as gentiles were being welcomed into the communities of Jesus’ disciples. And this did not come easily or without a price — great upheaval, resistance and soul-searching followed in its wake. Many of good faith felt that they had to stand firm with tradition and customs while others were eager to jettison everything from the past.

The struggle and debate of the first century mirror our own age with its religious disorientation and uncharitable rancour. Many self-appointed reformers of all varieties work overtime imposing their own religious visions on others.

There are no easy or black-and-white answers and we must resist the temptation to insist on them. Our age calls for a global consciousness and the unity and inclusion of all people. Perhaps we can follow the very sane and balanced course of the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15: keep it simple and don’t put obstacles and barriers in people’s way.

John’s vision of the New Jerusalem is a strange riot of geometric and religious symbolism cast in precious stones. How odd — no temple — but who needs one? God is so near and all-pervasive that it is impossible and useless to set aside certain “God places” for there is no sense of distance or separation. The light, understood in a moral and spiritual sense as well as physical, does not come from an outside source but from God and Christ. It would be a mistake to try to tie this New Jerusalem to a particular time and place. It describes a state of spiritual awareness, one that God wishes to grant to human beings, and a state towards which we can strive even in this life. God, the light, is deep within us.

Love is such an easy word to say — and we use the word so often — but what does it mean? All sorts of things, not all of them admirable, cloak themselves in the language of love. With dismaying regularity professions of love for God are linked with intolerance and violence. Jesus insists that love is as love does — those who truly love Him will live by His teachings. This is not some sort of ploy to “get into heaven” for the one who lives by love enters into heaven now: Jesus and God the Father make their dwelling in him or her. This presence, in the form of the Advocate or Holy Spirit, is the source of the extraordinary peace that Jesus grants to His followers. It removes the fear and agitation of the heart thereby removing much of the source of violence, injustice and greed.

This indwelling of God will be an inner teacher and guide. All of these things are possible because Jesus is returning to the Father — He insists that if they really understood what this return meant they would be rejoicing instead of grieving and clinging to Him. A perennial problem with all religions is the tendency to dwell in creeds and symbols of difference rather than in the living love that is God. There are many who feel that we would be better off without religion but religion itself is not the problem. Religion without selfless love is.

To actually know and love God is to leave behind violence, hatred and selfishness. Real love is expressed in deeds and in a life of kindness and service.