Sunday, May 13, 2012

Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter by Fr. Matthias Neuman, OSB

Readings: Acts 10:25-48; 1 Jn 4:7-10; Jn 15:9-17

I’m currently listening to a course from the Teaching Company entitled "Turning Points in American History." It’s certainly been a learning experience; the lecturer deals with some episodes that I’ve never even heard of before, like the eradication of hookworm disease in the American south in the first decades of the twentieth century. The lecturer frequently refers to a theme that often crops up: namely, that the study of history is the study of surprises. So often things happen that no one ever planned on, and yet everything changes because of it. That certainly holds true for the events in today’s first reading from the Book of Acts.

The author of the Book of Acts stresses several times how shocked and surprised the Jewish Christians (the circumcised believers) were when they saw that God’s Spirit also came down on Gentiles in the same way as they themselves had received it. "The circumcised believers were astounded that the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Gentiles also." That same process will be repeated and described several times in the Book of Acts. This turning point, the acceptance of Gentiles into the fledgling Christian community, was one of those surprises that no one saw coming. It ranks as one of the greatest turning points in the history of Christianity.

The passage that we heard today also makes it seem as if the circumcised believers accepted this change readily and even joyfully. But other passages in the New Testament give the impression that it didn’t happen so smoothly. We know for example of that crucial meeting in Jerusalem between community leaders there and envoys from Antioch over what aspects of the Jewish law these Gentile Christians were required to follow. One gets the impression that there were sharp differences of opinion. Then, too, there is that famous passage in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, where Paul writes of how he had to confront Peter because he was backsliding on the issue and caving in to Jewish Christians. "When Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction." (2:11-12) Paul goes on to describe how he criticized Peter’s action right in front of the whole Christian community there. No, change was a little harder than today’s passage seems to say.

It does raise a question for us: how do we deal with religious change, especially that which comes very suddenly like at the Second Vatican Council? It’s not an easy task. Many years ago I read a little book entitled Managing Change in the Church (1974). It was written by Douglas Johnson, who was an organizational manager for the Churches of Christ. This book opened my eyes like never before about how church leaders need to have a whole bevy of skills to lead a community through a process of change. I knew right then why the years after Vatican II were so difficult. Practically no one in the Catholic Church was trained in any of those skills. (Seminaries have made some improvements since then.)

The challenge of coping with religious change can weigh heavy on individuals. I think it’s good to remember that dealing with religious change is itself a religious issue. Beyond what we like or dislike about any particular religious words or actions, there remains the issue: am I really doing my best to serve God? If we keep that thought as our touchstone, then we can make our way through the adaptation process involved in any religious change.

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