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Sixth Sunday of Easter: Loving, not judging

Today’s readings: Acts 10, 25-26.34-35.44-48; 1 John 4, 7-10; John 15, 9-17.

The language running through today’s Scripture readings is not the language we learn and speak in the way we are educated in religion. Religion is very often understood as having to do mainly with norms from outside and with convention. Religious identity is inevitably understood as connected with self-sacrifice, at times even with repression.

The Scriptures, especially the language St John uses in both his letters and the Gospel, open wide before us new horizons to explore how faith opens to human flourishing. Thanks to the gift of the Spirit that has been poured on all of us and on the world as God’s own creation, we can discover how God’s love for us has no ifs and buts and that the big truth of our faith we are called to celebrate today is, as St John writes, “not our love for God, but His love for us”.

It is this love of God for us, a saving and healing love, that works the shift from servants to friends in our relationship with God. If we really are in His love, then to believe in God favours rather than hinders our human flourishing. True faith in God should not instil fear, but serenity and trust. This is what the Spirit works in us, whoever we are and wherever we stand in life.

In the reading from Acts, this is made most clearly manifest in Cornelius, first targeted as objectively alien to the good news of the gospel and not eligible to receive the Spirit, and at a second instance welcomed and considered as already anointed. As Pope Francis writes in his The Joy of the Gospel, “the Church will have to initiate everyone into this art of accompaniment which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other”. The Pope here is recalling the call of Moses in the Book of Exodus and likens “the other” to “sacred ground” which commands veneration rather than judgment.

Man is the way of the Church, Pope Paul VI once said. It is so significant in the reading from Acts that St Peter is refusing what for centuries after him we as the Church still seem to be struggling to preserve, namely, the ease with which we keep giving priority to norms and rules rather than to the inner flame of the Spirit that everyone carries in their heart.

St Peter’s admission “I am only a man after all” is a clear confession of the humanity of the Church, at the same time underlining how humble the Church is called to be in dealing with people and in relating to the world today. This is the right attitude with which we need to approach the many Corneliuses of our times. The right attitude is one of discernment, of openness, and of love, not of judgement.

It is precisely this attitude towards the whole world we inhabit that is at a turning-point in the Church at this point in time. The cries “Heretic” addressed to Pope Francis, especially from inside the flock, are unprecedented in the Church’s modern history. It is true, the Church has had myriads of similar crises in its history and we know that moments of resistance to change always made the Church itself pay the heavy price of schisms and serious setbacks.

Pope Francis is being grossly misinterpreted when he insists that the Gospel has priority over ethics. Undoubtedly, in the times we are living in, we are facing very serious ethical issues that threaten the very fabric of our societies, that distort what being human is ultimately about and that are disintegrating that civilisation the West once boasted of as being inspired by Christian values.

But the major issue at stake now seems precisely to be the proclamation of Jesus Christ as risen and how encountering him brings salvation to all humanity. We are again being faced with a generation represented in Cornelius, alien to our moral reasoning but perhaps thirsty for the truth that gives life. But we continue to put the cart before the horse in our approach to evangelisation.

Today we are being faced with the same challenge the early communities had in the face of a pagan culture. Like those whom St Peter and the apostles were addressing with their first proclamation, our generation today is alien to the faith even if in their majority, people are baptised. It is our mission and task to discern, like St Peter did with Cornelius, how the Spirit today blows and finds his way in the hearts of those we may be judging as not eligible to receive the Spirit.

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