Sunday, April 24, 2016

A New Commandment

                                    5th Sunday of Easter

In today's first reading we continue to follow Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journey. Last week we saw that after meeting opposition in the Jewish community in Antioch, a seaport in what is now Turkey, they decided to take their message to the Gentiles or non-Jews. In fact Paul now realizes that the mission of the Jews has always been to bring the God of Israel to the Gentiles.

It's hard for us to understand the need for this missionary activity. We do not realize  how much fear ruled the world in which Paul and Barnabas traveled. When we read of Greek and Roman philosophers and poets, we fail to realize that they were few and far between. For the most part the Gentiles were consumed by fear of the gods. Here's a few examples.

In the ancient world families had to produce heirs to carry on the worship of the ancestral gods. Superstition led people to attribute any bad luck to a failure to properly carry out the rites and sacrifices for the dead family gods. Women, therefore, were little more than child bearing machines. If they couldn't bear children, Roman law required that their husbands divorce them. In most cases the very idea of love between husband and wife was unimaginable. Girls as young as 12 were given in marriage to men much older. If a woman bore a daughter, her husband could order her to kill the infant girl and try again. Infanticide was a common practice among the Romans.

Sacrifices were continually offered to idols in order to appease the gods. These were not harmless practices. Plague, famine, every stroke of bad luck was caused by some god who had been angered by failure to follow the proper rituals. I recently read a letter from a young missionary nurse in Thailand who reported how fear of the gods could ruin the life of an entire family. Even today when a child becomes ill, a poor family will not seek medical help but will offer up a chicken to the gods. When the child's condition worsens, they then offer their cow only to find that doesn't work either. The child dies anyway but now the family faces financial ruin and starvation.

Of course, we know of other civilizations where human sacrifice was the accepted way to appease the gods. In today's gospel reading we have something new. The scene is at the Last Supper where Jesus predicts his own sacrifice for us. He says to the Apostles,

            I give you a new commandment: love one another.
            As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.
            This is how all will know that you are my disciples,
            if you have love for one another.

This command to the Apostles will have a profound influence in the ancient world. The Christians like their Jewish brethren cannot practice abortion or infanticide. They must welcome their children and love them, even their daughters. In fact, many of the conversions in the early Church occurred because pagan men could not find pagan wives. They married Christian girls who brought their husbands to the faith as so many still do today.

In a well-known passage St. Paul tells husbands to love their wives. We don't realize after 2000 years of Christianity how shocking or abnormal this must have appeared in the ancient world. After all, what does love mean? Jesus gave us plenty of examples. At the Last Supper He stooped to wash the feet of his disciples. No self respecting Gentile would ever consider serving his wife in this manner. The next day He gave his life on the Cross as an example to us. From that day on every Christian man and woman had the responsibility to lay down his or her life for each other.

We are going to see over the next few weeks that this love was intended to extend beyond our own family, village, tribe, and nation. In today's gospel Jesus did not ask us to love Him, He commanded us to love one another. It's sad to think how little progress we've made in the last 2000 years. All the fears and horrors that Paul and Barnabas found in the ancient world still exist today. We only have to pick up today's newspaper to see the evidence.

Today's second reading is from the Book of Revelation. St. John had a vision, a dream of "a new heaven and a new earth." God, he says, will be with his people.

            He will wipe every tear from their eyes,
            and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain,
            for the old order has passed away.

Today, more than ever it seems like just a dream. But what can we do? How does it help to give up on faith, hope, or charity? We have our command, our marching orders. There is nothing stopping us from embarking on our own missionary journey. Maybe we don't have the gift of preaching but we can give a good example to our neighbors. "Paul and Barnabas opened the door of faith to the Gentiles." We can open the door so that Love can walk right in.

            This is how all will know that you are my disciples,
            if you have love for one another.


Reading 1. Acts 14: 21-27
Reading II. Revelation 21: 1-5a
Gospel. John 13:31-33a, 34-35 (love one another).

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