Image: St. Vincent de Paul Treasures
On the surface, the readings today contain commandments or rules that we must obey if we are going to follow Christ. The first reading contains a letter written by Church leaders in Jerusalem, to the Gentiles of Antioch, who were wanting to join the Church. The letter outlined what rules they needed to follow if they were to be a part of the Christian community. The Gospel, likewise, contains the words of Jesus as he speaks to his disciples at the last supper, telling them what they must do if they are to remain in the Father’s good graces.
Seeing the two readings side by side I recall the story of a Bishop in a northern diocese who was traveling to his parishes and sharing an Easter message. There were many elders in the small communities who did not speak English, so the Bishop asked the local Chief to act as an interpreter, to help with the delivery of his sermon. The Bishop would offer a few words and the Chief would follow, but would go on and on. This happened several times until the Bishop finally stopped, took the Chief aside and queried him.
“I notice that when I say a few words, you seem to go on and on. Are you saying the same words that I am saying?” The Chief responded sincerely, “Yes Bishop, I am sharing your words the way you are saying them. But also, it’s springtime and the people need to be reminded to clean their yards and to get all their garbage down to the dump so that we can make the village look nice for the tourists who will soon be coming.”
The point of the story of course is that just adding length to the sentence doesn’t necessarily add depth to its meaning. Not to diminish the importance of the letter sent from Jerusalem to Antioch welcoming the Gentiles into the fold of the Church, but the stipulations enclosed, like the Chief’s side remarks, seem a bit trivial compared to the great commandment which Christ left his disciples on the night of the last supper.
The letter was an important step in widening the reach of the Church. More important in the letter then the rules to be followed however, is the one law which was lifted, the ritual circumcision adhered to by the Hebrew people. Peter had successfully argued to the Church leadership that the evidence of the Holy Spirit resting among the Gentile people was enough to show that God did not require a yoke to be placed on their shoulders that would be too difficult to bear. The letter was less about rules then it was a symbol of Christian freedom and when the people heard it they were delighted.
The talk that Jesus had with his disciples on the night before he died was on a whole other level. Jesus shares with them what is considered one of the greatest commandments as he says, “Love one another as I have loved you”.
The joy which Jesus wants us to have is made manifest when we abide in God’s love. That joy is fulfilled when we share that love with one another. The great commandment is not a burden on our shoulders but rather, it is our freedom and fulfillment.