Homily for May 10, Thursday of the V week of Easter
The message of today’s Gospel reading is essentially a simple and joyful one: God loves us, and if we keep His commandments, He will dwell in us and take Him to Himself for all eternity. And his commandments can all be boiled down to two: we should love God above all things, and love each other as God loves us. God wants us to be joyful, and He wants us to help other people to be joyful too.
The simplicity and joy of this message also comes across in the first reading. It recounts part of the Council of Jerusalem, which was a meeting of the first leaders of the Church, considered the predecessor of what came to be called Ecumenical Councils. The topic of debate was whether or not to require that Gentile converts to Christianity be required to take on all the laws and observances of Judaism. The conclusion was that converts should not be burdened with the complexities of the Jewish Law, but instead be instructed to avoid pagan practices and follow the essential moral norms. The New Covenant in Christ had superseded the old; faith in Christ brought freedom and simplicity, not layer upon layer of law.
So we could ask ourselves why, in the Church today, we have so many volumes of teachings and norms and ecclesiastical legislation. Have we lost the simplicity of the Gospel and gone back to the situation of the Pharisees?
The principles of the Church today are the same as those proclaimed by Christ: they all boil down to love of God and neighbor. Why so many documents, rules and teachings? Because life is complicated, and it isn’t always easy to know, in specific situations, how to act in the most loving way. Especially in some particularly difficult situations, people of good will can and do come to completely opposite conclusions. Just think of the debate surrounding abortion, homosexual marriage, the death penalty, euthanasia, and immigration, for example. We need guidance to find the best course of action. The Church brings two thousand years of experience and theological and philosophical reflection, plus the latest scientific knowledge, to bear on these problems, plus – most importantly – the guidance of the Holy Spirit which Christ guaranteed to the Church and, in particular, to the successor of St. Peter. That cumulated wisdom is expressed in those many volumes of Church teaching and legislation. It is not there to be a burden, but a guide.
Certainly, we have to be careful not to focus too much on the particular norms at the cost of the big picture – nor should we attribute to every practical rule or principle the same importance and immutability as the fundamental Gospel mandate of love. May God help us with His grace to keep our hearts and minds focused on the fundamental principles of Christian life, and may He grant us the humility to turn to the Church for guidance as to how to apply those norms, especially in matters where there is greatest difficulty in discerning the right course of action. If we use all the means God has given us to live a life of love, we will indeed remain in Him, and have the fullness of joy forever in heaven.