6th Sunday of Easter

Part of my studies in the seminary, and incidentally one of their defining moments, was a five-month parish placement. The most responsible task delegated to me while I was there was the preparation of quite a large group of children for First Communion. Part of that job involved making all the necessary arrangements for the big day itself. Twenty-odd years back then, the common approach was that the priest formulated his vision for the day, and then the parents did the hard graft. I chose to take a different path, which made the parish priest raise his eyebrows a bit; but nevertheless he was extremely supportive and trusting, and he gave me free rein to do things my way. I invited any parents willing to get involved to a meeting, and I asked them to put forward their ideas for each aspect of the special day. They came up with far better concepts than I would ever think of! They also made use of their terrific personal skills and their contacts. The final outcome was an incredibly joyous day for the children, for their families and for the parish. That was my first practical experiment with dialogue and brainstorming, and – thankfully – a successful one. It’s defined my way of doing business ever since.

‘If anyone loves me he will keep my word.’ In today’s gospel, these are the opening words uttered by Jesus. A simple and direct message for his followers, gathered round him the night before his cruel execution. The words of farewell to those who were sensing something terrible to come, the words to lift their spirits and to keep them together despite the uncertain future. The meaning of this sentence seems to be obvious, but it becomes less clear when put into practice. Which word of Jesus should we keep? The gospels contain so many of them: some of them are mutually contradictory. No wonder it wasn’t long before Christian communities found themselves experiencing divisions, splits, fierce arguments and exclusions thrown up by proponents of different interpretations. A huge chunk of the New Testament is in fact devoted to dealing with the beliefs or practices deemed to be wrong. One of them is presented in an abridged version in today’s first reading: the disagreement over whether or not non-Jewish Christians should keep the Jewish observances. The stakes were high on both sides, with the resulting decisions having the capacity either to condemn Christianity to becoming just another small Jewish sect, or to dissolve the traditions that had made Judaism proud and distinct. In modern terms we could liken it to a struggle between traditionalists and reformers, or between the conservative and liberal wings of the Church.

The matter was sorted out at a gathering in Jerusalem (the text is unfortunately omitted from today’s first reading). The traditionalists could call on a massive body of scriptural evidence on their side – virtually the entire Old Testament to support their views. The reformists could muster just a few quotations, and even these were open to question as misinterpretation. Surprisingly the argument that tipped the scales was Barnabas’ and Paul’s testimonies of their fieldwork. I’d say that reality won over the rigid scriptural approach. The in-depth discussion and deliberation brought about the solution that was finally accepted, albeit reluctantly, by the opposing sides. The conciliatory outcome was a practical illustration of Jesus’ proclamation in today’s gospel: ‘The Holy Spirit […] will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you. Peace I bequeath to you.’ The Holy Spirit, given to us in the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, leads us to a better understanding of how to keep Jesus’ word. Which one? ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is this: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ This is the foundation stone of our lives. Everything we do must be built upon these two commandments. This is the way to peace of mind, both for us and for those around us.