SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ ACTS 16:1-10; PS 99:1-3,5; JOHN 15:18-21 ]
In a globalized world, religions are being challenged on their claims to supremacy in beliefs. In the past, it was common for religions to assert that theirs was the “one and only true religion.” It was common for religions to brand others as pagan or “false” religions. Until Vatican II, the Catholic Church had always claimed to be the one and only true Church of Jesus Christ because of the apostolic succession and apostolic faith that had been transmitted to us. In our relations with Christians, we then labelled them as false church or at least not the true church.
But Vatican II was truly a council beyond its time as it foresaw the rapid changes that would take place in society and in the world due to mass communications. Whilst identifying the Church of Christ as subsisting in the Catholic Church, Vatican II also recognized that “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.” (LH 8.2) Then in the decree on Ecumenism, the Church reiterated the position of the Christian communities. “Moreover, some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ.” (Unitatis Reintegratio)
And with respect to other religions, the Church also admited the possibility of salvation. “Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.” (LG 16.1) In Nostra Aetate, the Council taught that, “the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.”
How do these statements of the Church synchronize with the scripture readings of today? In the gospel, Jesus seems to be promoting a kind of radical lifestyle. He said, “If the world hates you, remember that it hated me before you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you do not belong to the world, because my choice withdrew you from the world, therefore the world hates you.” In John’s understanding, there is an opposition between the world and Christ. But this must be seen in context because by the time of the evangelist, the Church was already under persecution. He himself was exiled in the island of Paphos. Jesus is not asking us to oppose the world because earlier on, He said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (Jn 3:16f)
To understand how time immemorial truths can be applied in the light of new situations and challenges, it is important that Church doctrines or religious beliefs be always situated in the context of their time. Applying the Sacred Texts or religious doctrines without considering the context in which such doctrines arose can cause more harm than good. When preachers of religions and adherents take the words and repeat them outside the context in which they were originally uttered, this becomes dangerous, and more frighteningly so when people take videos of these speakers or extract some words and messages for the social media. Hearing them without the context can be rather misleading. That is how sometimes papers sensationalize just by focusing on a passing remark of the speaker without presenting the whole message. This was what happened to Pope Benedict in his illustrious speech at the University of Regensburg on “Faith and reason.” (2006)
We are not advocating relativism, that is, that truth changes with the circumstances. Rather, the truth remains the same but it has to be applied to concrete situations. The application of the same truth requires adaptation because of new discoveries, scientific advancements and new knowledge. It is just like the case of the bible teaching that the world is flat and comprised of three levels or strata – the heavens, the earth and the underworld. This is also true in many areas as well. In the past, the Church would not permit a church burial to those who committed suicide. But with the study of psychology, we have come to realize that many who committed suicide did not doing so as an affront to the sovereignty of God but were overwhelmed by suffering, loneliness and depression.
So when this passage of the gospel was written, Christianity was already under persecution as a new religion. Christians were persecuted because of their faith in Christ. It was out-lawed and those who were found to be Christians were punished even by death. The Roman emperors hated the Christians because they were regarded as disloyal citizens as they did not worship Caesar. This hatred for the Christians was accentuated by the slanders of the Jews and those opposed to the Christian Faith. The Christians were regarded as revolutionaries, since Christ was their only King; cannibals because they ate the flesh and drank the blood of Christ; and immoral because of their fellowship meal called “agape.” Most of all, many feared the Christians because their faith brought division to society and the families of those who were converted to the faith.
The ‘world’ therefore referred to those who opposed the Christian way of life. That is why we read of St Paul and St Peter exhorting the Christians to be good citizens so as to negate such false accusations that Christians were divisive. However, when it comes to morality, justice and righteous living, Christians could not compromise the gospel values. If keeping the Word of Jesus causes us to be rejected, we need to stand firm in our faith. Standing up for the truth, for what is right, just and good is not destructive to society but constructive. At the end of the day, freedom of worship must be respected, but it cannot lead to fundamentalism and fanaticism, branding those who embrace other religions as infidels, condemned or pagans. At the end of the day, the Church makes it clear that it is our way of life, of love, compassion, justice and truth that will determine whether we truly love God or not. St John wrote accordingly, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister[f] in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:17)
This need to adapt without compromising the truth is found in the way St Paul handled Timothy. When he wanted to bring Timothy along in his missionary trips, he had him circumcised. “This was on account of the Jews in the locality where everyone knew his father was a Greek.” It was not that Timothy should be circumcised to be a Christian, as this was already settled at the Council of Jerusalem earlier. Furthermore, they were going from “one town after another, …(passing) on the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, with instructions to respect them.”
This position of St Paul appears to contradict what he had opposed with regard to the circumcision of the Gentile Christians. He argued, “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” (Gal 2: 15-16). But in this case, it was done for pragmatic reasons. Firstly, Timothy was a half Jew since his woman was Jewish. Circumcision, although not necessary for the Gentiles, was still part of the Jewish way of life. By so doing, he would be more acceptable to a Jewish audience. But it also showed how liberal Paul was in accepting Timothy as a Jew, as an orthodox Jew would not recognize a mixed marriage. In truth, we can see how Paul could adapt the gospel without compromising the truths of being saved by faith alone and that in Christ, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” (Gal 3:28)