In today’s reading from Acts, Peter and James argue forcefully for the inclusion of Gentiles without laying on them the demands of Judaism. They contend that God is acting in and through the Gentiles, showering gifts upon them and obviously accepting them as they are. If, then, we exclude and judge them, or deny their participation in the community, we deny God and thwart the good God is working to do.
Take that message into the Gospel, in which Jesus says something that can be read as exclusionary – "If you keep my commandments you remain in my love". Does that mean, as some would suggest, that only those who obey the commands of the Church remain in the love of God? Apparently, the Church does not read it that way, or the lectionary would not connect this Gospel to the pericope from Acts. Instead, Jesus’ statement is thoroughly inclusive. If we obey Jesus’ commandments – which ultimately we do by radically loving God and each other – then by definition we remain in God’s love because we are literally practicing and living it. We are embodying the essence of God and continuing the work of Christ in the world.
Ultimately, then, the challenge of these scriptures is to see the ways in which we exclude others, especially using stricter criteria than God would apply or without first looking to see how God is already working in their lives. We need to see where we fail to radically love, especially those outside our traditional faith circle or who disagree with us, and those cast out or on the margins. We need to change our hearts so we truly live in the passionate, forgiving, unconditional, self-sacrificial, and expansive love of Christ.
We have so far to go to reach that ideal! I see it in my graduate class. Some students are from other parts of the world, raised with entirely different cultural perspectives. Some are "traditional-age" (in their 20’s) while others are "second-career" ministers in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. There are Catholics (both strict traditionalists and those who practice faithful dissent), Protestants (both mainline and evangelical), and other Christian denominations. There are males and females, straight and gay. Some are ordained; others are members of the laity. It is a stew of faith-seekers called to be instruments of Christ in ministry with persons who are sick, dying, or grieving.
Given this diverse make-up, people sometimes ask how we can meet for hours at a time in the same room, much less examine the issues in a way that allows doubts, differing beliefs, and exploration that leads to more profound faith. It is a challenge! Yet with the wisdom of Peter and Jesus, I see that God is working in each student, showering gifts on them and drawing them ever deeper into discipleship. My job is to radically love, to treat each person with utmost respect and dignity while refusing the urge to judge or condemn. I need to facilitate, not obstruct, what God is working in them.
Perhaps the most challenging thing is to open my own heart with a sincere belief that God may be trying very hard to teach me something through these particular students. After all, I expect the same from them – that they will open their hearts to hear the knowledge, perspectives, and experiences I offer, allowing God to stretch and grow them in ways they never expected. It ends up being an incredible adventure every time. Our God is a God of inclusion and surprise!
Can I practice that same respect and openness on the street, in the pew, and in all other aspects of my life? I wish I were better at doing so. My students serve as a continual reminder, but it is ever so much harder to do it outside the classroom. I pray for the grace to follow the model of radical, inclusive love set by Jesus and the apostles, and to act, breathe, and live the love of God so that my joy and God’s may be complete.
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website: http://www.amyflorian.com/.