When Jesus said, "Love one another," as he does in today’s Gospel, his followers might not have imagined just how far the limits to their love might need to be stretched. For there was no containing either the geographic or spiritual boundaries of the faith that would come to be called Christianity, and each of its believers would be called to a new level of surrender to God, to an expanded definition of family, and to a new understanding of inclusion.
In the reading from Acts, we see the fledgling communities of Christians trying to "sort themselves out" and deal with the very practical issues arising from cultural differences among Christians. On the one hand, there is the group of Jewish Christians who have come from a tradition which holds certain practices, circumcision and dietary practices among them, as integral to their very identity. Now here come the Gentiles, powerfully drawn to the word of Christ which has spread outward, but not practitioners of the same observances as their Semitic counterparts.
Right from its inception–due to its success actually–we see how Christians are forced to confront those impulses which seek to label someone as "other" and either dismiss, or control, that which is different. Christians are part of a new family, one that is diverse and increasingly far-flung, and the old judgments and narrow vision have no place. It is quite touching to see how the early leaders, inspired by the Holy Spirit, seek to shepherd the various Christian communities and keep them rooted in the essential message of Jesus. Can you imagine the tragedy had the various groups descended into endless bickering or exclusionary ideology about what is the correct way to be a Christian?
And so we come to today, and I am reminded that inclusion is a struggle that didn’t only exist "back in the day." Who among us hasn’t had to confront personal prejudice – against people of color, gay men and women, certain ethnic groups, people of a particular economic class?
To be a Christian is to embrace a radical vision of love – just as Jesus commanded – a love that doesn’t begin and end at self or immediate family – but extends outward, is inclusive, and may require the giving of one’s very life for another. It is this commitment to unselfish love that keeps pushing back at the boundaries that divide us, and in the end defines us as a community of diverse, faithful, resilient people of hope.
Nancy Nickel is director of communications at the Passionist Development Office in Chicago.