The equality of faith: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 15:9–17:

Jesus said to his disciples:

“As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.

“I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father. It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you. This I command you: love one another.”

What does it mean to be a child of God, rather than a child of the world? Our readings today speak directly to the difference, in which considerations of nationality and culture become irrelevant.

Consider how revolutionary that would have been in Jesus’ time, and to a large extent it still is in our time. At the time of Jesus’ ministry, your birth determined your faith, your culture, your entire identity. If you were born in Judea, everyone else was a Gentile. If you were born in the Greek city-states, everyone outside those boundaries was a barbarian — a derogatory term derived from the sound of other languages to Greek ears. The Romans also adopted its usage. Other cultures and ethnicities developed similar terms for outsiders, usually not terribly complimentary in nature.

We often speak about the unusual calling of the apostles in relation to their previous work in trades. Those with special aptitude for scripture were identified much earlier and educated, while everyone else learned a trade; men of that era typically pursued the same trade as their fathers. Breaking out of that paradigm was unusual enough, even for Jesus. He took on His father’s trade rather than pursue theology, part of His mission to live as humbly as possible and assume our nature wholly.

Even before this, therefore, Jesus had already begun dismantling these societal strictures. In this Gospel reading and in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus makes clear that He intends to demolish all of these social boundaries and distinctions. Peter proclaims when Cornelius prostrates himself after hearing the Word, “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” At that point, the Holy Spirit descended on the Gentiles who accepted the Gospel in their hearts, which amazes “the circumcised believers,” who originally considered Jesus’ revelation to be applicable only to the Hebrews.

One can understand their amazement, however, given their interpretation of scriptural history at that time. The Lord had chosen the Hebrews as His people, gave them His laws, and had led them into the Promised Land by clearing out other peoples from it. The Lord had given them a national identity based on their faith in Him. If that was the end purpose of the Lord’s actions, then it would make sense to draw those social boundaries.

The Lord didn’t intend for the Israelites’ national identity to be an end in itself, however. He led them to the Promised Land so that they could be a nation of priests and prophets for His Word, a vessel for converting the world to the Lord’s laws. Instead, the kings of Israel lost their way, choosing worldly power over God’s mission, and ended up losing everything because of it.

In these readings, we see what the Lord truly had in mind. Jesus preached for an equality in faith, a world in which all human beings saw themselves as the Lord’s children and therefore each other as brothers and sisters. Peter grasps this in his interaction with the Gentiles, and later again when it came to conflicts over issues of circumcision and food choices. Jesus came to remove barriers between people, to provide equality and respect through the Holy Spirit — the kind of equality and respect that the word barbarian and its cognates explicitly reject.

Paul teaches this more directly to the Galatians in this well-known passage from Gal 3:26-29. Even a lack of physical descent from Abraham was no longer an impediment, for Christ and the Holy Spirit have come to redeem all in faith:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

In the context of its time, that was a radical redefinition of equality. And to a large extent, it still is in our time — which shows how much further we have to go in living out Christ’s word.

Addendum: Happy Mother’s Day to Hot Air readers!

The front-page image is a detail from “Apostles Peter and John” by Pieter Aertsen, 1575. On display at the Hermitage Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.