Our Union with Christ
(Readings: Acts 8:5-8, 14-17; 1 Peter 3:15-18; John 14:15-21)
Introduction to Mass
In the gospel reading today Jesus promises to remain with his disciples, to remain present to them and active within them, drawing them into the life of the Father. St. John, the author of the gospel, makes the connection between our union with Christ and our keeping of his commandments.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries…
The first line of the gospel reading this Sunday – Jesus’ declaration to his disciples, “If you love me, keep my commandments”, shows us that Christian faith at its most basic level isn’t a set of moral teachings or a collection of rules. It’s a relationship with a person – the person of Christ.
To welcome the Christian message the way that the Samaritan people in the first reading welcome it means to make contact with Christ, to come under Christ’s influence, and to take on Christ’s character and outlook and attitudes.
Maybe the easiest way to put it is to say that we have to be rooted in a union with Christ first of all and then go on to carry out the practical activities which add up to “keeping the commandments”.
St. John I think labours this point more insistently than the other gospel-writers. It’s St. John who compares the relationship between Christ and his followers to a vine and its branches: we’re like the limbs of a tree that can only receive life by being connected organically to the main body and the roots.
And in this passage he seems to make a similar point, where he has Jesus talking in a rather mystical and poetic language about how “I am in the Father, and you in me and I in you”. Probably this figurative, poetical language is the best language to use to describe the way God affects us and changes us, because our relationship with God always has a mysterious, intangible or hidden aspect to it. We can’t communicate with God in the straightforward way we communicate with each other.
For that reason alone I think it would be true to say that for most of us, a close spiritual union with Christ is easier said than done. Whatever our intentions might be, we find that all kinds of outside pressures and distractions conspire with our own inner weaknesses to prevent us from “living in Christ” with Christ “living in us” the way that the gospel passage talks about.
In every period of the Church’s history there have always been a small number of men and women who have sensed the need to depart from a conventional way of life so as to concentrate on trying to fathom the mystery of God as thoroughly as they can.
The whole monastic movement grew out of the compulsion which some men and women felt to detach themselves from ordinary family commitments, from material possessions, from ordinary social contacts, to gain a greater degree of silence and solitude in their lives which allowed them to make contact with God, hear his voice and enter into his life.
Most Christians don’t feel called to go to that extreme – it’s a very particular vocation which only a few people have. But one thing that every believer in Christ can learn from the men and women who have taken the monastic path is that we all have obstacles and distractions that we need to clear away to a certain extent if we want to be in touch with God and if we want to benefit from his influence on us.
If we’re always busy and active – even in very worthwhile activities – and never take time to be silent and still and to pray then there’s the danger of reducing Christian life to a moral code or a set of rules. Christ becomes a distant, almost mythical character, someone we read about, but someone we don’t actually know very well – rather than our main channel to God and the main source of our ability to “keep the commandments”.
Saint Peter’s remarks in the second reading are interesting in this regard because he’s talking about the change that takes place in us when we cultivate our love of Christ as the foremost “duty” of Christian life.
“Always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope you all have,” Peter says, But give your answer with “courtesy and respect” and a willingness to “suffer for doing right”, in imitation of Christ himself.
Peter’s view seems to be that we should be strong and clear in our faith, but there should be no aggressive or domineering behaviour in proclaiming the Christian message. His ideal seems to be the opposite: a quiet strength which responds with courtesy and respect to questioning, even hostile questioning and slander.
These are the qualities and the attitudes displayed by people who are genuinely prayerful and engaged in a continual process of conversion, with the different areas of their character and behaviour falling, one by one, under the influence of Christ.
It’s quite different from the type of religious person who preaches the message in an overbearing, aggressive manner, and reacts with angry threats when their “evangelism” is rejected. That comes too obviously from the motive of wanting to control and exercise power over other people - the sort of motive which is driven out by genuine contact with Christ, and replaced with the qualities St. Peter mentions here.
So what's the message that emerges from these readings when we take them all together? The centre of our spiritual life is our relationship with Christ himself – our love of Christ as St. John says. Keeping the commandments and the practical demands of Christian moral life grow out of that, naturally, as our union with Christ progresses. That’s the main lesson I would draw from the readings put before us for reflection this Sunday.