Bible Reflection (5 May 2024)

6th Sunday of Easter Year B

Acts 10:25-26,34-35,44-48
1 John 4:7-10
John 15:9-17

What makes a good Christian? Are there criteria and prerequisites?

My brothers and sisters. Have we ever asked ourselves: Am I a good Christian? What is my answer; and on what criteria do I based my answer on? Some of us consider ourselves good Christians and good Catholics because of our strict adherence to God’s Commandments and the various Catholic rituals. However, in our strict adherence and observation, we can also become stumbling blocks to other coming to know Jesus. How so? For example, we may become self-righteous, so much so that we exclude certain people from our Church and our communities – others whom we deem are less holy and whom we seem are sinners. Perhaps, it is because they do not come to church regularly; perhaps they dress inappropriately to church; perhaps they do not show reverence in church; or even worse they struggle with morality issues such as sexuality, greed, envy, etc.

The First Reading this week tells the story of St Peter visiting the Cornelius family. Cornelius was a Roman centurion. He and his family does not come from a bloodline of believers, but he is nevertheless “a devout man who feared God” (Acts 10:2). We read in the First Reading: “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.” (verse 44-46) On witnessing the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on a household of uncircumcised, Peter concluded, “‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptising these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ.” (verse 47-48) To many people of Biblical days, Cornelius and his household are not worthy of salvation. To put this in modern context, to be uncircumcised in those days was equivalent to not being baptised or not belonging to a faith community. Furthermore, to be a member of the Roman conqueror is seen as the enemy, a member of an evil and oppressive cohort, an unholy people. So, in this sense, many of us are no different to the narrow-minded people of Biblical days. Like them, we set certain prerequisites for someone to be granted salvation, to be considered good Christians – baptism, belonging to a faith community, living a holy life, etc. But in truth, when we do so, we are forcing God to adhere to our standards; rather than us adhering to God’s. As we witness in the First Reading, God’s grace does not work in our narrow-minded ways. In the same vein, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.” (CCC 1257)

Of course, this does not mean that we may dispense of spiritual practices and God’s Sacraments. Quite the contrary, on the necessity of the Sacrament of Baptism, CCC 1257 states, “Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude”. We can extend this principle to the graces that the other Sacraments bestow upon us – healing (Anointing of the Sick, Reconciliation), spiritual strength (Confirmation), fidelity in vocation (Matrimony, Holy Orders), union with God (Eucharist). But God is not restricted by His own Sacraments. In situation where the ministering of a Sacrament is not possible or practical, God may nevertheless bestow upon us the same grace without a Sacrament. God instituted the Sacrament for us but He Himself is not bound by them.

Ultimately, the measure of faith and grace is not determined by the efficacy of the rituals but by the purity of the love that is in the person. As St John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, wrote in the this week’s Second Reading, “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (verse 7-8). This same principle of love governs our keeping of God’s Commandments. We do not keep the Commandments to demonstrate to ourselves and others how much we love God. For if that is our motive, then we have already broken the Commandments already, committing the sin of pride. On this subject of pride, in the First Reading, we read that upon arriving at Cornelius’ house, “Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshiped him. But Peter made him get up, saying, ‘Stand up; I am only a mortal.'” (verse 25-26) St Peter understood that all glory be unto God. Peter regarded himself as a mere instrument of God. My brothers and sisters, rather being judgemental upon others, we will do well to remember and emulate Peter’s humility in our lives.

In truth, the keeping of God’s Commandments should simply be a reflection of our love for God. As Jesus Himself said to the disciples in the Gospel this week, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (verse 10) And just as the Commandments are a reflection of our love for God, they are also the means by which we love one another: “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” (verse 17) And no form of love is more powerful than self-sacrificial love. Jesus says in the Gospel this week, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (verse 13)

My brothers and sisters, let us conclude by revisit the question I pose at the beginning of this reflection: What makes a good Christian? On what criteria do I base my answer on? If we ever feel tempted to disparage others because their attendance at church, the way they dress, or their morality, let us exercise love instead. Jesus said to Nicodemus “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.” (Jn 3:16) Or in the words of St John in this week’s Second Reading, “God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.” (verse 9) And last but not least, in the words Mother Theresa, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” Shalom.