And God, who knows the heart, bore witness by granting them [the Gentiles] the Holy Spirit just as he did us. He made no distinction between us and them, for by faith he purified their hearts. Why, then, are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?
Acts 15: 8-10
I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and your joy might be complete.
John 15: 11
We are reading from Acts these days an account of perhaps the most significant crossroads in the experience of the primitive church. Is the gift of Jesus and the Spirit meant only for Jews or also for Gentiles, for “all people,” as well. In Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis expresses, in radical terms, the fruit of the church’s discernment on this question: “Grace supposes culture, and God’s gift becomes flesh in the culture of those who receive it.” (115) Universality, the realization that God’s gift is a gift for all, is at the very heart of the church’s self-identification and mission.
As we know historically, however, the first followers did not come easily to this understanding. As human, we are always living a struggle between avarice and generosity, between selfishness and sharing. From the very beginnings of our lives, we want to be recognized as special, as different, not only in the sense of unique but also as better than others in some way or other. To exist, that is etymologically to “stand out,” for us often means to be preferred over others. We want the gift we are given to be better and more than the gift given to the others.
One of the truly radical elements of Christianity is that it does not privilege any one culture or people over another. Of course, this truth has often been, and perhaps to a significant degree still is, more absent than present in the actual life of the church. So often it was European culture rather than the gospel that was the export of the church’s missionary ventures. It is difficult for us as human beings to realize the distinction in Pope Francis’ comment between “God’s gift” and the culture in which it “becomes flesh.” As the early church wrestled with whether or not Gentile believers would have to keep the Jewish law and the dietary precepts, so too does each of us wrestle with our internal demands of what those who are different from us must do to be part of us.
We experience the challenge of the universality of the gospel not only ecclesiastically but also personally. As we struggle with a material selfishness that tends to be preoccupied with what is ours and whether or not we are getting our “fair share,” so too do we wrestle at the spiritual level. The prodigality and egalitarianism of God is a problem for us. Our self-created identities are largely formed on the basis of what makes us different from others, what we have that they lack. It is not only wealth and possessions that we want to have more of, but also power, knowledge, insight, and status. The more subtle and “spiritual” this becomes in us, the more dangerous it is. Our sense of moral and spiritual superiority over others is potentially the unforgivable sin, not because God would not forgive us but because, in our arrogance and pride, we forget who we are to a degree we are unable to recover.
The more we fall prey to this form of pride, the more we tend to think that our joy comes from what we possess and the others lack. “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like other people.” (Luke 18:11) We are very much like the young child who is convinced that joy comes through the number of gifts she receives for her birthday or Christmas. The joy builds as long as there is yet one more unopened gift. Yet, once they are all opened even the child experiences a sense of disappointment. For us, as for the child, the disappointment is the grace and possibility. On the one hand, it can compel us to seek yet more for ourselves, or else it can lead us into the deep place of lack that we truly are. In that place, we know our communion with everyone. We recognize there that our proclaimed belief has, at its core, all the doubt and fear of the avowed atheist. We both stand in our poverty, in need of God’s grace, in need of Jesus’ and the Spirit’s coming.
“I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete.” True joy comes as a gift, in the receiving and in the giving of the gift. it is complete to the degree that it is shared. Recent studies are showing that a basic belief we’ve always had of infants may be mistaken. We have always thought that human beings are born selfish and need to learn to be generous and to share. Yet, it has recently been shown that very young children will spontaneously share rather than hoard. This raises the possibility that we are socialized to be selfish rather than to be generous. This work is admittedly still quite seminal. Yet, is it possible that “original sin” is not as “original” as we’ve always thought? Might we be born with the intuition that joy comes from sharing what we have with others and that self-centeredness is taught and developed?
Whichever way this conflict develops in us, we all know its reality. We waver between giving and sharing all we have and holding and hoarding it. We continue to struggle with this even though time and again life teaches us that it is by offering and sharing our joy with others that it becomes complete. The Spirit is a gift given for all. As a result, we can only know the Spirit and its fruits by sharing them with each other and with all.
. . . for in the inner life no potentiality can be separated from its use, and use, so far from ruining it, strengthens it. The spirituality of the spiritual person consists, not in a sort of abstinence from every action which might diminish that person, but in the disinterestedness and generosity which drive that person constantly to act, without a thought at the moment of action for whether that person stands to gain or to lose.
. . . But spiritual treasure only truly exists in its expenditure; spending actually creates it, and increases it indefinitely, whether the manner of spending be an operation of the mind, of the will, or of charity. But we can observe in ourselves a sort of instinctive materialism which leads us to consider that all the treasures of the spirit must be laid aside and kept for ourselves alone, as though they were liable to waste and corruption if shared; whereas true wisdom consists in regarding material wealth also as being indeed wealth, but only at the moment of spending, and that it too can be increased, and its nature changed—in other words, it can be spiritualized—by the good use to which we put it.
Louis Lavelle, The Dilemma of Narcissus, pp. 152-3