“If then God gave them the same gift he gave to us when we came to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to be able to hinder God?”
“A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy: I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”
In today’s story from Acts, Peter describes how he was converted and transformed from an exclusive to an inclusive vision. He had advocated the view that only Jews could receive the call of discipleship to Jesus, and that the rules of Judaism were the only way to follow Jesus. Peter’s point of view is not a foreign one to us. For we are always looking for and so finding and advocating ways of constraining God’s universal love in accord with our preconceptions, biases, and prejudices.
This weekend I listened to a podcast from some time ago discussing the difference in news broadcasts of events where persons are killed by gun violence. For example, the word terrorism is never used when the perpetrator of the violence is white. Yet, it is almost always used on those much rarer occasions when the shooter is Muslim. Often then the term “radical Islamic terrorism” is used, a term which conflates all of the many diverse believers in Islam with the violent act.
Very early yesterday morning a young white man, who had a long history of run-ins with the law, opened fire in a Waffle House in Nashville, Tennessee. He killed four people before he was stopped by a young black man who responded as the shooter attempted to reload. I wait with anticipation the recognition of this unarmed young man’s heroism by the powerful voices in our country, as has been the case with armed police and security personnel in past such episodes. I fear, however, that this might not be forthcoming. For we see others through the lens of our propensity to exclusion. The truly radical nature of the gospel is that it presents to us the reality of the universal inclusiveness of God.
Peter is converted both by a vision he receives in a dream and his openness to his own wider vision. Peter is called by the Spirit to accompany “without discrimination” those who had been sent to him from Caesarea. As he speaks to those to whom he has been sent, he witnesses the Holy Spirit falling upon them as it had upon himself and the other disciples “at the beginning.” Peter is awake enough to be able to see beyond his typical discrimination, beyond his unconscious prejudices. He recognizes that the same gift of God in the Spirit that he received has been given to these others. He then realizes that in his exclusivity of vision and care he has been hindering God.
In the gospel today, Jesus states that he is not “a thief that comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy,” but he is rather the gate to the way by which all “might have life and have it more abundantly.” Jesus is the gate through which human beings are invited to pass in order that they may have more abundant life. It is abundant life that is God’s will for us. Jesus sees his mission, his call in life, to be a gate to that life. In every encounter in the gospel, with people of all stripes and states, Jesus only fosters in them the desire for more life. He also offers himself to them as a way to a more abundant life than they could ever have imagined.
Sometimes, and for some, we are such a gate. At other times we become what Peter refused to be, a hindrance to God’s call to greater life. As I age, I become more and more aware at what seems my almost incredible capacity for indifference. That indifference is fostered by my ability to distance from others, even from the evident need of others. This is true both locally and globally. We are currently having what we term a “political debate” concerning the openness to receive and accept those fleeing persecution in Central and South America, not to speak of Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa. Yet the context of the truth is never given in the political situation. In almost all of these cases, people are fleeing a chaos and a danger that has been, in large part, created by the United States and its policies. For most of our history, this country has practiced a kind of “realpolitik,” consciously or unconsciously based exclusively on our own economic self-interest and mindless of its effects on others. This is possible, in large part, due to our capacity for indifference.
Yet is it is my own personal prejudice and indifference that plays a part in its continuance. This personal indifference is reflected more immediately and locally as well. Much if not most of the time I am mindless of the life and so the call to fuller life of those around me. If, in fact, every encounter with another is an appeal from them, then most of the time I ignore that appeal. There are always the exceptions, however, of those who are part of my small circle of friends. it is basically human to discriminate among those whom I deem worthy of my attention and concern and those I do not.
The result of this discrimination, on both the immediate and global levels, is that far too often I hinder rather than serve the work of God in the other. Far too often I do not recognize, as Peter finally does, that God gives to all others the same gift God gave to me, the gift of life and the call to more abundant life.
This discrimination is played out perhaps most strongly and unfortunately in the “religious” sphere. Peter was, perhaps, so resistant to the work of God in non-Jews for the same reason we want to have and be something more than others. What drives us to want to exclude certain others from our society? How is it that we, who know ourselves to be sinful, can discriminate about others who are no more sinful than we ourselves? Paradoxically enough, it is, perhaps in part, that we fear the life we see in them. In this sense, it is not strange that differences in gender and sexual behavior become the flash points in our religious controversies.
Something in us knows that we are a capacity for more life, and yet we also fear it; we fear ourselves. In his Ted Talk last year, Pope Francis called on all of us to adopt “the revolution of tenderness.” He told us that tenderness “is the love that comes close and becomes real.” He said that tenderness means “being on the same level as the other,” as God is for us in Jesus. When we see life manifest in a different way in others, we are envious and fearful. What makes Pope Francis such a threat to some is that in his very person he expresses the more abundant life to which we are called. He introduces chaos in the Church to the degree that love is always chaotic for us. As ego, we prefer order to tenderness; we prefer judgment to love; we prefer a consistent dying to abundant life. We never, however, totally lose contact with the deep desire for life. So, one who lives that life will always be a threat to us. We shall want to exclude him or her from the controlled and inhibited life of our small circle.
If we live from our hearts, we shall not be hindrances to God’s way for the others. For, in our tenderness we shall communicate and share the life that is God’s gift to us. We shall dare to be close, even as that closeness threatens us, because we begin to know that we are one, with each other and with our “common home.” In this communion we truly begin to live together the common life that is ours and in the “love common to all” that sources that life.
The third message I would like to share today is, indeed, about revolution: the revolution of tenderness. And what is tenderness? It is the love that comes close and becomes real. It is a movement that starts from our heart and reaches the eyes, the ears and the hands. Tenderness means to use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other, to listen to the children, the poor, those who are afraid of the future. To listen also to the silent cry of our common home, of our sick and polluted earth. Tenderness means to use our hands and our heart to comfort the other, to take care of those in need.
Tenderness is the language of the young children, of those who need the other. A child’s love for mom and dad grows through their touch, their gaze, their voice, their tenderness. I like when I hear parents talk to their babies, adapting to the little child, sharing the same level of communication. This is tenderness: being on the same level as the other. God himself descended into Jesus to be on our level. This is the same path the Good Samaritan took. This is the path that Jesus himself took. He lowered himself, he lived his entire human existence practicing the real, concrete language of love.
Pope Francis, Ted Talk 2017