Reflection for the 4th Sunday of Easter (Cycle C)
The experience of Paul and Barnabas in Antioch underscores for us an important yet obscure aspect of our conventional notions about pastorality which hinders our catholicity: Their story demonstrates how in our zeal to give or receive what we thought was God’s will for other peoples, we may end up alienating each other, dividing our communities and breaking the promises we made for his kingdom.
Our pastoral agendas are on a certain level of subtlety, actually are our own instead of the Spirit’s, and if in our relating and ministering to others, we are hinged on the belief that “Christ is exclusive only for Christians,” or that “Yahweh is exclusive only for the Jews,” then we may end up building what is essentially a fragile or even volatile “unity in diversity.”
Their remarks mirror the frustrations of not easily accomplishing what they have considered to be an appropriate radical pastorality for the Church, a spiritual shepherding consistently warning that discrimination in whatever form which oppressively separates one from the rest of creation, is not worthy of perpetual life in the Spirit.
“It was necessary, that God’s word be first proclaimed to you, but since you now reject it, and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we turn to non-Jewish people. For thus we were commanded by the Lord: I have set you as a light to the pagan nations, so that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”
A radical pastorality is therefore a constant struggle against the evils of inequality, socio-cultural disparities engendered around necessary hierarchies which assumed imaginary lives of their own, apart from the hierarchies that bred them. It is not a war waged in defense of a banal uniformity which may hinder creativity and identity; nor of a universal equality which may discourage respect and accountability. Radical pastorality essentially honors and upholds differences and its necessity for our existence, while exhorting us to being critically mindful of the sameness we all share as imago Dei.
The roots of our tending towards a comfortable exclusivity may be intrinsic to our human nature. It seems more natural for homo sapiens to build cultures around like-minded neighbors, and for homo religiosus to build religions around a shared idea that gods favor one culture over another. We would all like to imagine that the cosmos is centered on a “particular I” or a “particular we,” not on other such “I”s or “we”s. And perhaps, this understanding of a predestined centricity is the main cause of construction of “secure limits” and “safe borders,” with the faith and prayer that the Spirit desires and will defend the irrationality of its confines.
How many times have we seen Western Christianity imported “whole and undivided” in such places – many times, even forcibly – as if the Way of the Christ can only be comprehended from a specific worldview, thus concluding it can only be unilateral? Are we not aware that Western Christianity itself – like the United States, who seems to similarly understand a predestined centricity – is a spontaneous synthesis of cultures and religions from lands in the East? Our Church – and perhaps every country on earth – is not only a shaky unity in an existing diversity; it is also a historical unity built by and upon diversity.
And is it not true that the kingdom of God shall be “from every nation, race, people and tongue, standing before the throne, and the Lamb, clothed in white, with palm branches in their hands?” The success of the mission of the Apostles like Paul in proclaiming Christ to other peoples, began by simply being “a light to the pagan nations.” To be a “light” is to persevere in illuminating a reality of which understandings may inevitably vary, but nevertheless a multi-faceted reality which can remain fresh for all times and places. To be a “light” therefore, is not to enforce a single unchanging understanding which can dampen the potential for a multi-faceted reality to be seen in all its beauty.
We must realize that our faith has always been anchored on the confession that the Spirit flows where it does, beyond the self, beyond societies, beyond churches, beyond the world. We may be seriously mistaken when we think that what is “un-Jewish” or “un-Christian” has not yet been touched by it. The Spirit works within its own infinity, in an expanse much wider and deeper than our “secure limits” and “safe borders;” it can never be confined. Radical pastorality is simply to become a “light” for the multi-faceted reality of the Spirit.
If we are professing to be sheep faithful to the voice of our Lord – unperishable and “greater than all things else” – we must be shepherds committed to become “lights” for each other, so that we can all step confidently into the mystery of the Spirit, and together discover the peace which the world has yet to give. A “light” which invites and accommodates – along with the grace it brings – will encourage and will not discourage the listening to and the following of the Christ. Each person regardless of “nation, race, people and tongue” can become under the guidance of this benign “light,” a disciple according to his or her own understanding of the Way, a saint deserving of the infinity of heaven.
Brother Jess Matias is a professed brother of the Secular Franciscan Order. He serves as minister of the St. Pio of Pietrelcina Fraternity at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Mandaluyong City, coordinator of the Padre Pio Prayer Groups of the Capuchins in the Philippines and prison counselor and catechist for the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology.