Homily for 6th Sunday of Easter 2006
An important funeral was held at St Joseph's last Wednesday. Fr Patrick Carroll, of the Townsville diocese was buried in the Old Nambour Cemetery with his ancestors. His family were among the first European settlers in the district. He was the first person from Nambour ordained priest. He was also in the first group of priests to do all their training in Queensland at the Seminary at Banyo. So he is part of our Parish history and that of Nambour. May he rest in peace.
What is the source of our morality? Who decides what is good and what is evil? What is true any more?
It is very easy to be confused by all the debates going on at any one time about Da Vinci Codes, the “selfish gene”, or evolution vs creationism. It does look like a determined attack on Christianity at times. However, the kind of religion that someone like the author of “The Selfish Gene”, (Oxford University Press, 1976), Richard Dawkins, attacks deserves thorough examination. Such debates do force religious people to think carefully about what they say and do and is a healthy spur to reflection on our faith.
So is Christianity a deception, a la Da Vinci Code? Is faith an illusion, since we are determined by our genes, al la Richard Dawkins? And is the only choice the one between a literal interpretation of the bible and science? I find it very difficult to keep up with all the discussion about these and other issues. But certainly, if you do any reading or research at all you will quickly find that these challenges to faith have been around since the beginning of the Church under different guises.
That there have been dreadful deeds done in the name of Christ is beyond doubt in history. But, that grace has abounded even more is beyond doubt in the lives of so many faithful people. History testifies to this also. And once you realise that a novel doesn't have to be history the problem is not so great even though the challenge remains.
That there is much in religion and morality that is given to us by our culture and our genes is also obvious. For example, once it was a mortal sin to eat meat on Friday. Now it is not. That was a commandment given by the community of the Church, not by God. Yet our Catholic culture is an acceptable source for moral directives. In itself Friday abstinence is not a big thing but such rules are there to point out or protect a far more important value. In the case of Friday abstinence, the value we wanted to protect is that we are to worship God alone and not be consumed by immediate needs and wants. The rules can often change but the values behind them do not.
Is our life determined by our genetic make up? Very much of it is. But to then say that there can be no other purpose for human existence than the prorogation of our DNA is to ignore the evidence of human altruism and compassion. But as long as we realise that the “selfish-gene” is simply a world view, or a scientific model, that helps geneticists grapple the workings of our DNA then we need not fear it. That it is only a “model” is clear because of the human quality of “selfishness” applied to it. It becomes a problem when a particular model is made the only acceptable one. Or when a scientist uses his insight as an explanation for everything. Richard Dawkins has been a vocal critic of religion and faith.
Regularly, the evolution - creationism debate rears its head as if there were no other choice to make. Those debates have brought Christian faith into ridicule. Fortunately, Catholics have been spared much of that because we have a different stance toward the bible. The creationist position has to be challenged as one of the greatest deceptions. The difference between a literalist approach to the bible and ours is that some people read preconceived ideas and prejudices into the bible. They decide what the bible is before it is read. Whereas we would say we have to listen to the bible, as it stands, for what it is, the Word of God in human words.
St Peter is faced with a real challenge to his accepted morality in the first reading. We hear only part of a long episode about the conversion of Cornelius, a Roman, a pagan. Can gentiles be baptised and receive the Holy Spirit? This issue shook the early church literally to its Jewish foundations. So important was this insight of Peter that it is recorded three times by St Luke in the Act of the Apostles (10:1-48, 11:5-18, 15:6-18). The Church then changed its Jewish stance on a number of issues in order to affirm a far more important insight, namely, that God does not have favourites, as Peter said in our reading. The Gospel is for everyone. In so doing Christianity gradually identified itself as different from Judaism.
The laying down of one's life for another in love is not a self-destructive thing. Our love is to be fruitful and full of joy even if it costs us everything. The people who volunteer to work as volunteers in Africa or the Middle east or missionaries in many countries do not go to seek death or sickness or pain. Their generous love gives them great joy and if sometimes it ends in persecution that is a risk they are prepared to take. Love and joy is their motivation.
In the Gospel today (John 15:9-17), Jesus calls us friends. Jesus chooses us. Jesus then commissions us to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last. Friendship, vocation, and mission. These are things that define who we are more than even our DNA or our culture. They define us as disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, children of God reborn in Baptism. And the fruit of being who we are and living according to the Word, is love for one another and sharing that love all over the world so that the poor have the good news told them, the blind see, the lame walk, and captives set free (Luke 4:18-19).
The first letter of St John we read today tells us that the heart of Christianity is not some hidden secrets or codes, nor all the knowledge of science or technology. Rather it is “God's love for us when he send his Son to be the sacrifice that takes our sins away” (1 John 4:7).