An old Marlon Brando film came to my mind as I was writing the homily for this 5th Sunday of Easter: “Viva Zapata,” stylized a bit, but solidly based on an historical event. In it, the president of Mexico, a decent man, is convinced of the rightness of Zapata’s peasant revolutionary cause and pledges to cooperate with him, first by ordering the national army not to resist him and his forces. So, having assured Zapata that his troops will be left free to move toward their peaceful objective, the president joins him and waits with him in anticipation of success. But the army general has deceived the president and instead ambushes Zapata’s forces, virtually decimating them. The well-meaning president is bewildered and unbelieving. From a distance, he looks woefully at Zapata, silently pleading and hoping that his innocence and sincerity will be recognized.
What triggered this recollection for me was that passage from the Acts of the Apostles we just heard, telling us that Paul was trying to work with the disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem but that they were avoiding him, keeping him out because they knew of his only too-recent persecution of Christians. They didn’t trust him, did not accept him as a convert-believer. This had to have been a painful experience for Paul. I assume that no one knows precisely how long the ostracism lasted before Barnabas interceded and convinced the community that Paul was really of one mind & heart with them in their allegiance to the Risen Jesus.
I think it’s interesting – in a way consoling – that the original Christian community, the infant church, had its own difficulties with the matter of inclusion and exclusion, even though the message and the intent of Jesus had everything to do with unity and peace. The problem that Paul presented was, of course, his violent actions against the nascent Christian community. It could be that even among those who accepted his conversion as genuine there were some who could not forgive him, who thought he was unworthy of inclusion, or who simply wanted him to feel pain for those crimes, no matter that he had repented of them.
It’s an old story and still very current. We have to fight against that same inclination to play God. We cannot content ourselves with the fact that we regularly go to Mass, keep the rules of the church, don’t murder, cheat or steal, and therefore are Christians. The truth is that to be Christian is to have the values and the attitudes and the mind & heart of the one we are named after. He teaches us by word and example that we are to love one another as God loves us. That’s without any conditions or limitations. That’s a love that forgives and overlooks and tries hard not to judge, not to bear grudges, not to lay down terms. For a Christian it simply can’t be “I will love you if, or when…” It can be only “I will love you… period.” And the love then takes the form appropriate to the particular situation or relationship at hand.
A missionary to China – I could not recall or find his name – was expelled from that country in the 1940s. On his long trek home, he came upon a community of Jews in India. They were being rejected, harassed, ignored, even though they had fled to India from Nazi persecution in Germany. The missionary loved them and spent every cent of the travel money he had been given on gifts for them. Virtually penniless at that point, he telegraphed his mission society back home for additional funds. When he got safely home, his superiors asked him why he had done such a foolish, reckless thing. “Jews don’t believe in Jesus,” they said. He answered, “No, that’s true, they don’t. But I do.”