Sunday, May 26, 2019

Answering the ‘Big Questions’ of Life

(Sixth Sunday of Easter (C): This homily was given on May 26, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 15:1-29; Psalm 67:2-8; Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23; John 14: 23-29.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Sixth Sunday of Easter 2019]

Where do you go for answers to the big questions of life?  I’m talking about questions like, “What’s the meaning of human existence?” “Why am I here?” “Is there a God?” “Is he good?—and if he is good, why is there evil and suffering in the world?”  “Does God have a will—and if he does, can I know what that will is?”  “What happens when we die? Is that the end of it all, or is there something after death? And if there is a life that we experience after death, what will that life be like?”

Those are just some of the big questions that we ponder in our lives.  And it’s good that we do!  Because if we don’t—if we do not try to find answers to the basic, fundamental questions of human existence—our lives will lack meaning and purpose.  They will also lack real joy, since there can be no real joy in a meaningless life.

Some people, of course, will look to the Bible for answers to the big questions, and that’s good—or at least it’s a good start.  The problem is the Bible needs an interpreter.  By quoting one or two verses from the Bible out of context you can pretty much justify anything!

Other people will look to science for the answers.  The other day I came across a book online that was written by the late, great physicist, Stephen Hawking.  The title of the book was, interestingly enough, “Brief Answers to the Big Questions”.  I didn’t have time to read the book this week, but I did do a little research on it.  And I discovered that in the book Hawking addresses some of the very same questions I mentioned at the beginning of my homily.  There’s only one problem here: Hawking was a scientist, not a philosopher or a theologian.  This means that his opinion on issues like whether or not God exists is worth as much as my opinion is on whether or not black holes exist!  As a scientist, he didn’t have the competence to make definitive statements on matters of philosophy and theology any more than I have the competence to make definitive statements on matters of science.

Our world tends to treat scientists as if they’re experts on everything—but they’re not.

Personally, I choose to look for my answers to life’s big questions in the same place that the early Christians did.  And where, exactly, did they look?

They looked to the Church!  They looked to the one, true Church established by Jesus Christ, and to the apostles he had chosen to guide and shepherd that Church here on earth.

We see a great example of this in today’s first reading from Acts 15.  Here the early Christians were dealing with a question that is not very big to us in 2019 but was HUGE for them back in the first century! (Of course, the reason it’s not big to us today is because it was big to them back then—and they dealt with it.)

The question was: What about the gentiles?  What about those who are not Jews?  We know Jesus wants to save everybody—Jew and Gentile alike; he’s made that clear to Peter.  But do gentile converts to the faith need to observe the Mosaic Law as Christians?  Are they bound by all the Jewish ceremonial laws in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible)?  And do the men have to be circumcised?

Some Jewish converts were saying, “Yes, they do have to be circumcised and observe the Mosaic Law”—and that was causing a split in the Christian community.  As we heard in our first reading: “Some men came down to Antioch from Judea and began to teach the brothers: ‘Unless you are circumcised according to Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.  This created dissension and much controversy between them and Paul and Barnabas.’”

It was a very contentious issue.

And the problem was not only theological, it was also very practical.  Let me put it to you this way …
Imagine that you’re a 40 or 50 year-old gentile man living in the city of Antioch at this time.  You hear Paul and Barnabas preach about Jesus on several occasions and you’re intrigued!  In fact, you’re more than intrigued—you’re actually thinking of getting baptized and becoming a Christian.  But then you meet some of these Jewish Christians from Judea and they say to you, “Friend, it’s wonderful that you’re thinking of becoming a follower of Jesus.  We’re overjoyed!  But remember—becoming a Christian also means that you must observe all the ritual laws of Moses: all the dietary laws, all the purification rituals, all the laws of animal sacrifice.  And it means, first and foremost, that you must be CIRCUMCISED—as soon as possible!” 

That would definitely get me to think twice!  That would definitely tone down my excitement at the thought of converting to Christianity!  And I’m sure most if not all of the guys here this morning would feel the same way.

Anesthesia in the first century, remember, was not what it is today.

So what did they do with this question?  What did Paul and Barnabas and the others do to get this big question about the gentiles answered (since Jesus had not directly addressed the issue in his ministry)?

Very simply, they took it to the pope and the bishops who were in union with him!  That is to say they took the issue to Peter and the other apostles—who happened to be in Jerusalem at the time.

They met in council, prayed, talked, reflected on the matter, and finally reached a decision: a decision that they and the whole community believed was from God.  That’s why in their final decree they said, “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us …”

In other words, “This is not just our opinion on the matter; this is what Jesus Christ—who has given us the charism to faithfully interpret his words—would say if he were physically present with us right now.”

This is why I would maintain that the two most important books every Catholic should own are the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. 

The Bible is the word of God, but, as I said earlier, the word of God needs an interpreter—always!  Otherwise it can be misinterpreted and misused to say whatever a person wants it to say.

So whenever we face a big question in this life, we should look to those two books before we look anywhere else.  We should look to the Bible, yes—but we should also read what the Catechism says about the matter in question, because the Catechism faithfully interprets what the Bible says.

If we do those two things, my brothers and sisters, then the good news is we will be well on our way to finding the answer that we’re looking for.