easter The Sánchez Archives

Year B

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

Christian Symbiosis

ACTS 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48
1 JOHN 4:7-10
JOHN 15:9-17

As the early groups of Christian disciples grew and developed, they had to learn to cope with the ordinary frictions which are an inevitable aspect of inter-personal relationships. People of diverse character and background with their qualities, flaws, and differing likes and dislikes had to learn to relate to one another in mutual charity; in order for Christianity to thrive, its members had to enter into the symbiosis which we call community.

The Oxford Encyclopedia English Dictionary defines symbiosis as “a mutually interactive relationship between two living things, usually to the advantage of both.” The created universe is rife with fascinating examples of symbiotic relationships. For instance, the rhinoceros has very poor eyesight. But its tough hide is infested with ticks which are a delicacy to a certain small bird which rides on its back, feasting on the insects and alerting the rhino to danger. Similarly, both the ratel, or honey badger, and the honey-guide bird are fond of honey which they hunt together. With its keen eyes, the little bird easily finds the beehive and the ratel’s powerful claws tear it open, making the honey available to both. Among sea creatures, the pinna, a blind slug or snail is threatened by many predators, the worst of which is the cuttle-fish. No sooner does the pinna dare to open its bivalve shell than the cuttle-fish rushes in and devours it. Happily, the keen-eyed crab-fish is a constant companion of the pinna. Both live together in the pinna’s shell. When the pinna is hungry, it opens its valves and sends out its roommate to secure food. If an enemy is near, the crab-fish dashes back to its blind protector who quickly closes the valves once its symbiont is inside. If food can be secured without danger, the crab-fish returns to the shell, makes a gentle noise at its opening, is admitted by the pinna and the two share the feast together.

When believers reflect on these few examples of symbiosis, and are awestruck at the wonder of such mutuality, they are also moved to marvel at the divine plan which has so ordered and balanced the world around us. But this reflection must be carried further. As today’s readings indicate, the symbiosis which supports and sustains the harmony of the natural universe must also exist within the Christian community --not between believers and God-- because before God we remain as helpless as birds in the nest, with mouths open wide to receive food. With God, we are like beggars with outstretched hands, dependent upon God’s goodness, with nothing to offer in return. God will always be the giver, the benefactor, and we the needy ones.

But God has created human beings to be symbionts for one another. The relationship to which God calls us in Christ is to be characterized by a mutuality in which each and all of us can grow and thrive.

When he lived in human flesh and walked among us, Jesus explained that such a relationship is possible for those who love God and keep the commandments. As today’s second reading and gospel are read, believers are once again reminded of Jesus’ teaching, that we, who are beloved of God, are to love one another, freely, fully. Jesus proved the depths of his love and that of God for humanity by laying down his life so that we might live. Human beings have no greater friend than Jesus, whose personal choice and abiding love transforms slaves and sinners to friends. Something of that great gift is to be reflected in all our interaction with one another.

The fact that symbiosis is not always readily or easily achieved was evident in the early church’s initial reluctance to welcome gentiles and to recognize them as equal sharers in God’s saving mercy. As the first reading from Acts indicates, Peter was aided by the Holy Spirit as he struggled in his relationship with Cornelius. Notice the fact that those who shared Peter’s ingrained prejudices and accompanied him to the Roman centurion’s home were surprised that gentiles were being as generously gifted by God as they had been. Because of the abiding presence of the Spirit, such surprises will continue to occur.

Our God, who is love itself made manifest, empowers us to move nearer and nearer each day toward that Christian symbiosis whereby the crab-fish and pinna among us might be mutually nurtured, protected and cherished.

ACTS 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48

Wherever explorers travel into uncharted territory for the first time, they begin to draw maps in order that those who come after them, or so that they, upon their return, will readily find their way. When the first believers in Jesus initially ventured into gentile territory, they found it necessary, not to draw new maps but to rework and make course corrections on old ones. As Jerome Neyrey (The Social World of Luke-Acts, Hendrickson Pub., Peabody MA: 1991) has explained, people tend to map out or draw lines which define and give meaning to their world in six basic areas: self, others, nature, time, space and God. For Jews, only certain people, things and places were considered to be clean or pure and therefore acceptable within the parameters of their cultural maps. Those outside the limits of Judaism’s societal limits were regarded as unclean and were avoided.

That Jesus crossed over these centuries’ old boundaries and challenged others to behave similarly is obvious in each of the four canonical gospels. That the church followed Jesus’ lead in redrawing the maps of society, so as to be inclusive of all, is particularly evident in the Lucan sequel, Acts. That the church’s venture into uncharted territory was fraught with the human penchant for parochialism and discrimination is also evident. However, at every juncture, when human foibles threatened to detour or limit the church’s journey “to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47), the Holy Spirit was present to guide and enlighten.

Always careful to emphasize the ongoing influence of the Spirit, Luke tells his readers that Peter’s eventful and eye-opening trip to Cornelius’ home was prompted by the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:19) as was his insight regarding gentiles, “I begin to see how true it is that God shows no partiality” (10:34). The Greek verb hypolambanomai (I begin to see) is in the present progressive tense, indicating that Peter’s recognition of God’s universal intentions was a work in progress. Beverly Roberts Gaventa (Proclamation 6 Series B Easter, Fortress Press, Minneapolis MN: 1996) suggests that Peter’s offer of forgiveness (v. 43 is not included in this excerpted reading) seems more theoretical than real, since he remained at arm’s length from Cornelius and his household, asking no questions about Cornelius’ faith, and offering no invitation to baptism.

Again Luke explains to his readers that what is happening within Cornelius et al. has been prompted by the Holy Spirit. Peter’s hesitance stands in marked juxtaposition to the power of God, visibly active among the gentiles. In a scene that recalled the prophesy of Joel 3:1 (“Then afterward I will pour my spirit upon all humanity”) and echoed similar outpourings of the Holy Spirit already mentioned in Acts (2:1-4, 4:3, 8:17), Luke described the infusion of Cornelius and the other gentile believers. Their empowerment (“They spoke in tongues, praising God”) was no less wondrous, their gifts no less authentic than those of their Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ. Surprised (v. 45), yet not without understanding, Peter then extended the invitation to baptism (vv. 47-48).

Peter’s question, “What can stop these people. . .?” (v. 47) has remained a poignant one through all the centuries of the church’s growth. Today it poses the challenge yet again. If God approves and empowers, who dares discriminate or deny?

1 JOHN 4:7-10

The message of this second reading is not a new one; it is repeated in every imaginable venue. Bumper stickers, public service announcements (“Have you hugged your kid today?”), placards at sporting events (John 3:16), psychologists, counselors and television’s relationship gurus, all continually remind the general public of the importance of love, of being loved, of expressing love for one another. And while the author of this first Johannine letter may appear redundant, his repetitiveness should rather be understood as reassurance and emphasis concerning an elemental human activity.

Our Johannine correspondent is quick to make the necessary connection between authentic human love and divine love (vv. 7-8). “The significance of this point may be highlighted by recognizing how we do not know love; love is not known first in sexual attraction or in philosophical discussion about love, or even in the more general context of the human family, but in our experience of God” (Beverly Roberts Gasenta, Proclamation, Fortress Press, Minneapolis MN: 1996).

God has afforded this experience of love to every human person in the gift of Jesus, sent into the world to embrace and redeem humankind through his saving death (vv. 9-10). Not only does the Johannine author affirm that love is of God, or better, from God (v. 7), he goes even further to state: God is love! (v. 8). As Raymond E. Brown (The Epistles of John, Volume 30, The Anchor Bible, Doubleday and Co., New York: 1984) has noted, this shift in formulation (seen also in 1:5 : “God is light” and 1:6 “God is in light”) warns us that we are not dealing with precise definitions of God but with descriptions of God in relation to human beings. The description is not purely functional however; for if God is love toward us, it is because God is love in an ontological sense.

The magnanimous love of God, which prompted the sending of the Son (incarnation) and the Son’s redemptive death, as an offering for our sins (v. 10), is the source of life of every believer (v. 9) and the motivation for the love that should exist among them (v. 7). Brown further explains, that in the Johannine chain of life-giving, the Son has life from the Father as the believer gets this life from the Son (John 5:26; 6:57; 1 John 5:11). Therefore the manner in which believers live and love one another is to be understood as an integral aspect of God’s saving plan. This interpretation makes the Christian responsible for upholding the divine intent for humankind, a responsibility which some in the Johannine community shirked, viz., those whom the author regarded as antichrists (1 John 2:18-23).

Although these so-called antichrists or adversaries of the author claimed to know God, they did not manifest their knowledge of God in ethical living (keeping the commandments), authentic faith (they did not acknowledge the incarnation) and mutual love. This breach, between knowing and doing, between knowing and believing, between knowing and loving, eventually resulted in a breach in the Johannine community; a sizeable group seceeded from its ranks.

Today, our elder brother and ancestor in the faith repeats his message in our midst, lest we forget and betray God’s love, the gospel and one another.

JOHN 15:9-17

In the course of human history, there have been many who have attempted a proper definition of a friend. For Aristotle, a friend was a “single soul, dwelling in two bodies.” Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that “a friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.” In describing the mutuality enjoyed by friends, Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, “Experience teaches us that love does not consist of two people looking at each other, but of looking together in the same direction.” Some anonymous writers have defined a friend as “one who multiplies joys and divides grief”... or as “one who comes in when the whole world has gone out.” Within our own Judaeo-Christian tradition, Jesus ben Sirach offered the following: “A faithful friend is a sure whelter, whoever finds one has found a rare treasure. A faithful friend is the elixir of life and those who fear the Lord will find one” (Ecclesiasticus 6:14, 15) (J.B. trans).

Closer to our own time, the symbiosis which is true friendship was remarkably enunciated in the experience of the great German artist Albreht Durer (1471-1528). When Durer left home to study art, he became friends with a young man of similar desires. The two became roommates, but both being poor, they were not able to make a living and study at the same time. As it happened, the friend suggested that Durer should study while he worked to support them both. Reluctantly, Durer agreed and when at long last his paintings began to sell, the friend was able to return to his art. Sadly, the hard work had stiffened and gnarled his fingers and he could no longer paint with skill. Some say it was these aged and worn hands of his friend that inspired one of Durer’s best known paintings, “The Praying Hands.” This being so, then those hands revealed the quality of friendship to which Jesus calls his disciples. Like the friend who sacrificed himself so that Durer could develop and thrive, Jesus showed the depths of his love by laying down his life so that we, his friends, might live. There is no greater love than this (John 15:13).

As the Johannine evangelist points out, the relationship of the disciples to Jesus had progressed from curious inquiry (John 1:38: “Where do you live?”) to authentic friendship. However, that progress was not without difficulty. At times Jesus shocked his followers (John 4:27), frightened them (John 6:19), confused (John 6:5) and appalled them (John 6:60-66). But to those who remained faithful, he became the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6).

Of those whom he chooses to be his friends, Jesus expects fidelity to the commandments (John 15:10), the fruitfulness of responsible service (v. 16) and a mutual symbiotic love for one another in his name (vv. 12, 17). If these seem to be daunting challenges, readers of John need only remember the literary context of today’s gospel. Part of the discourse following the proclamation, “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5), these challenges can be met by believers who draw their strength from Jesus, the true vine. As branches united to the one vine, believers become capable of keeping the commandments, bearing fruit in responsible service and living in symbiosis, loving one another as Jesus has loved and continues to love them.

While most believers may not be required to follow Jesus in his ultimate act of love, viz., the laying down of his life, there are numerous large and small daily opportunities for emulating the selflessness which motivated his sacrifice. To think in terms of you rather than I. . . to willingly and joyfully place the needs of others ahead of our own. . . to allow another’s opinion to prevail . . . to be the first to apologize regardless of who was wrong. . . to choose the car with fewer accessories so as to be able to donate more to the homeless. . . to volunteer the time it would take to play eighteen holes of golf to work in a shelter or soup kitchen. . . these are some ways to “lay down one’s life” and to show ourselves as true friends of Jesus.

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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