“Forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us” (Luke 1:4).
Aristotle wrote: “A small mistake at the beginning is a big mistake at the end.” For example, even a small error in the orientation of a rocket at launch will alter its trajectory and destination downfield by a much larger distance.
This principle is powerfully illustrated in today’s first reading. The spread of the faith from its Jewish origins into the gentile world was possible only because of St. Paul’s insistence that we saved not by keeping the law but as the pure gift of salvation from God in Christ. Paul challenged the leaders of the Jerusalem church who were asking gentiles to become Jews before they could be Christians. This, Paul argued, nullified the gift of salvation by adding other requirements such as circumcision, kosher rules and observance of the 614 commandments derived from Torah. Either we are saved by Christ or we are not, but no additional criteria should be applied.
Paul saw that two standards for church membership would create separate communities, a rejection of the central truth of the Good News, that Jesus overcame all divisions by the blood of his cross. Separate groups would make a mockery of the Eucharist, the effective sign of our communion in love in the one body of Christ.
Paul’s description offers us an important window into the early church and how basic beliefs emerged from crisis. If the outcome had been different then, our church would be much different today, if it existed at all. A similar ideological struggle appears to be unfolding in Rome at the synod on the family, with Pope Francis espousing the Church of Mercy while some bishops emphasize strict legal observance as determining church membership. Love and Law must find that perfect balance Paul knew was crucial to advancing the church in the real world, where real people struggle with real life problems.
Because today’s scripture readings are also being celebrated at Eucharist by the Synod participants today in Rome, it will be worth watching how the Spirit moves through the Word to influence the debates in the closed meetings.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus also defines first principles when he teaches his disciples the “Our Father,” his own summary of the First Commandment of love. We are centered and grounded in God, who provides for all our needs, asking only that we love one another as we have been loved. This means forgiving one another as God has forgiven us. The whole law and all the commandments are contained in this one prayer. If we live the prayer, everything else will take care of itself. If we fail to answer the call to love and forgive, everything else will be distorted in our basic relationships with God and one another.
A small mistake at the beginning becomes a big mistake at the end.