The morning after NBC's presentation of "Schindler's List," I asked students in my high school marriage course why they hadn't been sexually aroused by the movie's portrayal of frontal nudity. It didn't take them long to realize the reason: context. Similar depictions in a "girlie" magazine probably would have created moral problems. Portrayed against the background of the Holocaust, however, such scenes stirred anything but sexual emotions. (I advised anyone who was sexually aroused in this context to make an appointment with his or her psychiatrist as soon as possible.)

Before Vatican II, many of us were taught that one sure sign the Catholic Church was the "true church" revolved around its claim that "we haven't changed for 2,000 years!" A strange statement from an organization that maintained it had been founded by Jesus, someone who constantly preached change and reform.

Besides being inaccurate, this assertion led many Catholics to believe there could never be a reason to change anything in the institutional Church, a belief which prompted some to deny there was a need for anything to be changed. If it was "Catholic," it was from Jesus, and therefore it was good. That was our "context."

Change and honesty

From Sunday's readings, it's clear the early Christian community lived its faith in a context quite different from pre-Vatican II Catholicism. Jesus' first followers not only expected continual change, but also demanded brutal honesty from those who asked to be disciples. They taught that truthfulness about our motives and actions is the first step on the road we're asked to travel.

Peter demands such honesty from his Pentecost audience (Acts 3:13-15, 17-19). "You handed over (Jesus) and disowned (Him) in Pilate's presence," he proclaims, "when Pilate was ready to release Him. You disowned the Holy and Just One, and preferred instead to be granted the release of a murderer. You put to death the author of life." Though Peter adds, "I know you acted out of ignorance," those first invited to follow Jesus were expected to "fess up" to some pretty horrendous things. They had to admit their personal roles in Jesus' death. Yet, not even this sin stops one from becoming a disciple.

Jesus' followers are filled with an experience of repentance from the very beginning. It's no accident that as soon as the upper room disciples realize Jesus has truly risen from the dead, Luke has Him instruct them (Lk 24:35-48): "Thus it is written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things."

In other words, "You can testify not only to my coming back to life; you can also testify about how you yourselves became new persons and how your transformation brought about the forgiveness of your sins."


We who have primarily channeled God's forgiveness into just one of seven sacraments might find it hard to appreciate the context of our Christian sacred authors, an atmosphere in which change, forgiveness and repentance are the background against which every teaching by and about Jesus is absorbed. They take for granted that only those willing to strive for þmetanoiaþ will ever become "other Christs."

That's why John, without any experience of our modern, formal system of reconciliation, can assure his community (1 Jn 2:1-5): "If anyone should sin, we have, in the presence of the Father, Jesus Christ, an intercessor who is just." Because the writer is addressing Christians here, those who have already gone through the metanoia of baptism, he presumes repentance isn't a once in a lifetime event. Though we're expected to "know Jesus by keeping His word," there's always a chance we'll ignore His commandments and have "to be perfected in God's love" one more time.

When the bishops at Vatican II rediscovered the early Christian context of reform and renewal, we old-timers remember how invigorated we felt. It was an era in which we didn't hesitate to change anything which ran counter to the norms which motivated Jesus' first followers. Maybe we should be witnesses of that reforming context. If we're not, we might see some in our Church being aroused by things that should never arouse Christians.