In a recent National Public Radio interview, British theologian Karen Armstrong tried to explain the difference between biblical and post-biblical concepts of faith.

"The big question for the biblical authors," she said, "was whether faith worked or didn't work. The big question for post-biblical people revolved around what sort of dogmas make up one's faith."

Such a distinction helps us understand the difference between Scripture and catechisms. The latter zero in on faith's content; the former, on faith's actions. That's why those with a "catechism mentality" will find it difficult to understand the faith message in Sunday's readings.

Judged by actions

Luke begins the process (Acts 4: 32-36) by reminding his readers that only a "community of believers" has the courage to share "everything in common." The primitive Jerusalem church "bears witness" to the risen Jesus present in their midst by making certain "there is no needy person among them."

Their faith doesn't consist in winning arguments about the "bodily" resurrection of Jesus against those who believe in a "spiritual" resurrection. Rather, it rests on an observation of fact: The lives of believers are different from the lives of non-believers. Faith is judged by the daring of its actions, not by the loftiness of its dogmas.

John develops a similar line of thought (I Jn 5: 1-6). If, as most Scripture scholars believe, the three letters of John were written to clear up difficulties which developed in the community because of John's Gospel, it's easy to pick out the author's key verse: "The victory that conquers the world is our faith."

The Christians who most derailed John's original Gospel insights taught that salvation springs from what people know, not from what they do with what they know. This seems to be why the author begins this particular section by reiterating one of his Gospel's major themes: "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God, and everyone who loves the Father loves also the one begotten by Him."

Then John quickly moves to the center of his argument: "In this way, we know that we love the children of God when we love God and obey His commandments. For the love of God is this: that we keep His commandments."

Blood and water

Even the author's famous last verse seems to have been prompted by some who thought it wasn't necessary actually to carry out Jesus' commands. "This is the one who came through water and blood," he writes, "Jesus Christ, not by water alone, but by water and blood." In other words, Jesus is part of our lives not only because of Baptism and the spirit (water), but also because of His death (blood), a death which our actions are expected to mirror.

It's as though John is telling his community, "You didn't read chapter 20 of my Gospel very well." There (Jn 20: 19-31), Thomas professes faith in Jesus as "my Lord and my God!" but recognizes the risen Jesus only after he verifies He's the one with the wounds. This is John's way of saying that true faith comes only after one recognizes the values of Jesus' death.

That's why in this context John has Jesus breathe on His disciples and say, "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained." (Of course, the Gospel presumes anyone sent as Jesus was sent will always forgive and never retain.) The Spirit helps us imitate Jesus' death in the most essential, yet down-to-earth way possible: by forgiving others the harm they cause us.

John wants his readers -- who had not actually "seen" the historical Jesus, to know they profess the same faith as those who did see Him. The proof is that, day by day, they do the same things as people who were physically with Jesus, things only a person who had died with Jesus can do.

(04-27-00)