6th Sunday of Easter
May 5, 2013
Acts 15: 1-2, 22-29
St. Vincent's Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.
If anyone has been following my 4-week sequence of homilies on Revelation this year and was hoping to find another this week--apologies. I was posted to St. Tim's only those 4 weeks, and this week I thought the congregation I had would profit more from the homily here (written out the day before with them in mind). I went thru 35+ years of old homilies (or 12 cycles of the "C" readings) looking for one for this Sunday on the Revelation reading but apparently it's one of the very rare readings on which I've never preached.
“It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities…” (Acts 15: 28-29).
Both our 1st and our 3d readings this morning, from the Acts of the Apostles and from St. John’s Gospel, speak of the Holy Spirit, specifically of the Spirit’s active presence in the Church. The apostles and elders of the Church, gathered in council in Jerusalem, reach a decision with the aid of, the Holy Spirit. This is the same Holy Spirit whom Jesus at the Last Supper promised the apostles would be with them as an Advocate to “teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” (John 14:26).
So we have in these 2 readings a core scriptural teaching, viz., that the Holy Spirit is given to the Church to teach the Church, to guide the Church, to keep the Church faithful to Jesus, so that we may be saved. It was true in the 1st century, and it’s true in the 21st century.
Now let’s look at what the Church was deciding and teaching in the 1st century and what that means in our century. This council of the apostles and elders assembled in Jerusalem because of a huge controversy—an argument—going on. In large areas of the eastern Mediterranean world, Gentiles were being converted to Christianity by St. Paul, St. Barnabas, and other missionaries. Jewish Christians—most Christians at this time were Jewish, like the apostles and all Jesus’ earliest followers in the Holy Land—and many of them wanted these Gentiles to convert to Judaism, believing that God could save us only thru the Law of Moses and the Law’s fulfillment in Jesus Christ: “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Not only circumcision was involved, but the entire Torah, all its moral and ritual practices, such as what foods were clean and unclean, and what festivals to celebrate.
|Image of St. Paul, Cathedral of St. Paul, Sao Paulo, Brazil|
Our reading skips over St. Luke’s summary of the debate at this council (St. Luke is the author of the Acts of the Apostles). We jump to the message that the council published, which stated that the Gentiles did not have to become Jews in order to be saved, but there were some fundamental moral teachings that they would have to accept: if you keep these, “you will be doing what is right.”
What did these moral teachings involve? The council’s message speaks of “meat sacrificed to idols, blood, meats of strangled animals, and unlawful marriage” (15:29). It calls these issues “necessities,” i.e., if you want to be faithful to Christ, you have to follow these teachings. These teachings we could summarize as being concerned with true worship, respect for life, and sexual purity.
“Meat sacrificed to idols” would be tainted with idolatry. True worship of God can have nothing to do with idols, with false gods, with any God than the God who revealed himself to Moses and who reveals himself thru Jesus Christ. Not many of us are tempted to set up statues of Zeus or Athena or of some earthly ruler and worship them, burn incense to them, or offer food sacrifices to them, as was done in the 1st century. But we are certainly tempted to worship false gods: money, leisure, pleasure, fame, for instance. How many people sell their souls to make money? How many people have more important things to do on Sunday morning (or Saturday evening) than to go to church? How many people are addicted to destructive behaviors? There certainly are idols that tempt us to be unfaithful to God. “If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right.”
“Blood” and “meats of strangled animals” involve respect for life. Blood signifies life; we speak of one’s “life blood.” When your blood flows freely within your body, you’re alive. When it spills out of you—as happened to 3 of the victims of the Boston terrorists—you die. God alone is the Lord of life, and so the Jews couldn’t consume blood. That particular detail we don’t consider significant any longer; if we did, I guess we couldn’t enjoy a rare steak or prime rib! But we do have to respect life, human life above all. The taking of innocent human life—e.g., thru abortion, mercy killing, assisted suicide—is always wrong. The indiscriminate killing of non-combatants in warfare (or thru terrorism) is always wrong. The use of the death penalty except in defense of society, and going to war except as a last resort for self-defense, is wrong. Whatever might harm our own selves or others is always wrong, e.g., the abuse of drugs or alcohol, smoking, reckless driving, self-mutilation, professional boxing (where the intent is to inflict bodily harm), physical, verbal, or emotional abuse of others, etc. “If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right.”
“Unlawful marriage” of course concerns sexual purity or chastity. When many people hear the word “morality,” they think 1st of all, and maybe only of, sex. Well, everything we’ve mentioned already, and a lot more, are moral issues. But sexuality of course also is a moral issue. It goes to the heart of who we are as persons because we all have bodies, and our bodies are either female or male. Somehow in God’s design we are made in his image, even if he doesn’t have a body—altho the Son of God took on a body and became Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus Christ. We relate to each other thru and with our bodies: with our 5 senses, with our emotions. How we treat each other thru and with our bodies bespeaks our respect for the divine image that each of us is. None of us wants to be seen or treated as merchandise, as property, as nothing more than the means of giving someone else pleasure. Our relationships are meant to build us up, make us whole, point us toward God’s love, and to be life-affirming. Anything less—using others thru premarital sex, adultery, homosexual acts, contraception, strip clubs, pornography—is self-centered, destructive of self or of others, not an image of God’s love for humanity, not life-affirming. “If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right.”
In our prayer earlier, the Collect of the day, we prayed that “we may always hold to” our honoring “of the risen Lord” “in what we do.” The teaching of the apostles and elders in the 1st century and the continued teaching of Christ’s Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, remind us today of some of what we must do to be faithful to Jesus our risen Lord: to worship God alone, to respect human life, and to practice sexual purity.