6th Sunday of Easter
May 1, 2016Acts 15: 1-2, 22-29
John 14: 23-29
Iona College, New Rochelle
“Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15: 1).
Imagine for a moment that a bunch of priests, deacons, and theologians had showed up here this evening and informed us that unless we celebrate the Eucharist on Sunday morning, we haven’t fulfilled our Sunday obligation and are guilty of mortal sin; and, further, unless we’re abstaining from meat every Friday, we’re committing more mortal sins.
Something like that was going on in the large, fervent Christian community at Antioch in northern Syria—now it’s just across the border in Turkey and is called Antakya—where Jewish Christians had begun to preach the Gospel to Gentiles and convert them, too, to Jesus. This Christian community had also commissioned Paul and Barnabas for their missionary journeys into Cyprus and Asia Minor, where they won over Gentiles as well as Jews to Jesus.
So there was quite a disturbance when these people came down from Judea—perhaps some of the Jewish priests who had become Christians, according to Acts 6:7, and converted Pharisees—and they insisted that Jesus had come as God’s anointed one (Christ) only for the Jewish people; so Gentiles, to be saved, would have to be circumcised and practice the entire Torah, as Jewish Christians like Paul and Barnabas had continued to do.
|St. Paul at Council of Jerusalem |
(from Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls)
The issue of Gentile converts had come up once before, when St. Peter had baptized the Roman centurion Cornelius and his entire household (Acts 10), and Peter had had to explain himself to the other apostles and the elders in Jerusalem—his explanation being, 1st, that he had had a direct revelation from God that nothing God created is unclean, and 2d, that he and his companions had witnessed the Holy Spirit’s coming upon Cornelius et al. as soon as Peter had started to preach the Gospel to them (11:1-18). Evidently, God wasn’t waiting on Torah but was acting on a different plan.
But it was also evident that the matter hadn’t been settled, because the argument came up again, resulting, as we read this evening, in a delegation’s being sent from Antioch to Jerusalem “to the apostles and elders about this question” (Acts 15:2).
Our reading skipped over the debate within the so-called Council of Jerusalem—20 verses—and went right to its result, the letter sent to Antioch instructing the Church there that they need not be burdened by circumcision or the rest of the Torah so long as they observed some important moral rules, which we might summarize as the avoidance of idolatry, the shedding of blood, the consuming of blood (blood being regarded as a sign of God’s power over life), and sexual immorality.
There was as yet no New Testament that the apostles and elders could refer to, to help them reflect upon the issue at hand. There was only the oral Gospel that they had all accepted and been preaching, which included Jesus’ inaugurating a “new covenant in his blood” (Luke 22:20). So what guided the decision that they reached?
Two things: their experience and the action of the Holy Spirit. Their experience included what had happened with Cornelius the centurion and what was happening among other pagans in Antioch and wherever Paul and Barnabas—and others, I’m sure—had been preaching the Gospel. The letter that the apostles and elders sent specifically alludes to the Holy Spirit: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us” that this is what you must do (Acts 15:28). They’re very conscious of exactly what Jesus had promised to his disciples at the Last Supper: “The Advocate, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you,” as we heard in the gospel reading moments ago (John 14:26).
If the Father sent the Holy Spirit upon the Church—as the John’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles both testify and as we firmly believe as a doctrine of the faith—then the Spirit is as much with us today as it was in mid-1st century when the apostles and elders sat down with the delegation from Antioch.
Today we also have an additional tool of the Holy Spirit, viz., the New Testament, which the Holy Spirit authored later in the 1st century thru the quill pens or styluses of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, Jude, and possibly some other disciples of Jesus, and which the Holy Spirit confirmed by helping the 2d-century Church sort out which writings truly were inspired, to be held as sacred Scripture, and which other writings didn’t make the cut. The Bible is our rule of faith; at the same time, the Church is the author of the Bible; both Church and Scriptures are the work of the Spirit.
And like the Council of Jerusalem and the rest of the early Church, we’re also guided by our experience. We invoke the Spirit upon what we see going on in the world and in our lives; on what we hear from the people of God (which is what the recent synods of bishops were doing, right?) and from people of other faiths and from the world at large—so that the Spirit may guide us to discern truth: true doctrine, true teaching, about what we should believe and how we should act as disciples of Jesus.
For instance, what does it mean today “to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage”? Our world worships many idols, doesn’t it? Not Zeus or Athena, to be sure: but wealth, power, fame, and comfort. Pope Francis is constantly warning the world not to make a god of money, to be concerned for the poor and downtrodden; and to use power to serve humanity, not to lord it over them. Someone else once said something like that: “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45) and “The one who is greatest among you will be the servant of all” (cf. Mark 9:35).
What can we say about bloodshed? Life is cheap on our city streets, in abortion clinics, and in war zones. We demand capital punishment in far too many cases, where the protection of society certainly doesn’t require it. Is there a problem with our gun laws, with how they’re enforced or not, or with our failure to attend to people suffering from various mental illnesses?
Hardly anyone agrees any longer with traditional sexual morality or with the Church’s consistency in teaching it. The word used in the Greek text of Acts is porneia, literally, “fornication,” or more broadly “sexual immorality.” In the context of Acts 15 it’s usually taken to mean, as translated here, “unlawful marriage,” which we needn’t interpret now. Obviously, “unlawful marriage” is a hot topic in the news, tho, as are other sexual issues like contraception (the Obamacare case currently before the Supreme Court); contraception is still hotly discussed even with the Church. The country is experiencing an epidemic of pornography (rooted in the word porneia, obviously), ranging from teens sexting each other to, it can be argued, topics in presidential debates, and including of course a major media industry that addicts millions of victims—to the extent that Utah recently declared pornography a public health hazard.
The Holy Spirit still knows a thing or two, and we believe the Spirit still speaks when the Church teaches thru the Scriptures, the liturgy, the 2d Vatican Council, and the official teaching of the Holy Father (which doesn’t include his in-flight press conferences!)—e.g., Blessed Paul VI’s changing the law of Friday abstinence (while reminding us all of the obligation to do penance, but trusting us to be mature enuf Christians to decide for ourselves how to do so) and allowing Saturday evening vigil Masses.
Jesus says in the 1st line of this evening’s gospel, “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him” (John 14:23). We know where to find his word; the Spirit still speaks it to us.
[The reader may also be interested in Fr. Tom Rosica’s reflection about the Council of Jerusalem at Salt + Light: http://saltandlighttv.org/blog/rosicareflections/council-of-jerusalem-the-advocate-and-pastoral-strategy-2.]