For 1st-century Jews, the fundamental division of the world was between Jews and Gentiles. So imagine their surprise when Gentiles started responding to the good news about Jesus and asked for baptism! The first Christians were all Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah sent to fulfill the promises God made to Israel. Yet Peter himself on at least one occasion and now Paul and Barnabas on a more regular basis had preached the gospel to Gentiles and had baptized them - without requiring them to become Jews first. How was this possible?
No one should underestimate how unexpected and difficult this development was and how disruptive it was in the life of the early Church. It was every bit as challenging as it would have been to rethink the relationship of male and female or master and slave. No wonder there was disagreement and outright conflict!
And yet, faced with a crisis for which nothing in their previous background had prepared them, but on which the Church’s entire future was going to depend, that first Christian generation faced the challenge to resolve the problem, reassessing everything they had assumed until then, in light of the fundamental experience they shared with the Gentile converts – faith in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ.
Now we all know how they solved the immediate issue. We just heard the decision read to us [Acts 15:1-2, 22-29]. Just as Jews could follow Jesus and become Jewish Christians, so too Greeks, while still remaining Greek, could follow Jesus and become Greek – not Jewish – Christians. This radical decision simultaneously affirmed both the universal significance of Christ as the savior of all peoples without exception, while also allowing for diversity within what, in today’s terminology, we would call a multi-cultural Church. Historically, it was this decision that made it possible for Christianity to expand throughout the ancient world and for the Church to grow into a truly global community.
Thanks to that fundamental experience, that both Jewish and Gentile converts shared, of the new thing that had happened in the world with Jesus, they felt empowered to resolve the problem. Note their choice of words: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us.”
In the ancient Mediterranean world of small city-states, the greatest thing one could be was a citizen, entitled to participate in political deliberation and debate. But citizenship as an active way of life (as opposed to just passive possession of rights and privileges) had seriously deteriorated as small city-states had been absorbed into one enormous empire, and people had lost the sense that they could accomplish anything through political participation. Yet, faced with the unexpected, the Christians now felt able to resolve it by discussion and debate – or, as we would say in suitably churchy language, discernment. Their confidence, of course, was in the Holy Spirit, the Risen Christ’s gift to his Church. When they said “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us,” they were not equating themselves with the Holy Spirit but rather were recognizing that the Holy Spirit had really been at work in what was happening – Gentiles joining the Church – and was with them then in their collective effort to make sense of it.
So often we feel overwhelmed by problems - rather than challenged by them – and so react passively, as if we were silent spectators in the story of our lives. It was not easy for the early Christians to give up their inherited assumptions about the necessity of circumcision and Jewish observance. But they were empowered to do so by the power of the Risen Christ continually present and active in his Church through the Holy Spirit, teaching them to interpret their new experience.
The history of the Church was irrevocably shaped by this event. This “Council of Jerusalem,” as it came to be called, became a model for how to come to grips with new and pressing problems – neither refusing to move forward nor casually jettisoning the past, but rather carefully considering everything in light of the fundamental experience of what the Risen Christ has revealed.
The “Council of Jerusalem” also gets a positive mention in Pope Francis’ recent Apostolic Exhortation on the Family. Quoting the Final Report of last year’s Synod on the Family, the Pope cites two competing ways of thinking about certain situations – one which excludes and another which tries to include. He notes that from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, the Church’s way is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart [Amoris Laetitia, 296; Relatio 2015, 51].
The difficult family situations about which the Pope and the Synod are speaking are obviously very different issues from those that confronted the Apostolic Church at its “Council of Jerusalem.” The similarity is not so much the historical situations but the Apostolic Church’s method of discernment and accompaniment – trying to makes sense of a new situation in the light of their common experience of the Risen Christ and accompanying the Gentile converts so as to enable them to become fuller members of the Church community.
The Church, as the anticipation in space and time of the eternal new Jerusalem we heard about in the 2nd reading [Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23], is challenged to be a widely diverse but all-inclusive, society, in which the Risen Lord has brought us all together as one new people and has empowered us with his peace [John 14:23-29] – not quite peace as the world gives peace, but precisely the kind of peace our conflicted, divided, and fractured world needs so much.
Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 1, 2016.