6th Sunday of Easter
|Ascension of the Lord|
Assumption church window
Last Sunday we saw that Paul and Barnabas had achieved some success in their mission to the Gentiles. We were told that they "had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles." However, we see in today's reading from the Acts of the Apostles that an important obstacle has arisen. Jewish converts to Christianity were insisting that Gentile converts undergo the rite of circumcision in order to be saved. In other words, the Gentiles would have to become Jewish before becoming Christian.
Our reading today tells us that this news caused such dissension and debate that Paul and Barnabas were chosen to go to Jerusalem and get the opinion of the Apostles. Today's reading jumps over the meeting in Jerusalem, which some have called the first Council of the Church. It just gives us the end result. If we read chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles, we will see that there was quite a discussion on the matter of circumcision. Apparently it took the intervention of the two most respected Apostles, Peter and James, to decide the issue.
It seems clear that even after receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Peter did not fully understand that Jesus had come to save all, whether Jew or Gentile. Only afterwards did Peter's encounter with the Roman centurion, Cornelius, lead him to see the light.
Now I really understand that God is not a respecter of persons, but in every nation he who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
Peter's conversion to this point of view makes him side with Paul in the great debate at the council. James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, comes up with a workable compromise by suggesting that the Gentiles only observe some basic principles that Gentile converts to Judaism had always observed. Of course they could not eat food tainted with idol worship. Of course, they could not eat meat tainted with blood since blood, the source of life, belonged only to God. Of course, they could not practice incest or marry a close relative. But on the subject of circumcision, the message was clear. This is what the council meant when it said to the "brothers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia,"
It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us
not to place any burden on you beyond these necessities...
It is hard to overestimate the importance of this decision. Not only does it open the way for the Gentiles, it also brings Christianity to a new level, the level which our Lord intended all along. Circumcision was the mark of a Jew. However, not every Jew who was circumcised turned out to be in our Lord's words, "a true son of Abraham." If you did not obey the will of God or if your life made a mockery of his commandments, were you really a Jew? Remember the parable where a father asked his two sons to go work in his vineyard. The first son said yes, but failed to show up. The second refused but eventually thought better of it and went to the vineyard. Our Lord asked, "which one did the will of the father?"
Today's gospel shows that the same principle holds true for Christians. In His discourse to the Apostles at the Last Supper Jesus said,
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.
Just being born a Christian does not make one a true son of the Father. Even Baptism only opens the door of faith. Even today there are some who echo the words of those Jewish converts in Antioch when they argue that "outside the Church, there is no salvation." The saying is true but the real question is, "Who is in the Church?" For example, what about the billions of Chinese who had never heard the name of Jesus but who honored their father and mother and who were steadfastly devoted to their children. Using Peter's definition are they inside or outside the Church?
We know that like the Angel, Clarence, in Frank Capra's film, "It's a Wonderful Life," we all have to earn our wings. Charles Borromeo was the son of a wealthy and powerful Roman family who became a Cardinal of the Church at the age of 24 because of his influential relatives. He was one of the great intellects of his day and played a leading role in reforming the Church during the Protestant Reformation. But it was only when as Bishop of Milan, he personally risked his life by ministering to the sick and dying during a great plague that he became St. Charles Borromeo.
Sometimes I think that people have the wrong idea of ecumenicism. Some think that if people would only give up or water down some of their beliefs, they could reach a common ground. Unfortunately, we've seen believers in every faith try this approach only to wind up believing in nothing. The more a Jew is a true son of Abraham, the more a Moslem is a true follower of Allah, and the more a Christian keeps the word of the Lord, the more chance they will have to meet together in that beautiful heavenly city that St. John describes in today's second reading.
If we all practiced our faith, we might even see benefits here and now.
Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.
Reading 1. Acts 15:1-2, 22-29
Reading II. Revelation 21: 10-14, 22-23
Gospel. John 14:23-29 (going to the Father).
* Image by Melissa DeStefano