Acts 15:1-2, 22-29
Ps 67 R/. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.
Rev 21:10-14, 22-23
Have you ever wondered why the Church teaches what she teaches? Have you ever wondered how the Church arrived at her teachings and why she continues to defend and promote them? It’s easy to miss it, but our first reading this Sunday gives us a beautiful insight into the life of the Church and into the historical development of doctrine.
Chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles recounts for us the first major theological crisis in the Church. We’ve been reading it all week at daily Mass, but today we get a summary of the event, which has come to be called the ‘Council of Jerusalem’, the first ever Council of the Church’s Pastors.
The question at hand is about whether one is saved by the Jewish practice of circumcision and obedience to the Law of Moses, or by Baptism into Jesus. In other words, do those who want to be Christian first need to become Jews? Some said yes, others said no; and so began the first theological fight in the Church.
This was a major event in the life of the Church. The outcome established a method of dealing with theological problems, gave a specifically Christian direction for the Church, and instituted a benchmark to evaluate future challenges to the teachings of Jesus.
As our first reading indicates, the theological conflict began in Antioch, in the missions, if you will. Certain Christians, former Pharisees (cf. v. 5), were teaching that in order for gentiles (or pagans) to become Christian, they first had to be circumcised and taught to live according to the Law and traditions of Moses. Paul and Barnabas disagreed with them and decided to bring the matter to the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem, the Church’s leadership at the time.
What an inspiration for Paul to have! He didn’t insist he was right, but humbled himself to go to ‘experts’ for advice. Who better to tell us what Jesus wanted and intended than the Apostles? This is now the role of the Bishops. And the ‘elders’? Well that’s just English for the Greek word presbyteroi, also translated as ‘Presbyters’ or ‘Priests’.
Here the Apostles establish a new method of interpreting the teachings of Jesus and the working of the Holy Spirit: conciliar discernment. The Apostles and elders gathered together in prayer to better understand what the Holy Spirit was saying to the Church, and debated the matter as a tool of discernment. This particular portion of the text is omitted for this Sunday’s reading, but I encourage you to go back and read it. You’ll notice some very interesting points, namely Peter’s authority as Chief of the Apostles (he’s the first to make a formal statement); and James’ authority as Bishop of Jerusalem and host of the Council (he summarises the discernment).
Through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Council of Jerusalem set firm in the life of the Church a new course that separated her from the Jewish Religion, establishing a specifically Christian Faith.
After the debate, Peter, based on his experience with the conversion of Cornelius the Centurion (Acts 10) spoke out in favour of the faith: God, who knows the human heart, testified to [the gentiles] by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith He has made no distinction between them and us. […] we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will (vv. 8-9, 11).
In other words, salvation is through Jesus, not through the Law of Moses; and salvation through Jesus isn’t just for the Jews, but for all peoples. This is the reason why the Church is catholic, or universal. It’s meant for all peoples, not just a select group. It’s for this reason that the Christian Faith continues to spread to all nations; it knows no boundaries. Jesus died for all, and desires that all be saved. This is the purpose and mission of the Church.
The conclusion of the Council is also of particular importance, not merely for the decision that it makes, but for the way it arrived at this decision. After having debated the matter and reached a conclusion through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Council writes to the Church in Antioch (and everywhere): it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us — notice the collaboration with the Holy Spirit — to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well (vv. 28-29).
Through the Holy Spirit, the Apostles established a guiding principle for Church doctrine and discipline that has lasted even unto today: nothing should be imposed on the faithful except what is essential. Throughout the ages, in every controversy, this has been the litmus test used to evaluate the demands of the Faith.
So how did we get from the four precepts listed in this letter to the tome that is the Catechism? Well, there have two thousand years of sinful human history since then, with many, many challenges to the Faith over the years, each of which called for a clearer definition of what is essential. There were questions about whether Jesus was human or divine (He’s both); questions about Mary’s motherhood (She is mother of God); questions about the reality of the Sacraments (i.e., the Eucharist truly is the Body and Blood of Jesus); and so on, and so on.
Though the Bible is important and essential, Christianity is not a faith based on a book; it’s a faith based on a Person, a living Person — Jesus —, who invites us into a dynamic relationship with Him. As such, then, it’s a living Faith that deepens and grows over time. It doesn’t change or abandon its roots, but like a tree, it matures and blooms into the fullness of its nature over time.
I find this reading gives us hope, because if there’s ever anything in Church teaching that we don’t understand — or perhaps don’t like — then we owe it to ourselves to seek to better understand it. Where does it come from? Why does the Church teach this? What does it reveal about who Jesus is, what He’s done, and to what He’s calling us?
My brothers and sisters, nothing in the Church is random or accidental; it all serves a purpose: to proclaim Jesus Christ as the loving God who has come into the world to save mankind. May we open our hearts to the Holy Spirit so that He might guide us in the paths of Christ and into the heart of the Church. Amen.