Unlike most farewells, which tend toward nostalgic recollections of the past, Jesus’ parting words to his disciples in chapters 13-17 of John’s gospel focused on the future – on their future as Christ’s Church, continuing his life and work in the world and characterized (so Jesus has promised) by his parting gift of his peace.
How striking then to turn to the Acts of the Apostles and encounter not peace but conflict!
What we now call the Easter season has its origin in the newly baptized Christians’ need to process what they had experienced at Easter and our need to identify with them in their experience and so be renewed in our own baptismal commitment. And what better model for this that the Acts of the Apostles – the Evangelist Luke’s inspiring story of the Apostolic Church’s internal life and external expansion into the pagan Roman world. Reading Acts every day during Easter time is intended to recapture and renew for us the enthusiasm and excitement that characterized that 1st Christian generation’s experience.
But excitement and enthusiasm are not the same as peace and harmony – at least not as we usually understand those words. But then the peace promised by Jesus was, quite explicitly, not as the world gives. In today’s 1st reading (Acts 15:1-2, 22-29), we encounter another dimension of the Church’s life, conflict – conflict that went to the very heart of what the Church would be about. And we also see how (and how successfully) that conflict was resolved.
The cause of the conflict was the Church’s success in proclaiming the gospel among the Gentiles. Now nobody was saying that a Gentile couldn’t be converted to the worship of the true God and of Jesus as the Messiah. But the way to do that would, presumably, have been to be “circumcised according to the Mosaic practice” – in other words, to become Jews first in order to become Christians. Instead, it appears that pagans were being baptized into the Christian community without going through that intermediate step. Hence the conflict – how to understand the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in God’s great plan to save the world through Jesus.
Well, we all know the solution. Just as Jews could become Jewish Christians, so too Greeks could become Greek Christians, but they would remain Greeks, not becoming Jewish. Likewise Romans could become Roman Christians, etc. This radical decision simultaneously established both the universality of the good news of Christ to all peoples without exception and recognized diversity within that, what in today’s terminology we would call the Church’s “multi-cultural” character.
Historically, this event was decisive. It made it possible for Christianity to expand throughout the ancient world and to continue to expand today into a truly global community.
The excerpt from Acts that represents today’s 1st reading skips over the process and proceeds right to the result. However, how it was resolved was as important as what was resolved. It was resolved, so we are told, by the apostles and the presbyters holding a meeting at which there was “much debate.”
In the ancient Mediterranean world of small city-states, the greatest thing one could be was a citizen, entitled to participate fully in the community’s life through discussion and debate. But citizenship as an active way of life as opposed to just a passive possession of certain privileges had seriously deteriorated as the small city-states were all absorbed into an enormous empire. Popular participation through discussion and debate had diminished, and people seemed to have lost the sense that they could accomplish anything that way – not unlike, perhaps, what seems to be happening in our public life today.
And yet, faced with a crisis which they apparently had not been expecting, but on which the entire future direction of the Church was going to depend, the first generation of Christians nonetheless felt empowered to resolve the problem. Note their choice of words: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us…”
So often we feel so overwhelmed by problems – rather than challenged by them – and so react passively, as if we were silent spectators in the story of our lives. But that first Christian generation felt empowered to resolve the problem they were faced with – not by arbitrary action or some secretive decision, but by confidently open discussion and debate.
The history of the Church was irrevocably shaped by this event, both in process and in outcome. The “Council of Jerusalem,” as this event retrospectively came to be called, became the model for all the subsequent councils, whether local or universal, which throughout the Church’s history have enabled the Church to come to grips with new and pressing problems. As a result, Church is an all-inclusive, yet widely diverse society, a jewel whose distinctive sparkles gleam with the splendor of the Risen One who has brought us all together to be one people and who has empowered us with his peace – not a peace which avoids conflict or tries to hide it, but an active peace which embraces the challenge to transform conflict wherever and whenever we experience it.
Not quite peace “as the world gives” peace, but precisely the kind of peace the world needs.
Homily given at St. Paul the Apostle Church, May 9, 2010.