In the ancient world, the basic building blocks of society were the family and the household, which revolved around several pairs of relationships – male and female, parent and child, master and slave. These same distinctions were basic categories within the People of Israel as well, but there they were somewhat secondary to the fundamental division of the world into Jews and Gentiles.
So imagine the surprise when Gentiles started responding to the good news about Jesus and asking for baptism! Now it was possible for a Gentile to cross over to Judaism – to abandon pagan practices and convert to the worship of the one true God – but only by becoming what (in our terminology) we might call a “naturalized” Israelite, circumcised according to Mosaic practice, and separating from the Gentile world. The first Christians were Jews who had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah sent by God to fulfill the promises made to Israel. Yet the Apostle Peter himself on at least one occasion and now Paul and Barnabas on a more regular basis had proclaimed 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 they certainly had not been expecting and for which nothing in their previous background had remotely prepared them, but on which the entire future of Christianity was going to depend, that first generation of Christians nonetheless faced the challenge to resolve the problem in a radically new way, reassessing everything they had assumed up 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 problem. 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. Likewise, Romans could become Roman Christians, etc. This radical decision simultaneously affirmed both the universal application of Christ to 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 to continue to expand 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 community discussion 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. Discussion and debate had diminished, and people had lost the sense that they could accomplish anything through political participation. Yet, faced with the unexpected, the Christians felt able to resolve it by confidently open discussion and debate. 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 never moving forward nor casually jettisoning the past, but rather carefully considering everything in light of the fundamental experience of what the Risen Christ has revealed.
As a result, the new Jerusalem is an all-inclusive, yet widely diverse society, in which the Risen Lord has brought us all together as one new people and has empowered us with his peace [John 14:27] – not quite peace as the world gives peace, but precisely the kind of peace the world needs so much.
Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 5, 2013.