Detail of icon painting by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM
St. Philip Neri
Sunday, May 26th is the feast day of St. Philip Neri (1515 – 1595), the founder of the “Congregation of the Oratory”. Priests of the Oratory staff two of our neighboring churches, Assumption and St. Boniface. St. Philip was known for his love of music – the “Oratorio” developed from his group. For his sense of humor, he has been called the “laughing saint”. Most endearingly, he is often pictured caring for his cat. We extend our best wishes to our neighbors on their feast.
The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 15: 1-2, 22-29
May 26, 2019
Today’s reading from the “Acts of the Apostles” gives us the highlights of the Council of Jerusalem. This is one of the most important events in the Church’s history, not only for what was decided, but how and by whom. Although this will be merely an overview, it will nonetheless be somewhat longer than usual. I hope you are reading it on the beach or in London.
The situation begins with “some people” from Jerusalem arriving at Antioch and telling the disciples that: “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1b). As we have seen these last few weeks examining Acts the Apostles Paul, Barnabas and indeed Peter have been led by the Spirit to accept Gentiles, those not born Jews, into the Church by Baptism not circumcision. St. Peter we may remember baptized the Roman Cornelius when the Spirit came upon him and gave them the gift of speaking in tongues.
47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people, who have received the holy Spirit even as we have?” 48 He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Acts 10:47–48
Peter, also earlier in Acts, says: “There is no salvation through anyone else,” for God has not given human beings “any other name under heaven … by which we are to be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
It is important not only that we see that if Paul and the leaders of Antioch accepted this, it would have strangled Christianity at its birth, but that they realized that they could not solve this themselves but had to go to Jerusalem to receive a decision from the Apostles and Elders.
Our reading then skips 20 verses to reach the conclusion of this story. To understand this, we must look however briefly at what occurred in them. Paul and Barnabas are greeted by the church where the apostles and presbyters (elders) presided over a debate between Paul and Barnabas, who realized that Christianity was a new religion and needed to establish its own customs, traditions and teaching, and the “Judaizers” who held that Gentiles must first become Jews – for men that meant circumcision.
After this, Peter speaks. He reminds those in attendance that
7 After much debate had taken place, Peter got up and said to them, “My brothers, you are well aware that from early days God made his choice among you that through my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. (Acts 15:7)
He reminds them as well that we believe that “… we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they.” Acts 15:11
For Peter, this is a clear and basic fact upon which there can be no compromise. This would be sinful and as such must always be fought. (Acts 10: 10).
12 The whole assembly fell silent, and they listened while Paul and Barnabas described the signs and wonders God had worked among the Gentiles through them. (Acts 15:12)
Then James, the brother of the Lord and leader of the church in Jerusalem and a man deeply committed to this Jewish heritage spoke:
13 “My brothers, listen to me. 14 Symeon has described how God first concerned himself with acquiring from among the Gentiles a people for his name. Acts 15:13–14
He calls the gentiles “A people for his name”, reflecting the call of the Jews themselves.
2 For you are a people sacred to the LORD, your God, who has chosen you from all the nations on the face of the earth to be a people peculiarly his own. (Deuteronomy 14:2)
James continues with a series of quotes from the Old Testament to show that when the Messiah came the doors would be open to all. (Acts 10:16-18)
It is then decided by the leaders that Baptism would be the only means of initiation into the church. It is here that we pick up the story.
They have made an official decision and now it must be officially communicated. As would have been expected in this world this would have been by a letter delivered by trustworthy people who could verbally witness to it. The ones chosen were Judas, who was called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers. (Acts 15:22) .
It very strictly followed the form of a letter of command that would have been immediately understood and taken very seriously.
First, who is sending it is clearly stated: “The apostles and the presbyters, your brothers, (Acts 15:23A)
Second to whom it is being sent: “to the brothers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia of Gentile origin”: (Acts 15:23b)
Note it is being sent not from one person nor one group of people but the Apostles and the elders. Also, it is being sent not for correction but for instruction and edification, from brother to brother.
Third: it states the situation: “we have heard that some of our number (who went out) without any mandate from us have upset you with their teachings and disturbed your peace of mind” (Acts 15:24) Note also that they clarify that those who disturbed them were not officially sent and had no authority to speak. From the very beginning there was a structure to Christianity.
Unlike those who unofficially went to them the Apostles and elders it clearly states that Barnabas and Paul are beloved and dedicated to the gentile mission.
Fourth: they give them instruction on what is expected of them after Baptism. These are among the requirements stated in Leviticus for all those who live in Israel: Jew and gentile alike
First: to abstain from the blood of meat sacrificed to pagan gods. This would be difficult to determine as most meat was obtained through temples, but they were concerned that people would revert to pagan worship if they used it. Paul also had difficulty with this 1 Corinthians 10:20.
Second and Third: from blood from meats of strangled animals, Strangled animals still had blood in it. It was thought that blood was the sign and means of life and therefore belonged to God. 4 “Only flesh with its lifeblood still in it you shall not eat.” (Genesis 9:4)
Fourth: unlawful marriage. This most definitely includes incestuous relationships, but it may also mean adultery. Paul himself had difficulty with people interpreting his preaching of freedom from the law as a license to do basically anything.
These rules were established only partly for theological reasons. There is a good deal of common sense and cultural sensitivity here as well. The early Christians needed to live a common life, to associate and most of all to share table fellowship together. They could not do this if they were nauseated by the sight of blood, suspicious if the meat was offered to idols or that someone was dating his sister.
Peter was clear that there would be no compromise on the basic issue but understood that much compromise would be needed for people of different cultures to eat and pray together.
This is one of the few incidents in the New Testaments for which we have another perspective. St. Paul gives his view of what occurred in the second chapter of the letter to the Galatians. Paul is very much special pleading, but we do see the outlines of the process and the conclusion. It was the unified leadership of the church that made the decision. We would not yet call them bishops, but they were people who had been commissioned by the Spirit to lead the church. Paul does not leave very happy from this encounter, but he is obedient to the wishes of the Apostles and elders.
We are all the beneficiaries of God’s decision to create a Church that is based on the connection to God through Jesus and the community of the Baptized. Looking at history, we must acknowledge that there have been many changes over the years. The center of the Church has moved from Jerusalem to Rome and it is no longer a purely or predominately Mediterranean organization, but indeed worldwide. The adaptations to each time and place were successful enough for the Church to last two millennium, but so specific to times and places that the structures had to change over time and will change again. As Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in the great Sicilian novel The Leopard (Il gattopardo)said, “For things to remain the same, everything must change”
Things will need to change in our time in ways we will perhaps find strange and unexpected. For example, what could “Elders” mean now in the decision making of the Church? It is in this way that the same Spirit that has molded and guided the Church since Pentecost can do so for us today.