“I have called you friends” (John 15:14).
Acts 15:22-31; John 15:12-17
The diocese here is completing a study on the deanery that will culminate when the bishop presents a plan for 18 of the city’s parishes. Changing demographics and the shortage of priests have largely led to the closure and merger of some. The consultation was impacted by two years of pandemic and low participation. Using an external consultant with templates and a timeline has produced administrative decisions that will take time to digest.
Today’s readings look at life in the early church as it wrestled with one of its most critical decisions at the first Jerusalem Council: should full church membership be offered to the Gentile communities evangelized by the missionaries Paul and Barnabas? The consensus was that Gentiles did not need to submit to Torah, circumcision, and other Jewish requirements to be welcomed into the church. The only requirement was faith in Jesus and his saving death and resurrection. Without this key decision at the outset, the church would have remained a sect within Judaism instead of universal in scope to anyone drawn to Jesus and the Gospel.
Fierce disputes over having separate Eucharists for Jewish and Gentile converts had brought Peter and Paul into open conflict and threatened the unity of the church. In the end, these complex issues were resolved unanimously because the Holy Spirit had clearly blessed the missionary efforts.
The expansion of the Church was blessed by the active presence of the risen Jesus, whose gifts of healing and reconciliation flowed freely from the hands of the missionaries. These graces reproduced the many signs and wonders of the gospel story of Jesus as the crippled were healed and opposition through trial and imprisonment did not prevent transformed preachers from proclaiming Jesus as the Christ.
Most remarkable in the accounts of the Council of Jerusalem was the confidence of “the whole Church” that God was with them and that their decisions were made by “us and the Holy Spirit”, with an outpouring of joy and freedom. Likewise, members of the movement shared the spirit of friendship with Jesus. Love went far beyond obedience or fearing a God on a mountaintop. Jesus had been among them, sharing our humanity. He had submitted to death on the cross to affirm God’s unconditional mercy for sinners. He had loved them not as servants but as friends and he had told them to love each other as a sign that he was one with God.
It was an overwhelming experience to be chosen, named, loved and sent to the ancient world. It is this same love emanating from a Jesus who is always with his church and from a Spirit that moved Pope Francis to call believers to the same synodal church. God is alive in the love shared by those who walk together, encountering truth in one another and trusting God to help them apply the gospel to the difficult issues of our time.
We are now, after all, the same church, and as we look forward to Pentecost, we must trust that the Holy Spirit will come as promised to fill us with the courage we need to pass on our faith as the first generation. What would we be without their example and their courage?