Sixth Sunday of Easter (May 26, 2019)
Every living organism must constantly change. If our bodies do not constantly change air and nutrition, we die. Death is the cessation of our ability to change. The need to adapt emotionally and spiritually is equally necessary for life.
Mega-change in the first century is what the first reading is about. It shows us when and where this mega-change began. The time was about 50 A.D. The place was Antioch. Antioch was 300 miles north of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the place where Stephen, the first deacon, was martyred. Following Stephen’s martyrdom. Persecution broke out against the other followers of Jesus.
Many Christians fled north to Antioch, the capital of the roman province of Syria. It would be the place from which Paul and Barnabas, the earliest missionaries, would set out on their first 2 missionary journeys.
So, the Antioch community was formed, and the people of that area, non-Jews, were becoming “Christians” - a term that was coined in Antioch. These “gentile-Christians” saw no need to follow the practices of the Jewish Christians down south in Jerusalem.
Some Jewish Christians from Jerusalem visited Antioch; they were amazed to find Antioch Christians not following Jewish practices. They said that the gentile-Christians were not “real Christians” because they were not following the law Moses had given to the Jews. Big trouble in the Christian community!!!
The gentile-Christians in Antioch became upset. They thought Christians should separate themselves from Judaism. They held that a continued connection weakened Christianity. Christianity should stand on its own feet.
Two extremes. Remember: many followers of Jesus were still a sect within Judaism. The question - how does one enter this new sect - was a real one!
To resolve the problem, Paul and Barnabas decided to go south to Jerusalem. It is significant that that they recognized Jerusalem as authoritative.
So, the first ecumenical council of the church was held, the council of Jerusalem. It is the oldest example of what Vatican II was. The insights of the church fathers were excellent; their solution was not an either / or, but a both / and. They recognized the need for change and yet maintained continuity with Jewish tradition. They compromised.
They decided that the new Christians would be both baptized as Jesus directed and follow only 3 of the 700+ prescriptions of the Mosaic Law. The same 3 that non-Jews living in Israel were bound to follow. The major change was that the new converts would not have to follow the law of Moses, males would not have to be circumcised, the sign of the covenant. In short, all would not have to become Jews before becoming Christians.
The council fathers did not insist on tradition [“but, we always did it this way”], but stated: “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves not to saddle you with any burden beyond these essentials: you are to abstain…”
• From food sacrificed to idols, thus avoiding even indirect contact with false worship from pagan, second-hand animals;
• From blood from the meat of strangled animals; strangled animals still had blood within them. Blood was identified with life, life belonged to god alone;
• From [fornication] . . .” [fornication] is the translation of the Greek “porneia” which meant marrying too close cousins. “Incest” might be a better translation in this context.
These three involved the things that would prevent Jewish and gentile Christians from sitting at table together.
As we know, the compromise solution was not the final solution. The Christians in 72 A.D. were excommunicated from the Jewish religion. The two dietary laws prescribed here were dropped. Only incest remained banned – for good reason.
Curiously, the first century leaders recognized the need for insistence on the inclusion of the holy spirit in their deliberations, the spirit is the one Jesus said would help them in the future - and it worked.
How might the Holy Spirit invite us to compromise today, that is, to be flexible on detail but firm on principle?