Friday in the Fifth Week of Easter
Acts 15:22ff. The decree of the Jerusalem apostolic Council is sent around as a circular letter.
John 15:12ff. The disciple who truly practices love will bear fruit, fruit that will last.
Today’s biblical readings range from human compromise to heroic expectations. On the heroic side, we are to love one another as Jesus loved us and has laid down his life for us. Such demanding loyalty was preached within the early Church, which also arrived at an historic compromise: gentiles are not required to follow what seemed to be essential laws of Judaism (like circumcision and dietary rules) yet they were asked to maintain certain customary procedures, like not eating the meat of strangled animals. Both the compromise decision of the Jerusalem Council and the willingness to die for one’s friends are attributed to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
All will agree that martyrdom must be inspired by the Spirit of God, but we often think of compromise as slightly immoral and almost always as a decline in personal ideals. Yet the letter of the Jerusalem Council begins: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and ours too, not to lay any burden beyond that which is strictly necessary. …” The word strictly indicates some kind of minimalist interpretation.
The Jerusalem Council helped to solve one of the most serious threats ever encountered by the Church. If those church leaders had repudiated Paul’s stance (not requiring circumcision, and dispensing gentile converts from the full Jewish law), Christianity would have remained a small sect within the Roman Empire, a satellite of Judaism, and never what Jesus intended as the fulfillment of all prophecies and hopes, the new covenant promised by Jeremiah and Ezekiel (Jer 31:31-34; Ez 36:22-28), the final age of the world. A decision on this had not been clearly made by Jesus himself; though he gave hints of a world religion, by breaking with some practices of the ancestral religion in his days, still he had instructed his disciples not to visit pagan territory and not to enter a Samaritan town… “Go instead after the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:5-6). Jesus likewise defended himself before the requests of the Canaanite woman: “My mission is only to the ost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24). Paul’s struggle to win acceptance in the Church for his own liberal position (many in the early Church called it heretical and even Peter weakened on this point, Gal 2:11-14) is clear enough proof that Jesus had left the question undecided, perhaps unasked!
The leaders faced this crucial test of the church’s nature and mission by calling an assembly of the whole Jerusalem church, with the apostles and elders. Their decision was sent out by a letter placed in the hands of Paul and Barnabas along with the leading men of the community, Judas, known as Barsabbas, and Silas.
This letter bears all the marks of compromise and diplomacy. First, the Jerusalem church states clearly that it had not authorised those “of us have upset you … and disturbed your peace of mind.” Secondly, the decision rests upon the principle “not to lay on you any burden beyond that which is strictly necessary.” The Council, therefore, followed the policy of open discussion, so that all bore the responsibility of the decision. It also voted for freedom wherever possible. It asked for special consideration as regards certain Jewish customs where sensitivities were delicate.
Such a solution fulfilled the Lord’s commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you … [even to] laying down one’s life for one’s friends.” The practice of patience can be heroic. To give in on unimportant details summons extraordinary humility. To discuss quietly an explosive issue and to remain at the conversation till a solution is reached manifest enormous trust in others’ goodwill as in God’s assistance.
Often enough very simple answers make all the difference between peace and conflict, whether among nations or among families and friends. How often, unfortunately, we seem unwilling to listen and speak with calm perseverance, to give and to take, to barter and exchange, to be conscious of others’ feelings and sensitivities, to forgive and forget quarrels and accusations.
The heroic compromise of the Jerusalem Council still must have felt like a serious blow at many Jewish Christians. Practices of piety and devotion, styles of worship and prayer, received from their ancestors and from Jesus himself, would no longer be binding upon the gentile converts who very soon outnumbered the Jewish Christians. These same Christians of Hebrew origin would have been embarrassed before their Jewish relatives and friends who did not become followers or disciples of Jesus nor members of the Christian church. The torch was being passed to a new generation. It is a glorious moment; it is also a moment of heroic pain and separation. Jesus said to his disciples: “This is my commandment: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
First Reading: Acts 15:22-31
Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers, with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the believers of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that certain persons who have gone out from us, though with no instructions from us, have said things to disturb you and have unsettled your minds, we have decided unanimously to choose representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”
So they were sent off and went down to Antioch. When they gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. When its members read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation.
Gospel: John 15:12-17
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.