Thursday in the Fifth Week of Easter
Acts 15:7ff. At the Council, Peter and James speak in favour of Paul’s missionary practice.
John 15:9ff. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.
The power of enthusiasm
A spontaneous interchange of life, love and joy flows between God the Father and God the Son. This force which bonds and unites them is so personal and real as to be God the Holy Spirit. Jesus desires that this same bond exist between ourselves and his own person. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Live on in my love. Let my joy be yours that your joy may be complete.”
This same spirit of love and enthusiasm was found among non-baptized gentiles by Peter and Paul. What Jesus had prayed for among his disciples was already present among foreigners even before their baptism. Peter witnessed this second Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended upon the household of Cornelius, a non-baptized Roman, just as when the Spirit came upon the first disciples in the upper room (Acts 1:13, 2:1). Emphasising this point we read how the circumcised believers who accompanied Peter were surprised at how the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on the gentiles also, who were “speaking in tongues and glorifying God” (Acts 10:46).
Peter took the brave decision that these people be baptized at once in the name of Jesus Christ. These pagan Romans were not required first to be circumcised, to undergo ceremonial baths and to obey the Jewish dietary laws. To baptize the pagans immediately seemed to Peter like a command from Jesus, even though Jesus himself had lived subject to the Mosaic law.
We all experience moments like those which suddenly came upon Peter and Paul in the apostolate, when we are faced with a fait accompli, the fact of a person manifesting undeniable gifts of the Spirit and yet thinking and acting in a way different from our own, maybe even opposed to our tradition and customs. These people are sincere, authentic, gifted with common sense, yet unable to agree with us. These gentiles receive the Spirit in a way that clashes with our own cherished ways. To put it bluntly, God’s way of acting in them seems to our way of judging to break God’s laws! Perhaps, we think to ourselves: these people are mistaken and therefore cannot be pleasing to Jesus. Or, they are partially good and sincere and partially blinded and biased. Yet, every human being combines these strange opposites – and it is not possible at the moment to pull the threads apart and separate the good from the bad, the correct from the erroneous, as we interact with these “others.”
The Scriptures offer us good advice on this matter. First, never to deny the existence of the Holy Spirit whenever we see a manifestation of affection, concern, patience, and self-sacrifice for the sake of others. These are undeniable gifts of the Spirit, no matter what faults, errors and misconceptions also lodge in the same person. Certainly the gentiles of the household of Cornelius, baptized by Peter, still clung to many pagan, superstitious ideas; and we might guess that their moral principles did not measure up to those of the first disciples of Jesus. Yet, Peter ordered baptism immediately; and later Paul defended this same approach as a general policy for the Church.
In the decision reached at Jerusalem, a second piece of advice was given: the gentiles were required to respect some deeply-rooted sensitivities of the Jewish people. These were customary procedures all related to blood: not to undertake marriage with certain close relatives; not to partake of blood whether directly, or indirectly in animals improperly butchered; and not to purchase meat from the common market as it had not only been offered to pagan gods but had not been correctly drained of blood. Therefore, expectations were rightly made on both sides, even today, by which people show a gentle, calm consideration for the customs and impressions of others. Conversion, therefore, is not simply a theological debate; it is a reconciliation with a family where Jesus is the head.
Finally, in his response at the Jerusalem council, James quoted from the prophet Amos to find a foreshadowing of this future conversion of the gentiles. James, however, did not quote verbatim from the Hebrew Scriptures. After repeating that God “will raise up the fallen house of David” he omitted the next line, “that they may conquer what is left of [pagan] Edom.” James omitted the military conquest, the notion of forcing gentiles to submit to God’s people. He adapted the Hebrew Scriptures to a development which took place with Our Lord. Jesus separated himself from the political implications of the kingdom of David and spoke rather of the kingdom of God. James reached into Scripture to understand better the surprising gift of the Spirit to gentiles. Yet, his Scripture was the living and therefore the evolving word of God. We too when faced with serious differences, yet also with the evident manifestation of the good spirit of Jsus in others, ought to reach into tradition and into the Scriptures for guidance.
Conversion in the Spirit, therefore, is much more than a theological victory; it is reconciliation within a family, the household of the faith. Then as Jesus says in the gospel: “My joy may be yours and your joy may be complete.”
First Reading: Acts 15:7-21
After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles.
After they finished speaking, James replied, “My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favourably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord – even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.’ Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.”
Gospel: John 15:9-11
Jesus said to them: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”