10th May. Thursday of the 5th Week of Easter
Acts 15:7ff. Peter and James speak in defence of Paul’s missionary practice.
John 15:9ff. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.
A Place for Enthusiasm
A spontaneous interchange of life, love and joy flows between God the Father and God the Son. This force which attracts and unites them is so personal and real that it exists as a third Person: God the Holy Spirit. Jesus desires that this same bond exist between ourselves and him. “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 spirit of love and enthusiasm was found to exist among non-baptized gentiles by Peter and Paul. What Jesus had prayed to come among his disciples, was already present among foreigners even before their baptism. Peter was referring to the “second Pentecost” when the Holy Spirit descended upon the household of Cornelius, a non-baptized Roman, in almost the same way as when the Spirit came upon the first disciples of Jesus in the upper room (Acts 1:13, 2:1). We read in Acts: “Peter had not finished these words when the Holy Spirit descended upon all who heard Peter’s message. The Christians who accompanied Peter were surprised that the gift of the Holy Spirit should have been poured out on the gentiles also, whom they could hear speaking in tongues and glorifying God” (10:44-46). Peter, therefore, directed 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 dietary laws among the Jewish people. To baptize the pagans immediately seemed like a command from Jesus, even though Jesus himself had submitted to circumcision and other Mosaic prescriptions.
We all experience some moments, like those which suddenly came upon Peter and Paul in their apostolate, when we are faced with a fait accompli, the accomplished fact of a person manifesting undeniable gifts of the Spirit and yet thinking and acting in a way different from our Catholic tradition and customs, maybe even opposed to our ways. These people are sincere, authentic, gifted with common sense, yet unable to agree with us on some points of magisterial doctrine. These “gentiles” receive the spirit in a way that clashes with our own traditions and customs. To put it as bluntly as possible, 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 directed by the spirit of Jesus. Or, they are partially right and partially wrong, partially good and sincere and partially blinded and biased. Yet, every human being combines these strange opposites. At the same time 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 “gentiles.”
The Scriptures offer us two lines of advice on this point: First, never to deny the presence of the Holy Spirit wherever affection, concern, patience, and self-sacrifice for the sake of others are manifestly present. These are undeniable gifts of the Spirit, no matter what faults or misconceptions may also lodge in the same person. The gentiles of the household of Cornelius, who were baptized immediately by Peter, must have still clung to many pagan, superstitious ideas. There is good reason to think 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 action as a policy for the Church.
The second piece of advice is in the decision reached at the Council of Jerusalem. The gentiles were required to respect some deeply embedded sensitivities of the Jewish people. These were 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 finds in Amos a foreshadowing of the 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 [the gentile people of] Edom” – he omits the bit about military conquest, forcing gentiles to submit to God’s chosen people. James, therefore, adapted the Hebrew Scriptures to a development which took place with Jesus who avoided political and especially military confrontations. Jesus separated himself from the political implications of the kingdom of David and spoke rather of the kingdom of God. James reaches into the Bible to understand better the surprising gift of the Spirit to gentiles. His Scripture was the living and the evolving word of God. We too when faced with serious differences, yet also with the evident manifestation of the good spirit of Jesus in others, ought to reach into tradition and into the Scriptures for guidance. Conversion in the Spirit is much more than a theological victory; it is reconciliation within a family, the household of the faith. It mirrors the mind of Jesus that “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.”