11th May. Friday of the 5th Week of Easter
Acts 15:22ff. The decree of the Jerusalem Council goes out as a circular letter.
John 15:12ff. The disciple who truly loves will bear fruit, fruit that will last.
Today’s readings combine high ideals with reasonable compromise. The heroic ideal is for us to love one another without limit, just as Jesus loved us and laid down his life for us. A very demanding loyalty was required within the early Church, but they could, in face of real difficulties, find a workable compromise on what at first seemed an insurmountable point of dispute. St Luke shows how, after vigorous debate, the Jerusalem Christians allowed that gentile converts could be baptised without being asked to keep what had previously seemed essential religious laws (such as circumcision and dietary rules) – and yet they were to hold to some other rules, like not eating the meat of strangled animals (connected to blood). Both the compromise decision of the Jerusalem Council and the willingness to love without limit are attributed to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
Some people are inclined to regard compromise as tainted and 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 – but it was a Spirit-inspired compromise. That decree helped to resolve one of the sharpest threats ever encountered by the Church. If the conservative Jewish Christians had repudiated Paul’s vision (of not requiring gentile converts to accept circumsion), Christianity would have remained a small sect, a satellite of Judaism, and never blossomed into what Jesus intended – the new covenant promised by the prophets to include the whole world.
This debated point had not been clearly settled by Jesus himself. Although Jesus gave hints or signals of a world religion, breaking the bonds of the practice of the ancestral religion in his days, still his clear statement almost said the opposite: he instructed his twelve disciples: “Do not visit pagan territory and do not enter a Samaritan town. Go instead after the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:5-6). 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 wavered on this issue, Gal 2:11-14) is clear enough proof that Jesus had left the question undecided, perhaps unasked!
The Church faced this crucial test of her nature and mission by calling an assembly of the whole church in Jerusalem, under direction of the apostles and elders. That Council followed the policy of open discussion, so that everyone bore the responsibility of the decision. It also voted for freedom wherever possible. Conservative Christians disliked the compromise reached at the Jerusalem Council. Practices of piety and devotion, styles of worship and prayer that were received from their ancestors would no longer be binding on gentile members who would soon far outnumber the Jewish Christians. The torch was being passed to a new generation. If it is a moment of growth it was also a moment of pain and separation. It makes one wonder what kind of compromises are called for in our Church, today.
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.