MAY 1ST, 2016: SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers,
“Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice,
you cannot be saved.”
Because there arose no little dissension and debate
by Paul and Barnabas with them,
it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others
should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders
about this question.
The apostles and elders, in agreement with the whole church,
decided to choose representatives
and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.
The ones chosen were Judas, who was called Barsabbas,
and Silas, leaders among the brothers.
This is the letter delivered by them:
“The apostles and the elders, your brothers,
to the brothers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia
of Gentile origin: greetings.
Since we have heard that some of our number
who went out without any mandate from us
have upset you with their teachings
and disturbed your peace of mind,
we have with one accord decided to choose representatives
and to send them to you along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,
who have dedicated their lives to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So we are sending Judas and Silas
who will also convey this same message by word of mouth:
‘It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us
not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities,
namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols,
from blood, from meats of strangled animals,
and from unlawful marriage.
If you keep free of these,
you will be doing what is right. Farewell.’”
The angel took me in spirit to a great, high mountain
and showed me the holy city Jerusalem
coming down out of heaven from God.
It gleamed with the splendor of God.
Its radiance was like that of a precious stone,
like jasper, clear as crystal.
It had a massive, high wall,
with twelve gates where twelve angels were stationed
and on which names were inscribed,
the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites.
There were three gates facing east,
three north, three south, and three west.
The wall of the city had twelve courses of stones as its foundation,
on which were inscribed the twelve names
of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
I saw no temple in the city
for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb.
The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it,
for the glory of God gave it light,
and its lamp was the Lamb.
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Whoever loves me will keep my word,
and my Father will love him,
and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.
Whoever does not love me does not keep my words;
yet the word you hear is not mine
but that of the Father who sent me.
“I have told you this while I am with you.
The Advocate, the Holy Spirit,
whom the Father will send in my name,
will teach you everything
and remind you of all that I told you.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
Not as the world gives do I give it to you.
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.
You heard me tell you,
‘I am going away and I will come back to you.’
If you loved me,
you would rejoice that I am going to the Father;
for the Father is greater than I.
And now I have told you this before it happens,
so that when it happens you may believe.”
How do we know what the Holy Spirit wants us to do, and why is it important that we know?
The answer to the last question is given in today’s gospel pericope. It’s clear from our Christian Scriptures that the historical Jesus was deeply concerned his ministry be carried on after his death and resurrection. The earliest account of the Lord’s Supper in I Corinthians 11 leaves no doubt about the issue, especially when it comes to sharing Jesus’ cup. But Jesus’ ministry only comes alive when it’s lived and carried out in the real world. It’s not just an abstract ideal somewhere up in the sky. If it’s not embedded in our everyday lives, it’s not Jesus’ ministry.
That’s the problem: how do we know what Jesus practically wants us to do in our everyday lives? He certainly didn’t give his followers a step by step journal outlining what he expected. He simply gave them the Holy Spirit, his own Spirit which would not only “remind” us of the things he told his original disciples, but would also “teach” us. From what Jesus says two chapters later, the teaching entails things the historical Jesus never got around to sharing with his followers. “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.” If carrying on the risen Jesus’ ministry consisted only in repeating what the historical Jesus said and did, we wouldn’t need the Holy Spirit.
According to Luke in today’s Acts passage, the early Christian community discovered this very quickly. As we heard last weekend, the church in Antioch began to convert Gentiles to the faith without first converting them to Judaism. Though they were at peace in doing this, “some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers and sisters, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.’” It seems the Holy Spirit was telling Christians in Jerusalem something different from what he/she was telling Christians in Antioch. What’s a Christian to do? The historical Jesus never dealt with that issue.
A huge part of chapter 15 has been omitted from our liturgical selection, but the essentials are still there: the concerned parties call a meeting of the “whole church.” No one person makes such an important decision.
The group’s final statement, eventually sent to Antioch, begins, “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us . . . .” This isn’t the first time in Acts that the Holy Spirit is equated with the Christian community. In chapter 5’s Ananias and Sapphira pericope – a passage which, for obvious reasons, is never proclaimed during a Eucharist – we find the same belief. “Why,” Peter demands to know, “did Ananias lie to the Holy Spirit?” Obviously the condemned man lied only to the Jerusalem Christian community. Yet Luke equates that group of people with the Holy Spirit.
Our Christian sacred authors not only put their bets on the Holy Spirit to keep us in touch with the things Jesus wishes to us do, they also presume the best place to surface that Spirit is to surface what the Body of Christ is thinking. If we, along with the author of Revelation, really believe the “Lord God almighty” is present among us, we must also admit all of us are more than just passive individuals in a huge church.
No wonder Pope Francis, as an essential part of his reforms, constantly insists the institutional church set up structures whereby the hierarchy can consult with everyone in the community. Nice to have a pope who knows his Acts of the Apostles.