One of the main points Fr. John O’Malley makes in his recent book, What Happened at Vatican II, is that the conciliar bishops had to deal with the possibility of development or evolution in official church teachings. Things that before 1962 we never thought would change were suddenly in danger of being drastically altered.
Those who take Scripture seriously have no problem with this concept. They recognize a constant evolution of thought and theology in our sacred writings. Biblical faith is dynamic, not static. Our scriptural writers constantly demand we look at beliefs from different directions; that we reflect on our faith from situations in which we’ve never before viewed that faith.
Today’s first and second readings are good examples of such evolution.
From Paul’s letters we know the earliest followers of Jesus presumed only Jews could be Christians. In order to carry on Jesus’ ministry, one had to be a copy of the historical Jesus: in this case, a Jew. It took sometime before disciples, like Paul, began to understand the implications of following the risen, not the historical Jesus. As the Apostle reminds us in his letter to the Galatians, the risen Jesus isn’t limited by the restrictions under which the historical Jesus operated. Between 6 BCE and 30 CE, Jesus was a free, Jewish man. But after Easter Sunday, the new Jesus is just as much a slave as free, as much a Gentile as a Jew, as much a woman as a man.
Luke especially zeroes in on the second dimension of Jesus as a new creation: Jew/Gentile. Like Paul, he sees no reason why Gentiles can’t become other Christs without first becoming Jews. By the time he writes - probably in the mid-80s - so many Gentiles are actually becoming Christians that some Jews are accusing the historical Jesus of having plotted to sabotage Judaism by bringing Gentiles into their religion without expecting them to observe the 613 Mosaic laws all Jews are expected to keep.
Luke meets their objection head on in both his Gospel and his Acts of the Apostles. In the former, for instance, his Jesus never even talks to a Gentile - strange behavior for someone planning to hand over his religion to Gentiles. In the latter, on several occasions he has Paul state his (Luke’s) read on the issue. Today’s passage contains one of those statements. After Paul and Barnabas suffer violent abuse from the Pisidian Antioch Jewish community, the Apostle proclaims, “The word of God has to be declared to you first of all; but since you reject it and thus convict yourselves as unworthy of everlasting life, we now turn to the Gentiles.” In other words, non-Jews were only evangelized after most Jews refused to give themselves over to Jesus’ reform of Judaism. This present opening to Gentiles wasn’t part of a sinister plot concocted by Jesus.
We also see such eventual openness to Gentiles in our Revelation pericope. “I, John, saw before me a huge crowd which no one could count from every nation and race people and tongue. They stood before the throne and the Lamb . . .” Salvation isn’t limited to just one race, nationality or religion. The risen Jesus welcomes all people into his community.
Though John doesn’t treat Jesus’ universality in our liturgical passage, he does remind us of something which lies at the heart of it. Jesus’ followers are simply expected to follow his voice, to listen to what he’s telling us in our daily lives. Not only are Jesus and the Father “one,” those who imitate Jesus become one with him/her, always listening for something today they didn’t hear yesterday.
Instead of dabbling in some novel Modernist theology, the vast majority of bishops at Vatican II were simply asking us to return to the earliest faith of the earliest church.