Sometimes Luke - the author of Acts - oversimplifies very complicated issues and events. Today's first reading provides us with a classic example.
Some have referred to this first century gathering of the Jerusalem church as the first ecumenical council. But historically, it can't be put into that category. Besides, today's passage certainly isn't a contemporary description of the event. Luke writes at least 40 years after the gathering took place.
We know from Paul's seven authentic letters that the "Gentile Question" wasn't solved as quickly and definitively as Luke tells us. It took years before a majority of Christians came on board, permitting non-Jews to become other Christs without demanding they first become Jews. And even Luke's orderly account of the Jerusalem church's decision on the issue has some glaring inconsistencies. Why, for instance, when Paul later confronts "Judiazers," doesn't he show them the Jerusalem letter which settles the issue once and for all? That document is never again brought up or even referred to.
But whether Luke's providing us with actual history or an idealized account of it, his method for solving problems in a Christian community is clear: you bring the whole community together and discuss it until a solution is reached by all. One person doesn't issue a decree from on high. The Holy Spirit works through everyone, especially when they're gathered as church.
Such a decision making process was unique in the ancient world. Followers of Jesus quickly learned they were in uncharted waters. That's one of the reasons the author of Revelation constantly talks about a new this, and a new that - as in today's reading, a "new" Jerusalem. Once Jesus rose from the dead, everything was different for those who imitated his dying and rising.
No wonder John, the last evangelist, continually brings up the Holy Spirit during Jesus' Last Supper discourse. Writing in the mid-90s, he's already experienced two basic changes from the time of the historical Jesus: the delayed Parousia and the switch from a Jewish church to a Gentile church. He not only knows things can change, they actually have changed.
Today's Last Supper pericope presents us with a somewhat different concept of the Spirit's task than we'll hear later in chapter 16. Here Jesus simply says, "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." The Spirit seems to be the Reminder-in-Chief. But in chapter 16, Jesus takes the Spirit one step further. "I have much more to tell you," he tells his disciples, "but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth." In other words, the Holy Spirit will take us beyond the teachings of the historical Jesus and help us surface what the risen Jesus is telling us today.
In my articles and talks, I frequently mention Avery Dulles' sarcastic aside during his 1969 St. Louis University Bellarmine lecture. The well-known Jesuit theologian was grateful that there was no Holy Office when the four gospels were written, else we'd have just one gospel in our Catholic bibles and references to three early Christian heretics in our history books. But his entire lecture that evening was entitled The Contemporary Magisterium. In it he stressed how, because of Vatican II, the magisterium had been broadened to include more than just Vatican issued decrees and teachings. It was his belief at that time that the whole church should play a role in the development of "official" theology.
No doubt Dulles agreed with the early church's method of discovering the risen Jesus' will for us.