Friday of the 5th Week of Easter
Acts 15:22-31; John 15:12-17
When you train a person for a job, you know – you just know – that it won’t be long until they’re in over their head. New jobs mean many new things to learn, and that’s hard enough, but when you add having to deal with all the unexpected things that get thrown at you, it can be overwhelming.
That’s pretty much what happened to the early Church not too long after Jesus ascended. As we’ve seen recently in Acts, although the Apostles did have some success at building up the Church, an issue got thrown at them unexpectedly that threatened to bring the whole thing down. Essentially, the question was, “To be a follower of Jesus, do you have to be a Jew?” For many early Jewish Christians, the answer was, “Of course. After all, Jesus was a Jew!” However, others, like Paul and his companions who ministered among the Gentiles, it was, “Of course not! Christ did away with all that!”
Fortunately, Jesus built his Church on a foundation that, to this day, rests on three pillars. Two of them are his Word, one written (Sacred Scripture), the other unwritten (Sacred Tradition), and the third the Magisterium, or the authority to teach the world about God. In yesterday and today’s readings, we have gotten to see one way the Church uses these pillars.
When they are confronted with such an explosive and potentially divisive issue as the one facing the Apostles, the Church leaders come together in what is called a Council. To date, there have been 21 “ecumenical”, or world-wide, Councils. This was the first – the Council of Jerusalem. Every Council takes the same form: They gather, debate, listen, pray, and decide. The process goes back and forth; debate can be sharp and deeply felt, and the issues may take days, months, years, even decades to work through. Finally, when decisions are reached, they are written down and published for the world to see.
The letter from this first Council begins with one of the most monumental phrases in the New Testament, if not the entire Bible: It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us… (Acts 15:28). Every Council that has ever been called finds its basis in those words, for only they, gathered and working in unity, have been given by Christ the authority to speak for God, with the Holy Spirit not as their master but their collaborator.
And, as we hear, it worked; Luke tells us that the people were delighted with the exhortation (Acts 15:31). Some Councils end this way; at Ephesus for example, some of the bishops were hoisted up by the people in a joyful, celebratory parade. Others, such as the First Vatican Council, ended much less ceremoniously. Regardless, each of the Council has done what it set out to do: Wrestle with the problems facing the Church, come to a decision in union with each other and in collaboration with the Holy Spirit, and teach it to the Church and the world.
The secret to making this work was given by Christ in the gospel. It is love – the love of a Master who humbles himself to be a friend; who holds nothing back; who reveals everything to his friends; who not only chooses but empowers his friends to do as he has done – to hold love as the highest value, even to the point of giving our lives.
The model given by Christ to the Church leaders is our model, too, for each of us as disciples must wrestle with the challenges, controversies, and questions of our time. But we don’t have to do it alone; as Catholics, we must see the Church as the place we come together to look for answers. It should be normal for us to do this; to talk about the faith, ask questions, perhaps debate, pray the Scriptures, listen, and above all to see God as both Master and collaborator. We may not come up with many solutions, but we will come to a deeper understanding and love of God, ourselves, and each other. The key is unity; to paraphrase Fr. Henri Nouwen, our best solutions are words and actions that do not divide but unite, that do not create conflict but unity, and that do not hurt but heal.