Friday of the 5th Week of Easter
Acts 15:22-31; John 15:12-17
“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
“Four score and seven years ago…”
“I have a dream…”
Every one of us recognizes these phrases, but what is it about them that makes them so unforgettable? Is it their eloquence, or the passion that drove men to speak them? No, it’s what they’re speaking about; powerful truths like liberty, justice, and equality, that resonate in the heart of every person, across time.
Today, another phrase, just as powerful and resonant, appears. We don’t know who wrote it, or who spoke it for the first time; all we have are the words, It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us… (Acts 15:28). Where’s the power or resonance in that? Think for a moment. Before this, when men spoke for God, as in the prophets, we heard things like, “The word of the Lord came to the prophet…” But not here; these are men, gathered together, praying, talking, arguing, trying to resolve a difficult and divisive issue. This phrase dares to say that, as they did so, God didn’t decide for them, he decided with them. Who are they to make such a claim?
Jesus told us in the gospel exactly who they are: Men, chosen by him, appointed to go and bear fruit. Vested with his authority, given the keys of the Kingdom, and gathered in his name, these men also received his promise, the Holy Spirit, who would lead them into all truth (John 16:13). Note: Lead them, not tell them.
History bears witness to this. Every time the Church has been confronted with issues that threaten her unity, such as this one, her leaders have met in what is called a Council. To date, there have been 21 of these “ecumenical”, or worldwide, Councils, each taking the same form: Bishops gather, debate, pray, and decide. Emotions can run high, words can get sharp, and the issues can take days or even decades to work through. Still, and every time, decisions are reached, written down, and published for the world to see.
And, as we hear, the process works. Luke tells us that the people were delighted with the exhortation (Acts 15:31). Some Councils have ended this way. At Ephesus for example, bishops were hoisted up by the people in a joyful parade. At the end of others, like Vatican I, some bishops have run for their lives. Regardless, each Council has done what it set out to do, always in union with the Holy Spirit and collaboration with each other.
The secret to making it work was given by Christ in the gospel in another unforgettable phrase: Love one another (John 15:17). 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 also empowers them to do as he has done: to hold love for one another as the highest value, even to the giving of their own lives.
The readings today remind us that we have a lot to be thankful for. First, that God has given us the Church, to which we can turn for answers, confident that God himself leads her into all truth. Second, that God has given us the Holy Spirit in many ways, not least of which is what the Second Vatican Council called the “sense of the faithful” – that inner voice that helps us discern what is truly of God. Finally, that God has given us himself, for God is love, and it is his love that binds us together. Like the bishops, we face problems with the world and sometimes with each other. But, if we keep in mind that we always gather in his name, and pray to be led by the Holy Spirit as he leads the Church, then even though we may not come up with many solutions, 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.
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