May 1, 2016
Sixth Sunday of Easter
First Reading: Acts 15:1-2, 22-29
Arguments sometimes never end. The same issues come up over and over again in our relationships, the same points are made and still nobody changes his mind. It would be nice if we could take these never-ending disputes to an arbiter, a final court of appeal that would solve our interpersonal squabbles and offer a firm ruling on who’s right and who’s wrong. While we aren’t likely to find such an easy solution to our arguments, in this Sunday’s first reading, the apostles find themselves arbitrating the most significant dispute in the early Church. Our reading from Acts offers only the two-verse introduction and then jumps to the concluding letter issued by the apostles, leaving out the description of the debate that took place (Acts 15:3-21). Since this chapter functions as the core of the Book of Acts, it is worth setting the stage for how we got to this point.
Openings for the Gentiles
First, at his Ascension, Jesus tells the disciples that they will be his “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8 RSV). This statement may seem innocuous, but to his followers it would be revolutionary. Jesus is sending them to preach not only to the Jews, but also to the Samaritans, and even, as the final step, to the Gentiles. This project of evangelization is a radical shift from an Israel-centric focus to a Jesus-centric focus, wherein the Gentiles could be invited to join the covenant. In fact, it takes some time for the apostles to realize the full import of Jesus’ words.
Second, God grants Peter, the prince of the apostles, a singular vision of unkosher animals that a heavenly voice invites him to eat (see Acts 10:9-16). Eating these animals would be a violation of the old covenant law, but while Peter is still contemplating the vision’s meaning, a messenger from a Gentile shows up, asking for Peter (10:17). The Gentile, a Roman centurion, had had a vision of an angel about Peter and so sent for him. When Peter goes to meet the centurion, the Holy Spirit comes upon his whole household with such power, that Peter baptizes them, making them the very first Gentile Christians.
Third, on the heels of Peter’s success, Paul and Barnabas go out on a mission trip. While they start by proclaiming the gospel to the Jews, they end up preaching to the Gentiles as well and make many converts.
Do Gentile Christians Need to Become Jews?
All of these events show that the Gospel is spreading to the Gentiles, but they also raise a serious, debated question for the early Church: Do the Gentile converts to Christ need to become Jews in order to be fully initiated as Christians? Many of the early Christians (referred to as “the circumcision party” in Acts 11:2) thought that the answer was “yes.” For them, all of the Scriptures up to this point confirmed their view—that God’s blessing was for his people alone and that his judgment was coming on all of the Gentile nations. Their view was substantiated by many passages in the Old Testament and even had the support of some of the apostles, particularly James. While most of Jewish religious practice—like Torah study, prayer, synagogue attendance—would not be objectionable to Gentiles, it was the “boundary marker” laws of external observance that made a challenging distinction. These laws included strict Sabbath observance, kosher food laws, holiday celebrations, and most significantly, circumcision. For a Gentile man to become a Jewish convert, he would have to submit to the painful process of circumcision, change his eating habits, close his business on Saturday, and celebrate different holidays. These laws proved so significant barrier to entry to the Jewish community that few Gentiles actually converted to Judaism and few would become Christians if they were not dispensed from these observances.
“No Small Dissension and Debate”
At the beginning of our reading, we find Paul and Barnabas, who had evangelized many Gentiles, celebrating their missionary success at Antioch. But there are some other Christian preachers “from Judea” (perhaps the same as those “from James” in Gal 2:12) who have come to dispute with them over the legitimacy of their converts. These members of the “circumcision party” claim that the converts cannot be saved without being circumcised (Acts 15:1). They are insisting that in order to be a Christian, you have to become officially Jewish. Paul and Barnabas argue with these Judean preachers—“no small dissension and debate”—but cannot arrive at an agreement. So they decide to do something that had never been done before, to appeal to the apostles for a ruling on the issue. This is where the “court of appeals” comes in.
A Serious Council for a Serious Question
The apostles decide to address this serious theological question, of whether Christians must become Jews to be saved, in a serious manner. They “gathered together” (15:6) in Jerusalem and hold an official council, an event which has often been considered the first ecumenical council of the Church, the “Council of Jerusalem.” The meeting starts with a debate, but finally Peter intervenes by insisting that salvation comes through faith, not through circumcision and other Old Covenant practices (vv. 7-11). Then the apostles listen to Paul and Barnabas tell of their success in making Gentile converts and the miracles that God did to confirm their message (v. 12). Finally, the apostle James, who seems to represent the “party of the Pharisees” (v. 5), then offers an official response, speaking on behalf of the more conservative elements in the meeting. He cites the prophet Amos and agrees with Peter and Paul that the door of the Church be opened to the Gentiles, without requiring circumcision. However, James does propose a compromise position by insisting that the Gentile converts avoid certain particularly detestable habits:
Four Envoys and Four Rules
To record their official decision, the apostles write a joint letter to the Church at Antioch since that is where the debate arose. In their letter, they criticize the preachers “from Judea” as being without apostolic mandate. They were unauthorized to preach their theology. Here the apostles assert their authority to approve or disapprove preachers. They send with the letter four persons who will explain the Council’s decision: Paul, Barnabas, Judas, and Silas. (This Silas later joins Paul on another mission trip and co-writes a couple of his letters.) The letter reports the final decision, that Gentiles are permitted in the new covenant and are only obliged to four ritual prescriptions. These include avoiding eating blood, eating strangled animals, and eating meat offered to idols. These practices would be particularly abhorrent to the ancient Jews, as they represent the most unclean of unclean eating habits. (It might be worth noting that the Ecumenical Council of Florence rescinded these restrictions on eating, so have all the blood-sausage you want!) The apostles also forbid porneia, a word often translated as “sexual immorality,” but sexually immoral practices would already be forbidden by the Ten Commandments and Christian moral teaching. Rather, in this case, I think porneia probably refers to the ritual/legal concern of marriage within forbidden degrees of consanguinity—marrying one’s sibling or cousin. With the council’s letter, the apostles offer an official decision that is the result of a compromise between the two sides of the debate.
The Magisterium at Work
The beautiful thing about this story is that it shows how exactly the authority of the apostles can and must function after the Ascension. They are not able to appeal directly to Jesus, but must decide questions in deliberation and relying on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The process we see here has been played out time and again in Church history, where questions, disagreements, and theological disputes, can only be settled by the authority of the bishops and the pope, the successors of the apostles. The authority of the Church not only leads us into truth, but guards us against error and prevents division. The magisterium is the safeguard of the unity of the Church, which lays the groundwork for effective evangelization of all peoples. After resolving their disagreement, the apostles send Paul and Barnabas back to get on with the more important work: preaching the Gospel to everyone willing to listen.