What the council of Jerusalem should teach us today – Thursday, 5th week in Easter – Acts 15:7-21

The text of today tells us of the first Ecumenical Council. it was held in Jerusalem between the years 48- 50 AD. The early church had hit a brick wall with two opposing groups. While the Acts of the Apostles did not record this disagreement in the strongest words, the fact that it necessitated a council itself indicates how divisive this issue had become. In hindsight, this would be a trivial issue for us in the modern world. Should circumcision be imposed on the Gentile converts?

Clearly, the early Church continued to have a Jewish character even though they were given the name ‘Christians’ in Antioch. But while the Jews did not embrace Jesus as the Messiah, the Gentiles were captivated by this new sect of Judaism (that is how early Christianity was perceived). While the Jewish Christians clung to circumcision as a necessary sign of the covenant, the Gentile Christians saw this act as irrelevant to their new calling.

As I have said before, there is a need to thank God that the early Church did not have the internet. Today, the internet has not only made many Christians home-baked theologians but has also entrenched their views into a position of infallibility. This new online breed of internet Christians needs to take a page out of the functioning of the early church and they need to do it now.

The council of Jerusalem certainly did not have the apostles and elders holding hands and singing ‘come by here’. The topic being deliberated had strong emotional and traditionally held religious beliefs to it. We are told that this deliberation had gone on for a ‘long time.’ This was certainly a heated discussion but one that still approached with love.

When you read the text, you see how the Early Church approached matters. Verse 12 tells us that the assembly ‘listened in silence’ to the testimony of Paul and Barnabas and this was a very long one considering their journey. Peter addresses the assembly as ‘brothers’ and James, the leader of the Church in Jerusalem, is given the respect of having the last say and the final decision.  This is how a synod needs to be approached and not what we have seen in the recent past at the universal level in the Catholic Church.

I cannot imagine how momentous this decision was. This was a major shift from a traditionally held and cherished belief for the Jewish Christians. One that holds good even today for the Jewish people. We need to praise God for the openness of the Early Church under the leadership of Peter, James, Paul and Barnabas. Sadly, that Spirit of God is shut out by voices on the right and left today. What is shocking is that unlike the acceptance of the decision of St James as leader of Jerusalem, the authority of the Holy Father is openly questioned today.

Peter called circumcision, which was a cherished sign of the Abrahamic covenant a “yoke placed on the neck of the (Gentile) disciples” that ‘neither their ancestors nor they were able to bear.’ Peter was able to recognize that even a cherished covenantal sign had now become a burden. Peter did not eliminate the covenantal relationship. He saw that this external sign which was long cherished, had now become a hindrance to the growth of the Church.

Do not misread what I have written. Clearly, a sign, an expression of the covenant, needed to be dropped; not the covenant itself. There are those on the left and the right who love to confuse and blur such lines in debates that take place in the Church today. They do this in the hope of creating doubt and confusion in the minds of Catholics. If the faith needs to grow today, a healthy debate and even perhaps, a monumental traditional sign may need to be eased out of our faith expressions for the Church to grow.

Will all be happy? The Acts of the Apostles will tell us of these Jewish Christians of Pharisaic origin who will follow Paul wherever he goes on his missionary journey. They will poison the minds of new believers and sow dissension in the Early Church. They will question his apostolicity.

Does this all sound even vaguely familiar?

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