To change or not to change – Wednesday, 5th Week in Easter – Acts 15:1-6

On January 29, 1959, Pope John XXIII shocked the Church and the world with his announcement at the Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls in Rome that he was convoking the first ecumenical council in nearly a century. There was no real crisis in the church. It was, by many measures, a healthy, if ancient institution. Yet the Pope recognizing the signs of the times called for this great council.

Today, the council is often presented as one that wound up with lovely ribbons and bows but the truth is that many disagreed vociferously with what the Council fathers came up with. Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani one of the council fathers, allegedly told confidants he wanted to die before the end of the Council.  When asked why, he said it was so that he could die a Catholic! Such were the shrill voices from the left and right.

The Church is no different today. There are still shrill voices on the left and the right which have been amplified to catastrophic and schismatic levels by home-baked theologians on the internet. Don’t worry, Christ is in charge of the Church. (PERIOD – for those who missed the tiny but affirmative punctuation). But this is also true; change does come to every institution.  While some bemoan the pace of change others resist it vociferously. A health debate is always a good thing. It is good when an institution such as the Catholic Church goes through a process of thesis and antithesis to arrive at some synthesis that is in line with the will of God and places the Church in the modern era.

Today’s text reminds us of the first such change that came rather quickly to this infantile Church. We have come to call it the Council of Jerusalem which you can read in Acts chapter 15. Paul and Barnabas have just returned from their first missionary journey that took them to Cyprus and modern-day Turkey. At each stop, they took the message of the Good News to the Jews, only to have it rejected by them. It was the Gentiles who responded with great enthusiasm.

But herein lies the problem. The Early Church had a distinctive Jewish character even though they were called ‘Christians,’ a name given to this sect of Judaism at Antioch. They were Jewish in cult and custom except for their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. Judaism was the vehicle that carried the Jesus movement.

The hallmark of the Jewish faith was the sign of the covenant expressed in the act of circumcision. Now that the Early Church was exploding with Gentile converts, there was an attempt to shed this expression as merely a Jewish requirement that had lost its relevance for those who wished to follow Christ. But such a change was hard to swallow for the Jewish Christians who once belonged to the Pharisee party. This called for a meeting which came to be known as the council of Jerusalem which was held around c. 4850 AD.

We will learn more about it in tomorrow’s teaching.

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