6th Sunday of Easter – Year C
By Fr. Nathan Mamo, S.T.L.
Acts 15:1-2, 22-29 Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23 John 14:23-29
The first Christians were still entirely Jewish in practice. Both the Mystery of the Incarnation, i.e., the Word mad flesh, and the Paschal Mystery, i.e., Christ’s Death, Resurrection and bestowal of the Holy Spirit, were the revelation of the Messiah of Israel, for whom they had long hoped. But the evangelization endeavor of that first Christian Jewish generation was tremendously successful. It had great appeal among many Jews, but even more especially among the Gentiles. In fact, the great attraction of Gentiles to the Gospel seems to have been an entirely unexpected and surprising consequence . In Acts 10, Simon Peter preached to the Gentile household of Cornelius and the Holy Spirit fell powerfully upon those Gentiles even before they had received Baptism. In today’s text from Acts 15, recounts the issue of preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles and of receiving Gentiles into the Gospel fellowship. It had come to a crisis point for the Jewish Christians. Some insisted that the Messiah was for the Jews alone and so logically any Gentiles who wished to embrace the Gospel must first become Jewish and live according to the Torah. They (some Pharisaic Jewish Christians according to verse 5) failed to appreciate the renewing and liberating power of the Gospel message and preferred to it the ritual behaviors and practices received from Moses (e.g., circumcision and ritual purity). Both Paul and Peter took issue with this position. Most verses of Acts 15 have been edited out of today’s first reading (one knows not why), but this chapter purports to be Luke’s summary report of the crisis and of an early collegial consultation which resolved the issue of whether or not it was necessary to embrace Judaism in order to embrace the Gospel. In brief, the answer was “No.” Indeed, what passed for a few moral and cultural values of Judaism were maintained (some of which we have abandoned since then). But it was “the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us [i.e., the Church leaders at Jerusalem] not to place on you [Gentiles embracing the Gospel] any burden beyond these necessities...” In other words, a veritable tectonic shift in religious practice was brought about by the full, conscious and active participation of the apostolic leaders with God’s Spirit. This issue quickly faded from living memory as other issues succeeded it, but fortunately the inspired event was preserved in Sacred Scripture. The relative scale of it’s importance was probably larger than the Church controversies of the 20th and 21st Centuries (e.g., women in ministry, life ethics, social ethics, divorce and remarriage, cultural adaptation of the liturgy, liturgical language, translations of scripture, lay participation in church governance, sex abuse scandals, management scandals, etc.). Notice how completely the first generation of apostolic leadership recognized the Holy Spirit and decided to jettison some heretofore important customary, traditional and important Jewish religious and cultural practices precisely so that the Gentiles could hear and embrace the Gospel message. That rejection made sense because those practices had become needlessly burdensome to those for whom they were culturally foreign; Jewish cultural practices meant almost nothing to the Gentiles. Thus did the early Church reform profoundly, wisely and lovingly within 30 years of it’s foundation! We must wonder then, Why have reform, growth, evolution and change been so difficult for the Church in every era since then, including in our own? Are we (lay, clergy and religious, including Church leaders) unable and/or unwilling to detect and discern the Holy Spirit’s direction to us to change, grow and live more wisely and fully as is appropriate in our own time? It is arguable that the essentials required to be Christian are at once simple and broad, i.e., genuine and sincere acceptance of the Gospel, responsible freedom, love of Christ, neighbor and self, a truthful, merciful, compassionate, virtuous and thankful lifestyle, and an openness to God’s Holy Spirit. Everything else is essentially cultural decoration around the Gospel. Decorations change with time, locale and circumstances. Remember the principle: culture incarnates the Gospel; Gospel critiques culture. This was the very principle used in this episode of early Church life. What cultural realities are in need of Gospel critique in our 21st Century Church so that we and others may hear and live the Gospel more effectively?
The second reading continues from last Sunday’s description of what to the ancient imagination was a spectacular image of the New Jerusalem. Remember, the ancients were entirely without “special effects” which are ordinary in our lives, so to perceive a huge city in the sky, with massive walls and gates, and light as brilliant as sun and moon from the very real presence of God and Christ was very nearly indescribable. John tried to impress his readers by imagining how it all “gleamed with the splendor of God.” We don’t give much thought to God’s splendor; we live in an age of splendid ideas and inventions, but not of the dazzle of jewels, gems, gold and panoply which decorated imperial courts. So, our imaginations must provide ideas about God’s glory in other, more conceptual terms. For us, the New Jerusalem, or Heaven as we call it, is imagined as a place where we meet God personally, with the communion of the saints, in “a place” (but remember it is outside of the physical, created universe of time and space!) in which peace, love, justice, contentment and joy all exist for everyone (even our adversaries!) without end. The fact that four sets of three gates each faced the four compass points of the world implied that believers from all over the world would come to the New Jerusalem. This is an echo of the theme of Universal Salvation which began with preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles and continues today in our imagining God as the personification of mercy and wisdom, love and justice. We imagine God being “larger than” the entire physical universe, even larger than all the evil and sinfulness imaginable. Hence, we might logically assert that God saves everyone, regardless of how evil each might have been. The question that challenges each of us who strive after holiness is, Is my image of God sufficiently big to overcome all real or imagined evil? Only if my image of God is at least that large, can I truly profess faith in a God who is truly love. Understand, though, that some people suffer from limited imagination. That’s too bad because they are incapable of even wrestling with the idea of God as an infinite mystery!
The Gospel passage today is from the context of Jesus’ instruction session with the disciples immediately after the example and explanation of the Last Supper foot-washing. These few chapters in John’s Gospel account are instructive, reflective, directive, theological and challenging. They describe Jesus giving a farewell presentation to his closest disciples in hope that they will survive the next few days. For our purposes, let us focus on Jesus’ promise of “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit.” This is a promise for the future of the disciples. They had no idea of why such an advocate would be necessary. Neither was it likely that they expected to be energized and empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, the same Spirit which moved Moses and the prophets. The function of the Spirit would be to remind, to teach and to provide insight. These who will be Church leaders within a couple of months must be teachable and able to recall what Jesus had said and done. They must willingly act wisely on divine insights! On their abilities would depend much of our faith! A second crucial focus here is Jesus’ gift of his peace explicitly distinct from the world’s peace. This requires our reflection because true disciples of Jesus Christ must embrace his peace deeply within themselves or they are poor and ineffective disciples. Christ’s peace reminds and teaches us that even within the messy realities of life, God has saved, God does save, and God will continue to save! Any who claim to be Christian and yet preach an apocalyptic end of the world, along with the need to be persecuted or, worse, who treat others without wisdom, justice and loving respect, are themselves without Christ’s Peace. They are poor examples of the Gospel message. You and I and the Church must be different from that. We must remember the Gospel, the entire Gospel, and we must engage life in all it’s messiness with the Cross of Christ as our encouragement. And, we must look for how the Holy Spirit of God leads us with all the modern intelligence, wisdom, insight, energy, wealth and peace which God already provides!
Christ is Risen! He is truly Risen! Alleluia! Alleluia!!