At first reading, there is an apparent inconsistency between the passages in Acts (“were first called Christians”) and Jesus’ clarification about His role in the law (“I have come not to abolish but to fulfill”). How can this group of followers of Jesus call themselves Christians – implying a newness, a break with the past, something different – and at the same follow His admonition to adhere to “the smallest letter, the smallest part of a letter” of the Mosaic law of their forefathers? There is some scant commentary in my copy of the 1973 New American Bible that sheds some light on this puzzlement, but doesn’t fully resolve it.
In the Acts passages, the community at Antioch is grappling with the practical problem of incorporating Gentiles into the new faith community. In a passage that precedes the excerpt for today, Peter relates a dream in which he receives a vision of a table of plenty that includes both ritually pure and unclean animals. The visionary voice instructs him to slaughter the animals and eat. Peter refuses, citing the Jewish dietary prohibition against eating unclean animals. The voice persists, informing Peter that what God has purified is not to be called unclean by humans. Peter eventually recalls that Jesus said John baptized with water, but that His followers would be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Peter concludes that Gentiles must be accepted as members of the community, because they have been purified by the Holy Spirit through their baptism. It is this mixed community in Antioch that first is called Christians.
The commentary on Matthew suggests that Jesus was not espousing rules for their own sake, but instead focusing on spiritual development that leads to personal holiness. In the next (omitted) line, Jesus again refers to the shortcomings of the scribes and their rigid adherence to rules without true holiness of heart.
Perhaps one way to put these thoughts together would be to realize that Jesus fulfills the law by extending its true purpose – personal salvation through a stronger relationship with God, brought about by adherence in action and heart to rules that bring one closer to God. And extending this salvific promise to those who were unacceptable under the rituals and rules before fulfillment only makes sense – God is the purifier, not man, and God created all people, not just some, to bring them each closer to union with God, as God’s message is revealed to each.
The psalm brings these two passages together as well – the Lord has made salvation known – follow Jesus in your heart and actions, sing praise, sing a new song, and sing joyfully. It is easy to have examples of singing joyfully this time of year around Omaha – the songbirds have returned from their winter journeys and, as deMello says, they bounce up and down on tree branches singing out, consumed with the pure joy of being.
And so my prayer today is for the grace to guard against the complacency of blindly following rules, to seek the purification that the Holy Spirit brings, and to become holy in my heart, all the while singing for joy.
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