As is so often the case in human affairs, the argument was about something deeper than sharing resources with the widows of the “Hellenists”. It’s helpful to understand that about 90% of the Jews alive at the time had been assimilated into the predominant Greek culture and most lived outside of Palestine. Not surprisingly, they approached their religion differently from the still Hebrew-speaking Jews living in and around Jerusalem. Early conversions to Jesus as Messiah included both the Hebrew-speaking and the Greek-speaking Jews (the Hellenists), and they carried their prior differences into the new Christian community. It was, to begin with, a disagreement about how to be a Jew, and now, within the Christian community, how to be a Jewish Christian. Sadly, the same sorts of disputes abound today in every branch of the Christian church, with various factions referring to one another as “so-called” Christians/Catholics, etc., failing to extend even common courtesy to one another.
Peter’s genius in this story was to refuse to take sides in this standoff, but rather to set up an arrangement that made it possible for the two groups to co-exist and, effectively, to express their Christianity in their different ways. The late Raymond Brown, SS, perhaps the dean of Catholic Biblical scholars, referred to this episode as the perfect expression of the Petrine office – a model for how the papacy functions best. Note that what Peter achieved was not conformity or uniformity, but simply unity – a unity that permitted diversity.
The Gospel story, from John, as is so often the case during the Easter season, helps us understand what is going on in Acts. The disciples, on their own, are making little progress against the waves until they invite Jesus aboard. Then suddenly they are at their destination. Humans, alas, fragment and divide. God gathers and unifies.
It is important to understand that, as a consequence of the incarnation, just as Jesus had to learn how to be a human as does any other young boy, so the early Church, like its Master, had to grow and develop and learn how to be “Church” – often by making (and correcting) mistakes, just as we individually, our families, and our organizations must do as well.
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