Maintaining community was not an easy task as we see from the unfolding of the story from Acts (and Paul’s own version in his letter to the Galatians). Is this episode just an interesting historical vignette, or are there lessons here for us?
The question was whether you had to be a Jew first before you could be a Christian, that is, be circumcised and adhere to all of the provisions of the Mosaic law. Surely that is no longer a pressing issue. What is pertinent is that the resolution on this disagreement had to be handled in a human way – by discussion and argument, by trial and error, by experience and good will. There was no crystal clear blueprint provided by Jesus to guide the early church through this crisis – just the assurance that He would give them His Spirit to help them work things out – an assurance on which we can count today as well.
There would have been four voices in this debate. One, of course, was Paul, insisting that one could be Christian without first becoming a Jew. Paul brought along Titus as exhibit A. Titus was an uncircumcised Gentile, but plainly Christian, and one in whom the spirit was active. It would have been hard for Paul’s opponents to say to Titus’ face that he wasn’t a “true” Christian, a “real” Christian.
A second voice was Peter, recalling a similar experience he had had with the Roman centurion Cornelius, in whom Peter too had experienced the spirit at work (Acts Ch. 10). Then James, the head of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, chimed in that the law had, indeed, allowed Gentiles and Jews to live together in community, with only a few restrictions on what the Gentiles could do.
Missing altogether from Luke’s account is the fourth voice – those who maintained that you had to be a Jew first (converts from the Pharisees according to Luke). Fr. Brown suggests that their argument would have been: “Jesus didn’t admit Gentiles into the company of His disciples. Therefore we can’t either.” Fortunately, that position did not prevail. But how many times have we heard that same argument articulated in the ensuing centuries?
Jesus didn’t experience the circumstances of subsequent ages and thus He had no way to model our response for us. That’s why He gave the church His Spirit, why He still gives us that Spirit today. We’re still learning how to be church, and we will have to continue to learn until God finally establishes His kingdom in our renewed creation. We each have a voice – however small – in the disputes of our day. I pray that mine will be a Spirit-guided voice. Pentecost, soon upon us, is not just an historical remembrance, but an ongoing reality. Veni, sancte spiritu. Come, Holy Spirit!
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