This week, both the first Sunday reading and the first reading during the weekday masses are from Acts of Apostles and deal with the Council of Jerusalem, the first Church council. The Council of Jerusalem occurred in approximately 50 AD and the core issue was whether the Gentiles (non-Jews) were required to following the Mosaic laws, most specifically circumcision.
The “conservatives”, led by the Pharisee converts, argued that since Jesus, as well as all of the 12 apostles and early disciples, were Jews who followed the Mosaic law, argued that “it is necessary to circumcise them and direct them to observe the Mosaic law.” The “liberals”, led by Paul and Barnabas, argued that Gentile converts did not need to follow the Mosaic laws as Christ’s resurrection was a new creation that created a new way to encounter the Divine.
Pope Peter settled the matter by stating that Christ’s resurrection transcended the obligation to follow Mosaic law stating: “Why, then, are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? on the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they.”
Unfortunately, the Sunday readings only having the introduction to the Council of Jerusalem and the first encyclical letter, rather than the details of the arguments that were set forth during the weekly readings. (I strongly recommend anyone interested to read Acts Chapter 15, as well as a good commentary on this Chapter for more historical and factual background.).
It can not be overstated how dramatic the decision to break with Mosaic law was. Again, Jesus, the 12 apostles and all of Jesus’ disciples were devout Jews who followed the Mosaic laws. Prior to the Resurrection of Jesus, it would have been unthinkable to have a wholesale break with the Mosaic laws. However, after the Resurrection, the only thing that matters was following the will of Christ, which we learned last week, was to “love one another”. Period. Full Stop.
In Thursday’s homily from Vatican radio, Pope Francis highlighted the importance of the decision made by Pope Peter and other leaders at the Council of Jerusalem:
“There was a ‘No’ Church that said, ‘you cannot; no, no, you must not’ and a ‘Yes’ Church that said, ‘but … let’s think about it, let’s be open to this, the Spirit is opening the door to us ‘. The Holy Spirit had yet to perform his second task: to foster harmony among these positions, the harmony of the Church, among them in Jerusalem, and between them and the pagans. He always does a nice job, the Holy Spirit, throughout history. And when we do not let Him work, the divisions in the Church begin, the sects, all of these things … because we are closed to the truth of the Spirit. “
But what then is the key word in this dispute in the early Church? Pope Francis recalled the inspired words of James, Bishop of Jerusalem, who emphasized that we should not impose a yoke on the neck of the disciples that the same fathers were not able to carry:
“When the service of the Lord becomes so a heavy yoke, the doors of the Christian communities are closed: no one wants to come to the Lord. Instead, we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus we are saved. First this joy of the charism of proclaiming the grace, then let us see what we can do. This word, yoke, comes to my heart, comes to mind”.
The Pope then reflected on what it means to carry a yoke today in the Church. Jesus asks all of us to remain in his love. It is from this very love that the observance of his commandments is born. This, he reiterated, is “the Christian community that says yes”. This love, said the Pope, leads us to be faithful to the Lord” … “I will not do this or that because I love the Lord”:
“A community of’ yes’ and ‘no’ are a result of this’ yes’. We ask the Lord that the Holy Spirit help us always to become a community of love, of love for Jesus who loved us so much. A community of this ‘yes’. And from this ‘yes’ the commandments are fulfilled. A community of open doors. And it defends us from the temptation to become perhaps Puritans, in the etymological sense of the word, to seek a para-evangelical purity, from being a community of ‘no’. Because Jesus ask us first for love, love for Him, and to remain in His love. “
As I reflect on today’s readings and the monumentous event that occurred almost 2,000 years ago at the Council of Jerusalem, I pray to the loving Triune God that I may be moved like Peter and the early apostles to set aside my prejudices and slavish devotion to rules and that I may be given the grace to love others as Christ has commanded us to do.