SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER (2019)
Acts of the Apostles 15:1-2, 22-29
Psalms 67:2-3, 5-6, 8
Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23
The author of the Acts of the Apostles could have won an award for understatement with his phrase from our first reading: “because there arose no little dissension and debate.” No little dissension and debate? Had the author been more like Billy Fucillo, he might have written, ‘the upset caused by our Christian brothers from Judaea created a HUGE debate within the early church,’ for surely that is what really happened. The early church was largely viewed as a sect of Judaism, and those who wanted to become disciples of Jesus and who were not Jewish were expected to become Jewish first, attending Sabbath synagogue services, keeping the 613 precepts of the Torah, and choosing to be circumcised. This seemed to work well when the converts were isolated and few, but when new “liberal” and largely Gentile Christian communities developed that did not require converts to embrace all things Jewish there arose serious divisions within the early church, divisions that could not be healed on the local level. Prominent pillars of the church, Paul and Barnabas, tried to heal the divisions in the church of Antioch but failed, leading to the first council or synod of the church in Jerusalem. The council’s decision, guided by the Holy Spirit, no doubt disappointed the conservative voices of the early church, for as our first reading states the only thing necessary for converts would be “to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage,” no full conversion to Judaism necessary!
While this decision of the early church was surely momentous, separating Christianity from established Judaism, it is unlikely that it extinguished the “no little dissension” that existed in the church. While some might pretend that there is a “good old day” to which we can return, when division and dissension was nonexistent, the Scriptural evidence of the earliest church suggests that such a day is an impossibility. In spite of the attempts of sainted Popes to silence discussion and dissension in our own day, I might suggest that dissension and discussion are signs of a truly vibrant church, a church that is in converse with a Holy Spirit, who is always moving the Church to adapt and grow in consort with the age it finds itself in. Were the church to be successful at purging all debate and dissension from its ranks, it would not necessarily make it “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic,” for unity and uniformity should never be viewed as one and the same. Rather, the unity that we strive and pray for, is a unity that is not threatened by “no little dissension,” and the proof is found in our continuing to feel connected to that same church spoken of in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles.
That church is described, in Apocalyptic fashion, in the second reading from the Book of Revelation, where the church is viewed as “the holy city of Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God,” gleaming “with the splendor of God.” It’s a city built on the foundation of the apostles whose names are inscribed on the city’s walls. Note that it’s a city that has no need for a temple, “for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb,” who, as last week’s reading from Revelation proclaimed, came down to “dwell with the human race.”
It, too, is the church spoken of by Jesus himself in the gospel reading from John: “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” The Church, quite simply, is a collection of lovers, whose unity is found in their communal love for the Lord Jesus, a love which compels them to “keep His commandments.” Our membership is not dependent on adherence to doctrine or precepts. Our membership in the Church of Jesus Christ is dependent on our love for the Lord, and because Jesus was concerned that His returning to the Father might trouble His disciples, He reminds us in the gospel that “the Father will send in my name” the “Advocate, the Holy Spirit,” who “will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” It is that Spirit who comforts us and instructs us in the midst “of no little dissension and debate,” in every age, in every time and place. It is the presence of the Spirit in our midst which makes us fearless in the face of trials and tribulations, in the face of upset and discord. When the Church or its members fail to be what they are called to be; when sinfulness appears to triumph, and the human condition seems to prevail, it is then that the role of the Spirit becomes critically important in guiding us back to following in the footsteps of the Lord.
In two weeks time the great Easter season will draw to a close with the solemnity of Pentecost. How fitting it is that it closes with a celebration of the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and guide. May we always be attuned to the voice of the Spirit, confident that hearing the Spirit’s guidance and direction we will never stray from the path set for us by the Lord Jesus, and our lives will give witness to the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus, our Lord.