"It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us . . ."
Acts 15: 1-2, 22-29
John 14: 23 - 29
The Word for Sunday: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/052619.cfm
Allegedly, there is a Chinese proverb which states: “May you live in a time of transition.” While it may sound like wisdom it is meant to be a kind of insult! A wish that someone’s life will be unsettled and uncertain as things often are in times of change and new beginnings.
I once tried to track that down to see if it truly had its origin in that ancient Asian culture but I found no particular leads. Nonetheless times of transition such as a move to a new home, a new occupation, graduation, healing after a long illness, retirement in one’s senior years, or as we are experiencing here at the parish, a time of new construction and the challenges that brings to daily life calling for adjustments and some temporary inconveniences. Or, more seriously, it could be a hope extended to you.
These are moments of change and new opportunity but also moments of tension and potential disagreement for all involved. Question such as: “Now where do I begin?” or “What’s next?” may easily arise. So, if someone wishes you to live in a time of transition, tighten your seat belts! The fear of the unknown can disturb us all at times. Still, much good can come from them and they can be necessary for our growth.
Such moments were experienced in the early Church. Moving from the earthly life of Jesus, to his death and resurrection, to his Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit, then out to the world on missionary journeys to spread the Gospel both with a sense of excitement, wonder and question is the place we find ourselves in our readings this Sunday. There are mirror reflections of our experience today.
Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles which we hear from consistently in the Easter season, reminds us that the movement of Christianity had a certain momentum that was beyond the power of the Apostles and great missionaries such as Paul and Barnabas. The Spirit is working wonders among the non-Jewish believers, the Gentiles. Yet, the “old guard” has stepped in and has taken the Gentiles to task reminding them about the ancient traditions of the Mosaic law, in particular the practice of circumcision for men. They must first undergo these rituals, unfamiliar to them and never in their experience, in order to be accepted into this new movement which contains strong Jewish roots. In fact their salvation depended on it, so was the message. Yet, we should not be surprised by their reaction. In light of Jewish history and experience it is understandable.
Obviously, the reaction was unsettling and word is passed on to the Apostles in Jerusalem. “There arose no little dissension and debate” implies much more than a benign misunderstanding or disagreement among the early missionaries with Paul and Barnabas. This was serious stuff and had the power to either relegate the new Jews-for-Jesus movement to past history or to profoundly open up the door to the work of the Spirit and the transition of countless lives to the Gospel of Christ.
In the end, through prayer and discussion, out of compassion and sensitivity, the Spirit guided the infant Church and its Apostolic leaders to make a merciful and respectful decision of how to deal with this crucial issue. In today’s terms we might say this was a wise pastoral response to a serious issue. We see the basis of Church authority, the hierarchy, and the proper process of spiritual discernment in this decision.
The increasing Gentile Christian communities of Antioch and other places are excited about the new movement and have embraced it fully. Yet, I find the sensitivity of this inspired decision amazing. Peter and the others acknowledge that the unauthorized visit by “some of our number” has: “disturbed your peace of mind.” So, they lay upon them: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond the necessities.” Those necessities were those practices abhorrent to the Jews which they simply could not compromise on. (see: Acts 15: 28-29) Schism avoided, unity maintained and peace prevailed through the Spirit’s inspiration and the trust of the Apostles. So at this point in our Easter journey towards Pentecost we see a sign of affirmation for God’s intent that all may come to believe.
This moment of transition from the Church being predominantly dominated by Jewish converts and to open the new way of Christ to the larger world is deeply significant for the future of the Christian movement. It began, from this point forward, to be a truly “Catholic” Christianity: inclusive and diverse. As time passed, the Gospel began to reach beyond this tiny section of the Eastern Mediterranean region to the global scene. God’s way would not be stopped.
So, we find this moment of new life and new ideas writing the history of which we are a part. But, that history tells us that it opened a whole new perspective and in time as the years and decades passed, new questions and challenges to the truth of the Gospel arose. Heresies arose and the peace and unity of the Church was disturbed time and again. Any cursory read of Church history is a testimony to that. How did our fathers and mothers in the faith deal with these transition experiences? – As the Apostles did, with faith and trust, as we must do as well. And here we are reminded that the Spirit Jesus promised, who worked in this early moment, amazingly continues to work today through human instruments and decision making, despite our clear limitations.
Our Gospel reading from John finds Jesus assuring his Apostles that they would not be left on their own. The very continued existence of the Church is a conviction that his promise was true: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” Nothing that Jesus said as related in the Scriptures was just idle chatter. His word was and is true and his promise of the Spirit’s protection and guide remains the life-blood of the Church. It is our personal assurance of the challenge to meet those moments of transition, the times of being unsettled, confused, and fearful with faith and trust in his word and the lived experience of the Church.
So, the point here is that we do live in a time of transition between Jesus’ first coming and his second at the end of time. We prepare to mark the memory of his return to heaven next Sunday with his Ascension and after that the great feast of the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost. But, we are centuries away from those events, still living in times that evolves from age to age. A faith both ancient and new yet consistently centered on Christ and his teachings.
Christ remains in his Holy Eucharist, in our entire sacramental system, in his word, in prayer and in our gathering for worship. It is the primary way how and where he remains present to us, not by symbol but by real living works in the Spirit. We still hear his voice and see his work alive and well in the leadership of our Holy Father Pope Francis and the Apostles, our Bishops, of this day. No, we are not a perfect Church; we are sinners constantly in need of reform. How painfully we see that being played out today as the Church is in a particular time of transition and purification. But we are a chosen people, loved by God and called to share in his life.
Until he comes again, we see him among us in our weekly celebration of the Mass – in Word and Sacrament. May this time of transition, as all moments of change and growth, be a time of peace and openness to the Spirit’s guidance and protection.
Grant, almighty God,
that we may celebrate with heartfelt devotion
these days of joy,
which we keep in honor of the risen Lord,
and that what we relive in remembrance
we may always hold to in what we do.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
(Collect for Mass)