To put it mildly, the early Church has some start up problems. As you know, the first church was all Jewish. As time when on non-Jewish men and women, impressed by the preaching of the apostles wanted to join this new community of believers. The big question came to be what makes a person a Christian? A very vocal group of believers demanded that non Jews would have to be circumcised – this was a proper rite of initiation into the Jewish faith. “Unless you are circumcised you cannot be saved”. Paul and Barnabas who we instrumental in bringing the Gentiles into the community fought this narrow minded view. As we heard in the first reading, there was “no small dissention and debate” about this matter. It was a hot issue.
To settle the matter Paul and Barnabas took the matter to the top, to the Christian community in Jerusalem. James was the leader of that community and he gathered the leaders together, including Peter, to hammer this matter out. They didn’t relay on themselves, they opened their minds and hearts to the Holy Spirit, to discover what was best for the total community. In this debate Peter reminded those demanding circumcision, “Why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, just as they will.”
At the end of all the discussion we have those powerful words address to the Gentile Christians: “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials; that you abstain from food sacrificed to idols, consuming blood and strangled animals i.e. those not ritually slaughtered, and incestuous sexual relations.”
This was a great victory for Paul who preached that people are saved, made right with God, by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and by His resurrection.
This Jerusalem decision preserved the unity of the community; it did not guarantee or legislate uniformity of life style because in some areas of the church where the majority was Jewish, Gentiles were still circumcised.
Through the long history of the church there have been great disputes – disputes that threaten to dilute our faith and divide the community. There were disputes and disagreements over the identity of Jesus of Nazareth – was He true God and true man or was He just a man imaging God? It took the community over 300 years of reflection and guidance by the Holy Spirit to clarify the truth that Jesus is true God and true man. But that was just one of many disputes – disputes about Mary, disputes about scripture, disputes about free will, disputes about authority in the church. Every Council of the church, except the Second Vatican Council, was called to settle some dispute, to come to an agreement, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and declare, this is what the community believes. Every Council echoed the words of the first council of Jerusalem – ‘It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us” to teach this as our commonly held truth.
The church is human and the church is divine and because it is human it tends to get messy. In the community of the church we have differences regarding race, age, gender, cultural backgrounds, political preferences, personal opinions and tastes. Any disputes or disagreements in the church today are mostly about non-essential issues. It’s embarrassing to think that just a few years ago girls could not serve Mass, lay women and men could not give out communion. How many can remember going to the States on vacation and going up to communion with your hand held out only to get a scowl and have the host almost pushed into your mouth. These were big issues a few years ago. Now some say the Pope wants us to say Mass in Latin – he doesn’t, the truth of the matter is, most young priests don’t understand Latin. I remember when I was studying philosophy our teacher Fr. Robert O’Hara claimed that the church would never allow Mass in English because it would lead to nationalism. So much for ‘never’. Remember the movie, ‘Never say Never’? Or the saying ‘never is a long time’.
People in the church still take sides on issues such as – married clergy – ordination of women – the importance of certain devotions in the prayer life of the church – more shared responsibility in the community – these are not at the heart of the matter. The creed we pray every Sunday is the heart of the matter – it came to us from the Holy Spirit and the teaching church. What we say in the creed is of most importance. About other issues, it would be wise if we never said this or that will never happen.
Referring to different schools of thought in the church, Pope John XXIII is supposed to have said, “in the essentials let there be unity – in the non essentials, let there be diversity but in all things let there be charity.”
In this Mass we pray; ‘Grant that we, who are nourished by His Body and Blood, may be filled with His Holy Spirit and become one body, one spirit in Christ.’
As we continue to celebrate this Mass we can pray for ourselves and for each other that, in the living of our Christian lives within our Catholic community we show love and respect for others who don’t see things as we see them. When we do this we will maintain the spirit of unity in that bond of peace the Risen Christ offered all of us.