Homily – May 26, 2019

As we know the first followers of Jesus were Jewish men and women who heard him preach on God’s love and mercy. Jewish men and women who witnessed some of his miracles, Jewish men and women who were scandalized by his shameful and humiliating death as a common criminal. Jewish men and women who believed the words of his apostles, Jesus is risen from the dead. Jewish men and women who knew they were God’s own people and Jesus was the promised one of God.

Gradually this early community of believers began to expand beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem to other Jewish communities. Bit by bit Gentiles joined the communities. The Jewish members of the community were convinced that these new believers had to be circumcised if there were to be true believers – if they were to be kosher they were to follow the way other men and women joined the Jewish faith; they would take on the practices of Torah and all males would be circumcised.

Word reached the community in Jerusalem that Paul of Tarsus, once an enemy of the followers of Jesus was accepting men into the Christian community without the obligation of the ritual of circumcision. This was unacceptable. Unless you are circumcised according to the Law of Moses you cannot be saved.

This, in a nutshell, is the first major crisis of the early Church. It requires a conference of the leadership; Peter, James and John from Jerusalem with Paul and Barnabas from Antioch. We read the decision of this meeting “For 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 what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what has been strangled and from fornication. Even though it was decided at this meeting that the Gentiles did not have to be circumcised when joining the Christian community this issue bothered the community for years. Paul’s letters show how often he had to face and oppose the issue.

This meeting of Peter, James and John with Paul and Barnabas is known as the first council of Jerusalem. In the history of the church there have been 21 such councils. In our time we had the second Vatican Council from 1962 til 1965. Some 2800 bishops from 116 countries made decisions that changed to course and mentality of our church. A very important one was the change in attitude of the Church toward the Jewish people, the people of God, the first to receive the covenant and the promises. There was a strong condemnation of anti-Semitism. What affects us most is the way we celebrate Mass. It is celebrated in the language of the land. The priest faces the people as a sign that we are a community.

Someone once said that it takes about 50 years for the decisions of a Council to take root in the life of the church. Today there are men and women, bishops and priests who still resent and resist the changes of the Council, especially over the use of Latin. Some are of the opinion that Pope John Paul and Benedict tried to put the brakes on the movements of Vat, 2. They thought the Council went to far.

Pope Francis is loved by most of us. He is a breath of fresh air in the way he lives his life as Pope. No Vatican palace for him, no pomp and circumstances. He has an open heart and mind and sympathy toward men and women as they face their own issues in their lives. It’s not all black and white. He has to bear the brunt of the hostility directed at the Church as the result of the sexual abuses and their cover-ups. For some critics no matter what he does is not enough. He has been accused by some cardinals and bishops and laypersons of watering down the disciplines of the church with his words ‘who am I to judge? and his efforts to take a more humane way of being with people as they struggle with the complex issues of their lives.

The confusion and the struggles of the communities in Antioch and Jerusalem those centuries ago have always been part of the life of our church as the 21 ecumenical councils testify and they are part of our church today. How can we be faithful to the teachings of Jesus to love, to forgive, to heal and to grow.

As we continue to celebrate our Eucharist can we commit ourselves to praying for Pope Francis and all who are responsible for the well being of our church that they always have the mind and heart of Christ.