(Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter, May 5, 2013, Asian Institute of Management Chapel)
Reading: Acts 15:1-2. 22-29
Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.” Because there arose no little dissension and debate by Paul and Barnabas with them, it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question.
The apostles and elders, in agreement with the whole church, decided to choose representatives and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. The ones chosen were Judas, who was called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers.This is the letter delivered by them:
“The apostles and the elders, your brothers, to the brothers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia of Gentile origin: greetings.Since we have heard that some of our number who went out without any mandate from us have upset you with their teachings and disturbed your peace of mind, we have with one accord decided to choose representatives and to send them to you along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have dedicated their lives to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. So we are sending Judas and Silas who will also convey this same message by word of mouth: ‘It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols,from blood, from meats of strangled animals,and from unlawful marriage.If you keep free of these,you will be doing what is right. Farewell.’
The Gospel: Jn 14:23-29
Jesus said to his disciples:“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. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; yet the word you hear is not mine but that of the Father who sent me.
“I have told you this while I am with you. 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. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.Not as the world gives do I give it to you.Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. You heard me tell you, ‘I am going away and I will come back to you.’ If you loved me,you would rejoice that I am going to the Father; for the Father is greater than I.And now I have told you this before it happens,so that when it happens you may believe.”
The readings for this Sunday, the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C, afford us the opportunity to gain some understanding about the Church, the emergence of its doctrines, and the life of faith that underlies both.
First about the Church. Let us recall how Paul, in being rejected by the Jews, went off to preach the gospel to the non-Jews in his first missionary journey and was met with great success: gentiles were now believing in Jesus. A party of Jewish Christians, mostly former pharisees, insisted that to become a Christian, one must be circumcized. The issue was not a trivial one, because the practice of circumcision could be traced to the very origins of the Jewish nation itself when God made a covenant Abraham. God had promised Abraham that Abraham would be the father of a host of nations, He would give Canaan (roughly today’s Palestine) to be their possession forever, He would be their God, and they would be His people forever. And these are God’s own words in Genesis (17:10ff):
“This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you that you must keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. Circumcize the the flesh of your foreskin and that shall be the mark of the covenant between you and me, Thoughout all the ages, every male among you, when he is eight years old, shall be circumcized ,,,If a male is uncircumcized, that is, if the flesh of his foreskin has not been cut away, such a one shall be cut off from his people: he has broken my covenant.”
The issue was pivotal. The way it was resolved is quite instructive: “it was arranged that Paul and Barnabas and others of the Church should go up to Jerusalem and discuss the problem with the apostles and the elders.” And the decision of this so-called first ecumenical council, the council of Jerusalem was this:
“It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves not to saddle you with any burden beyond thses essentials: you are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from fornication. Avoid thes and you wil do what is right. Farewell.”
And so we witness here something very interesting.
Firstly, the decision of the council is a clear break from the practice of Judaism and from the words ascribe to God Himself in the book of Genesis!
Secondly, because it is a decision of the very first ecumenical council, one may conclude that this ruling, in overriding the past, sets a new law for the future. But aside from the prescription from fornication, the prohibition against eating food sacrificed to idols and from the blood of strangled animals hardly make any sense today! And so, we note the adaptability of the Church in resolving issues in faith and morals according to the changing historical circumstances.
Thirdly, the manner in which the decision was reached is itself very revealing: the decision makers were “the apostles and elders, your brothers”: it was a collegial decision, not the decision of Peter alone or of James alone, but of the “apostles and elders”. It is this sense of collegiality that I believe Pope Francis today seeks to re-establish in riding the bus with the cardinals rather than using the Papal limousine, or in mingling with them as one of them, rather than sitting on a throne, or in not dressing up in a way that sets him apart from the others.
That is a glimpse of the Church in its earliest formative stage.
The Gospel now gives us a glimpse of the Church in the earliest formation of its doctrines,
The doctrine of the Blessed Trinity, that God is three persons in one God, is quite cental to the Christian faith. And many have asked, where did that come from? What’s the big deal about it?
If you read the Profession of Faith printed in the missalette in your hands and compare it with the version that we used to recite from memory before the reintroduction of the pre-Vatican II formulas of the Mass, you can clearly see where the doctrine on the trinity comes from. The version we used to recite was the Apostle’s Creed—much simpler and shorter: I believe in God, the father almighty…I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son…I believe in the Holy Spirit. The version we now recite states the same truth, but with all the qualifications that were born of the centruries’ long controversies about the nature of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Was the man, Jesus, God? Was the Holy Spirit God?
Now remember, the Jews were fiercely monotheists—only one God! And if you think that is a blah statement, see how the Moslems—of middle eastern heritage like the Jews– declare that there is only one Allah and you better not insult Allah, or his word in the Koran, or his messenger Mohammed! And so, when the followers of Christ declared that Jesus was God, and the Holy Spirit was God, it was a really big deal—and the controversies were marred with violence! The final judgment of the Church were made in the Ecumenical Councils of Nicea and Constantinople in the 4th and 5th Centuries—and that is what we have in the missalette today, the Nicene-Constantinoplitan Profession of Faith. Behind each word, like a lawyers’ document, are technical qualifications born of controversies: Jesus Christ is not only the Father’s only Son, he is eternally begotten, God from God, light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, one in being with the Father. He is God!! OK? and the same with the Holy Spirit—he was not “begotten”, he “proceeds” from the Father and the Son.” But with the Father and the Son, he is worshipped and glorified. So he also is God!
Thus, controversies spawned all these elaborations. But what was the foundation of all these elaborations of the Church about the nature of God? Where did it all come from? They all came directly from the words of Jesus, of which we have a sampling in today’s gospel: Jesus talks of a Father who sent him and of an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in his name.” And that’s it: the Father is not the Son, and the Holy Spirit is neither the father nor the son, and yet each one of them is intimately involved in man’s salvation which alone is the work of God. And using the language and concepts available at that time, the Church elaborated on these simple statements of Jesus that there are three and yet are one in the work of salvation.
Now, if our faith were based purely on the decisions of the hierarchical Church (the equivalent today of “the apostles and the elders,” of the first reading, namely, the Pope, the cardinals, the Roman Curia, the presidents of the conference of bishops, the Archbishops, the bishops, the monsignori, the priests) or on the pronouncements of Ecumenical Councils —then you can just imagine how topsy-turvy our faith would be, and how nauseating with controversies! And you can see such un-ending debates, with some “religious” people.
But in fact, the reality of our faith—in contrast to the explanation of our faith which is theology—is the reality of the life of God himself in us. “If anyone loves me he will keep my word, and my father will love him, and we will come to him, amd make our home with him!” These are not empty words—they speak of a kind of life that is real. The old catechism talked of “sanctifying grace” as the indwelling of God’s life in us. But as with other old categories, one is liable to think of “sanctifying grace” as some other “thing” that somehow one carries in the pocket of one’s soul! But sanctifying grace is living the life of God. And what does it mean for us to be alive? It is to be self-consciously aware of being alive! It’s making a big decision and being aware of the risks and possible consequences of that decision, of being anxious yet hopeful, of not being fully sure but still decisive. To be alive is to be self-conscious of our living–like lying on the beach under a shade with a cool breeze and clear blue skies, with no phones or appointments, and no care in the world! And one says to one’s self: “it’s good to be alive!.
If we are living God’s life, what are we conscious of? Jesus describes it in terms of peace: “Peace I bequeath to you, my own peace I give you, a peace the world cannot give this is my gift to you.” It is to be self-consciously aware of an underlying hope as one faces setbacks and challenges, because I am certainly worth more than many sparrows. It is to be aware of myself as truly saved, because the Son loses no one entrusted to His care. It is to be aware that one can accept the betrayal and the malice of others, and know that one is not diminished by them. Rather, such malice may reveal the fear or the blindness or the desperate need that results in evil, and that one can forgive because they know not what they do. It is, very simply, to be consciously aware that I am loved by God who is my Father.
The life of faith is the life of God in us. It is real. It can be experienced as a quality of our awareness: the qualities described by St. Paul in the letter to the Galatians: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”(Gal. 5:22-23)
And it is this life of God—vibrant in the individual lives of the members of the Body of Christ– that remains forever constant and true in the midst of the changing decisions and doctrines of the Church.