The Word Embodied
“Unless you are circumcised you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1)
Some people from Judea were causing problems in Antioch. They were insisting upon stringent requirements for salvation. Paul and Barnabus appealed to Jerusalem, after which a settlement was reached. The new Gentiles were not to be upset or disturbed. They were notified that, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the young church was “not to lay on you any burden beyond that which is strictly necessary.”
What was necessary? Abstention from meat sacrificed to idols, the non-consumption of blood and the meat of strangled animals, the avoidance of illicit sexual unions.
Now that is interesting, not only for what is mentioned, but also for what is not. To be sure, the community of Jerusalem was presupposing dedication to the cause of the Lord Jesus, but they were also reluctant to pile obligations onto their new converts.
What about strangled animals and blood? Are these still prohibited? What about idolatry? Might there be some contemporary parallel to this, when animals are slaughtered and sacrificed for the golden calves of money and power? If these practices are currently permissible, have others taken their place in the catalogue of what is strictly necessary?
One can read in the First Letter to Timothy that women ought not to speak in the assembly. The Letter to Titus, for its part, directs that bishops must be of irreproachable character. They ought not to be heavy drinkers or money-grubbers. And they should be married only once—their children solid believers and properly respectful. Now that’s a new twist on the celibacy debate.
On the other hand, what are the practices today that we deem strictly necessary? Inclusive language? Latin Masses? Male homilists? Short sermons?
One of the most seductive temptations of the believer is to identify the will of God with the will of the believer, and not the other way around. God’s will is squeezed into patriotism, leftism, capitalism, feminism, hierarchy, civil law, financial success, ecclesiastical tradition. In extreme cases, the supposed will of God can be harnessed to justify leaving a spouse, breaking a promise, even killing someone, whether Communist, criminal, or oppressor.
The same delusion has occurred when philosophers have mauled the eternal and necessary “law of nature” on behalf of cultural prejudice, class interest, or personal preference. Natural law has sometimes been used to justify the most horrendous of crimes. More often it has been manipulated to legitimate slavery, domination of women, and the exploitation of the poor.
Among the churches, has it ever been heard that a certain practice can never be changed, since it is the will of God? And yet, has the practice been much more significant than the act of circumcision? Clearly circumcision was an important issue. But some of the antagonists seem to have given it the status of unchangeable law.
When I was a novice, a supremely confident novice in the year ahead of me made the pronouncement that two things would never occur. These impossibilities were: a Roman Catholic liturgy in English and a Roman Catholic president. So much for prophecy.
How do we escape fooling ourselves? How do we avoid servitude to merely human laws while we neglect the law of God? How do we guard against the tendency to worship our temporal and cultural fabrications?
Jesus, in the fourth Gospel, promises the Holy Spirit to instruct us in everything and remind us of all he revealed. Is this what led the Jerusalem community to forswear putting heavy burdens on its new believers?
It is Jesus and his word that we ought first and always to remember. Thereby the Holy Spirit instructs us. When we look at Christ, primarily in scripture, it is clear what he is saying: We need repentance; salvation is offered us in his redeeming death and resurrection; and we are called to imitate him in our mission to the world. We likewise encounter him in our community, the church, which from the beginning has given us his word. The scriptures came from the community, under the blessing of the Spirit. So also came our foundational creeds. Moreover, our holy sacramental signs recall and reenact Jesus’ saving power.
Our hierarchies, traditions, teachings, and laws all help us remember. Our holy ones, called saints, and our pieties, called devotions, have ever called us back to his truth. We also see him, as he promised, in the least of our brothers and sisters.
While no one of these can contain all of the mystery of Christ, taken together they are a concert of witnesses to the Easter message.
But one bright truth we should never forget. All ideologies and requirements, all popes and rituals, all theologians and mystics, all laws and traditions, would mean nothing to us as Catholics, if Christ is not risen and has not saved us.
It was no more than good sense to drop circumcision.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University