Let the Scriptures Speak
It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us
not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities. ... (Acts 15:28)
Anyone who has written the minutes of a committee meeting knows that an account of the resolution of a major conflict will probably take more than a page or two. It is a sign of Luke's genius that he manages to catch the essential dynamics of the early Church's resolution of its first major crisis in twenty-nine lines.
Since the Lectionary edition of Luke's account of the “Council of Jerusalem” gives us only ten of Luke's twenty-nine verses, it will help to review the whole story. Imagine that you are a member of the Jerusalem community of Jewish Christians. You have accepted Jesus of Nazareth as the long-awaited Anointed One (Messiah) of Israel and, of course, you continue to think of yourself as a Jew and to meet in synagogue and to worship, when you can, in the Temple. Quite naturally, you assume that any Gentile who joins your “Jews-for-Jesus” group will follow the usual practice of proselytes. The Gentile will take on the practices of Torah, including, for males, circumcision. When you learn that Saul of Tarsus, up in Antioch, is allowing Gentiles to join the Jesus group without taking up such Jewish practices, you are understandably concerned. You are naturally inclined to agree with the Jerusalem leaders who say to the Antiochene Gentile converts, “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.”
This, in a nutshell, is the first major crisis of the early Church. It requires a conference of the leadership. Most scholars agree that the resolution of this crisis was a lengthy process that surely required more than a single, brief meeting. Luke's account of the Church's resolution of this question, however, is not a matter of minutes for archives; it is an account meant to serve as a paradigm of ecclesial decision-making.
Note the dynamics of the process Luke outlines. First, the leaders acknowledge that they have a problem for which no extant policy offers a clear solution; so they decide to deal with this as a community by calling a meeting of the leadership (“apostles and presbyters”). Next, they review their experience. Peter rehearses his experience of being drawn into the Gentile mission through the remarkable conversion of Cornelius and his household. Then Paul and Barnabas describe “the signs and wonders God had worked among the Gentiles through them” (Acts 15:12).
The assembly then interprets their experience of God working through them by looking to the longer experience of the community embodied in its Scriptures. This is exemplified by James' citing a passage from the prophet Amos (Amos 9:11-12; the Greek version), which implies two stages in God's plan for Israel: (1) the restoration of the people of Israel (“rebuild the fallen hut of David”) and (2) the ingathering of the Gentiles (“so that the rest of humanity may seek out the Lord, even all the Gentiles”).
The upshot: the Jerusalem council determines that mission to the Gentiles is the will of God, and that they ought to do all in their power to cooperate with this divine initiative. They decide, then, on a policy that both honors the tradition and adjusts to changing circumstances; they ask of Gentile converts only that they keep the minimal “rules for resident aliens” indicated in Leviticus (regarding marriages to relatives, food associated with idolatry, and improper slaughtering).
Finally, they boldly speak of this very human process (reflection on experience and interpretation in the light of tradition) as “the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us.” If we wonder at their confidence, we can find its source reflected in this Sunday's Gospel reading, in which Jesus promises the presence of the Holy Spirit as an Advocate who will teach and remind the community after the departure of Jesus' physical presence.
These readings remind us that our Easter faith entails the remarkable belief that the Spirit of God continues to work through the very human processes of decision-making in our Church. Luke's paradigm urges us to take seriously both our religious experience and our tradition, and to trust that the Spirit of God works even (especially?) through endless debate, exhausting meetings, and hesitant leadership.
The feast of the Ascension, later this week, will further illustrate this reality, when Luke shows the apostles, gaping at the heavens, addressed with the words, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” Easter, Pentecost, and Ascension thrust us forward into the mission of the Spirit-led Church.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University