Acts 15:1-2, 22-29
Quite often when we think about the past, we may be tempted to recall distant events with rose-tinted glasses, thinking that “back then” was much better than “now”. This can happen within the Church as well anytime that we look back, with our highly selective memory, on a particular time as the only possible pattern for being Christians. And what better time to hark back to than the Church described in the Acts of the Apostles; life may have been difficult then because of persecutions, but at least everything seemed straightforward, united, and simpler… Well, we may think this, but it would be a big mistake; in fact this would be a twofold mistake. First, we cannot compare different ages of the Church and apply to the past what we take for granted now… St Paul ordered women not to speak in church; would we be comfortable with that? The Apostles required the disciples to share all they owned – and I do mean all – with the Church; how would we do on this?
But perhaps more importantly, thinking that the Church then was better then than she is now would be a mistake because even in the Apostolic period there were divisions and thorny issues to be addressed just as we have them now – oftentimes relating to the simple questions, “Who is in, and who is out of the Church?”
In our first reading we are told of one such disagreement, probably the biggest disagreement of the time, and about the solution which the Apostles proposed for it, under the instruction of the Holy Spirit. The issue was, as we have heard, whether believers of pagan origins should be circumcised before baptism; or in other words, whether pagans should convert to Judaism – taking on the huge burden of the Jewish Law –before being admitted into the Church.
This debate may not mean much for us because the Church is not a strand within Judaism anymore; but this dispute fractured the Early Church for some time, causing short but painful divisions among both the Apostles and “average” Christians. The solution to this problem, which we can see in the second part of our reading, came as the result of a formal meeting of the Apostles, the first many similar meetings since then, known as Councils. At the Council of Jerusalem the Apostles, seeing the signs of the times and what the grace of God was doing among all believers regardless of their origin, decided not to impose Jewish Law on pagan converts, but to lay out instead basic rules for all Christians to follow.
Both as a national Church and as the Western Church more broadly, we are experiencing fundamental disagreements that still relate to the questions “Who is in, and who is out?” Our arguments have moved away centuries ago from Jewish identity and circumcision; they now focus on sexual orientation, gender, and our engagement with an increasingly secularised society. Yet, little has been done to address these debates in a real and loving way. Our bishops, the successors of the Apostles, need courage to rise up to the challenges posed by our disagreements and need charity to deal with the painful divisions they generate. They need discernment to recognise the signs of the times and what the grace of God is doing among believers from every walk of life, as the Apostles did at the Council of Jerusalem. The time for vague words of support used to soften the blow caused by policies of exclusion is over.
As you know, we have been asked to pray for the evangelization of Britain in the run up to Pentecost by the Archbishops of York and Canterbury. During this time we should also pray for all our bishops that they may be docile to voice of the Holy Spirit as they guide the Church through the rough waters of disagreements; may they be generous and open in their decisions – as the Apostles were; and may they steer our Church towards inclusiveness of those cast to the margins and reunification with the other branches of the Church.
Let us pray.God, eternal shepherd,you tend your Church in many waysand rule us with love.You have chosen many of your servantsto be shepherds of your flock.Give them a spirit of courage and right judgment,a spirit of knowledge and love.By governing with fidelity those entrusted to their care,may they build your Churchas a sign of salvation for the world.Through Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen.