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 angel took me in spirit to a great, high mountain
and showed me the holy city Jerusalem
coming down out of heaven from God.
It gleamed with the splendor of God.
Its radiance was like that of a precious stone,
like jasper, clear as crystal.
It had a massive, high wall,
with twelve gates where twelve angels were stationed
and on which names were inscribed,
the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites.
There were three gates facing east,
three north, three south, and three west.
The wall of the city had twelve courses of stones as its foundation,
on which were inscribed the twelve names
of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
I saw no temple in the city
for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb.
The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it,
for the glory of God gave it light,
and its lamp was the Lamb.
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."
One of the most important concepts in our Christian Scriptures revolves around the community’s belief that the teachings of the risen Jesus continue to come to his/her followers through the years. They don’t end either with Jesus’ ascension or the end of the biblical period. John’s Jesus clearly states that belief during his Last Supper discourse. “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.” (16:12-13) In other words, his Spirit will keep the revelation coming.
Even in today’s gospel pericope we hear Jesus assure us, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit . . . will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” The Spirit is always in our lives, constantly teaching the community what the risen Jesus wants us to learn about God’s will. Though our sacred authors certainly presume revelation is an ongoing process, our church “officially” closed the canon of Scripture within a century of the historical Jesus. At least on that level, this church mandated shut-down implies that our job in the faith today is just to review, no longer to discover.
But if we actually did listen to the Holy Spirit, and go beyond what the gospel Jesus taught his people, what form would that new teaching take? How does the Spirit communicate its ongoing revelation to the church? Does she regularly schedule listening sessions or setup ecumenical councils? Who conducts the meetings, takes the notes or verifies the Spirit’s message? Where should the sessions be held? Perhaps it would be best for the Spirit just to go one on one with a special designate and cut out the middle people, sort of like the church does with papal infallibility. Yet if we listen carefully to today’s Acts passage, those middle people are essential. Luke’s convinced that’s how the process is done. After the ascension in Acts, the risen Jesus works only through people; he/she no longer works directly in the life of the church.
Former St. Louis University historian Jack Padberg once remarked that there’ve been no significant changes in the church which haven’t been preceded by years – if not generations – of disobedience. (Private reconciliation is a classic example; something for which we must credit that great “rule breaker” St. Patrick.) It seems the same holds true for the Holy Spirit’s changes.
When Paul and Barnabas began baptizing Gentiles without first converting them to Judaism, they were at least skirting an early church law, if not actually breaking it. No wonder some Jewish Christians want to go back to the status quo, to the days when things are once again in black and white.
It’s too bad that those who have chosen today’s Acts reading have omitted 20 verses! Obviously there’s lots of discussion – call it arguing – over this Gentile issue. Such a community changing decision doesn’t just come into people’s mind fully cooked. It takes time before it develops. Though we long for the day when the community experiences a New Jerusalem, we’ll experience lots of “hit and misses” before that event actually takes place.
John’s Jesus presumes we must give ourselves over to a Spirit-filled, ongoing process. Those who expect immediate, facile answers aren’t hearing our readings. As frustrating as Pope Francis can be at times, he seems determined to implement this process. Instead of just telling us what the Spirit wants, he’s listening to what the Spirit is saying – not just to those in authority in the church, but also to the rule-breakers. He wasn’t being flippant when he uttered those memorable words, “Who am I to judge?” He was simply being serious about the Spirit’s ongoing role in the church.