Readings for 6th Sunday after Easter: Acts 15:1-2, 22-29; Ps. 57: 2-3, 5, 6, 8; Rev. 21: 10-14; 22-23; Jn. 14: 23-29. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/050513.cfm
Last year was the 50th anniversary of the convocation of the Second Vatican Council. The Catholic Church is still reeling from that earth-shaking event. Conservatives often consider it a huge mistake. They want to return to the Latin Mass, to women’s head-coverings in church, to weekly confessions and communion placed by the priest on the communicant’s outstretched tongue.
Liberals too are disappointed by Vatican II. It didn’t nearly go far enough, they say. It should have eliminated priestly celibacy and the all-male clergy. The church should have divested itself of the Vatican Bank, sold its art treasures and given the proceeds to the poor. The Council’s teaching on collegiality should have decentralized church bureaucracy and made lay-leadership more prominent. The prohibition of contraception should have been changed.
Into which of those camps do you fall? As a church member, do you consider yourself conservative or liberal? Today’s liturgy of the word provokes the question. It reveals a church which at its very beginning surrendered itself to extreme liberalism – or should I say to the “radicalism” of Jesus’ Spirit?
Think about those terms for a minute in the light of today’s readings. Think about what “conservative” and “liberal” mean for us as individuals and community members in our faith tradition. Think of the Holy Spirit as “radical” – something believers are rooted in.
According to every great tradition (Christian or otherwise), the spiritual life – human life itself – is about change, about transformation. Change is the point. We are called to grow. Growth involves transformation. At the biological level, we’re told that all of our cells change every seven years. That means that at my stage in life, I’ve already gone through more than ten bodies! If I tried to keep my body from changing, I would die.
At the personal, psychic and intellectual levels we’re called to change as well. As St. Paul puts it, when we were children, it was appropriate to think, speak and act as children (I Cor. 13:11). But as adults, we’re called to something more. If we don’t change, we can never become who we’re meant to be.
Even institutions must change to survive. That’s true in the realm of politics, economics, and religion. Jesus’ followers found no exemption from this rule of life – of evolution; as community members they had to change or die. In other words, at the end of the day, strategies of conservatism are doomed for Christians as well as for everyone else.
It’s easy to sympathize with conservatives however. I spent much of my life in that category. As such, my concern was simply to preserve what is essential. I saw liberals as being too free with the unchangeable. Like other conservatives I accused them of throwing out the baby with the bath water.
Nonetheless, in today’s liturgy of the word, we get an idea of how difficult it is to determine which is which –baby or bath water. That is, in our readings, we are faced an example of a key conflict between religious conservatives and liberals within the first century infant church. Paul, Barnabas, Silas and Barsabas lead the liberal wing. Peter and Jesus’ brother, James are the leaders of the conservatives.
Paul and his friends come from the gentile world. Their concern is to make Jesus both understandable and acceptable to non-Jews. For their audience, circumcision and dietary restrictions (like not eating pork) represent great obstacles to accepting Jesus’ “Way.”
On the other hand, Peter and Jesus’ brother, James, are Jews through and through. They remember the importance of full observance of the law within the Jewish tradition. They recalled for instance that during the second century Seleucid persecution of the Jews under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, many Jews gave their lives rather than eat forbidden foods. Faced with Paul and his colleagues, the conservative faction wondered: were those lives sacrificed in vain? And besides, circumcision was the identifying mark of Jewish manhood. What good follower of the biblical God set that all-important commandment aside?
The issue is so serious that it provoked a meeting of church leaders – what scholars call the “Council of Jerusalem.” Like Vatican II (1962-’65) it called together church leadership to discuss burning issues of the day and to make changes that responded effectively to what Gaudium et Spes called the “signs of the times.”
Today’s gospel reading implies that leaders could come together with confidence because of Jesus’ promise that his Holy Spirit would continue teaching the church even after he is gone. The Spirit would remind the church of what Jesus himself taught – and more besides.
According to today’s readings, it was the “more besides” that the Jerusalem conservatives were resisting. They didn’t deny, of course, that Jesus himself was a religious liberal. (It was Jesus’ liberalism that angered the Scribes and high priests.) Jesus frequently placed love and compassion above God’s most important commandment, the Sabbath law; he associated with the “unclean;” he even befriended and worked miracles for gentiles. Jesus was never bound by the letter of the law as were his conservative opponents.
At the same time however, Jesus was Jewish to the end. He had no intention of founding a new religion. He was a Jewish reformer. No one could deny that. Jesus didn’t revoke the Law. He simply gave it an enlightened, more humane, more liberal interpretation. He himself had been circumcised!
It was with these understandings that the Council of Jerusalem convened. And according to Luke, the author of Acts, it was a battle royal. Luke says the meeting (like Vatican II) was filled with “dissension and debate.”
What we find in today’s first reading is the final decree of the Council of Jerusalem. Concerning circumcision, it says “never mind.” As for dietary restrictions, fagedaboutit. The Council was concerned with not placing unbearable burdens on converts. In other words, it couldn’t have been more liberal. It could not have been less conservative.
The Council of Jerusalem is reputed to have happened no more than 30 years after the death of Jesus. But by the time John of Patmos writes his book of Revelation at the end of the first century, look where his church had come. His vision of the “New Jerusalem” which we read about in today’s second reading doesn’t even have a temple. Jerusalem without a temple?! The city is founded not on the 12 patriarchs of Israel, but on the 12 apostles. How liberal is that!?
I suppose what I’m saying is that Christians shouldn’t be afraid of change. It’s our tradition – right from the beginning. In fact, in today’s gospel, John has Jesus say specifically that we should not be agitated or fearful. Rather, our hearts should be filled with peace because of our reliance on the Holy Spirit. John’s Jesus teaches that the Spirit’s presence guarantees the community is moving in the right direction, even when the Spirit’s teachings shock and scandalize – as long as it’s moving towards Jesus’ compassion, love, and ease of burden. The guarantee remains even when the Spirit’s guidance seems to dilute what many consider essential – like circumcision, dietary laws and the Jerusalem Temple.
What “essentials” is the church being called to set aside today? Priestly celibacy? An all-male priesthood? Prohibition of contraception? Are any of these really essential?
The question is as unnerving for the church as it is for us as individuals. But the answer is always the same: “Don’t be afraid or agitated; the Holy Spirit guides.”
Think about it: at the personal level, after ten changes of body and innumerable psychic growth spurts and changes of mind, what remains that allows me to identify with that child they tell me I was in my baby pictures? The bath water has been thrown out virtually every day. But somehow I’m able to say “I” remain. Who is that “I?”
Once again, today’s gospel leads us to believe that the answer is the indwelling Holy Spirit herself who continually leads us into the new and unforeseen – but without that “fear or agitation.” That unifying, enlightened Spirit is the same in me as She is in you.
The bottom line: today’s readings teach that there is no future in timid conservatism. Instead we are called to extreme liberalism. And that liberalism actually translates to Jesus-like radicalism (or going to the root of things). The Holy Spirit is that root.
And so we can pray with confidence: “Holy Spirit, in the present crisis of your church, inspire Francis I to call us together once again. Convene a Council. Surprise us. Shock us one more time. Wake us up! Move us towards compassion, love and ease of burden as you did the Jerusalem Council. We believe that under your guidance, we can never go wrong!