By the time Sunday’s three readings were composed, the majority of the Christian community had figured out what to do with Gentiles who wanted to convert to Christianity.

Theirs wasn’t the solution Jesus’ first followers had reached. These “proto-Christians” had demanded that non-Jews should first become Jews, then become Jesus’ disciples. Before they could learn about Jesus, they were expected to learn and observe the 613 laws of Moses.

It was a logical solution. The historical Jesus had been a Jew; all of them were Jews. They had developed their Christian faith within a Jewish environment. It took Christians some time to discover that their faith in Jesus superceded the culture and religion in which it was conceived, brought to life and nourished.

Change in Church

Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles more than 25 years after the practice of accepting Gentiles into the Church as Gentiles became the norm. People like Paul had fought that battle almost two generations before. Yet there was still one thing left for Luke to explain about the issue.

He thought it important for his readers to know that the change from a Jewish Church to a Gentile Church had been part of the Holy Spirit’s plan from the beginning. That’s why he includes the story about Peter and Cornelius in Acts (Acts 10: 25-36, 34-35, 44-48).

Though Cornelius, a Gentile Roman centurion, appreciates the value of Judaism, he’s never converted to that faith. Yet when Peter comes to instruct him about Jesus, “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the Word.”

The early Christian community’s leader has no other choice. “Can anyone,” Peter asks, “withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?”

The Spirit’s unexpected arrival gives practical impact to Peter’s statement: “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation, whoever fears Him and acts uprightly is accepted to Him.” In other words, Gentiles can be saved as Gentiles. They don’t first have to become Jews. That is how the Spirit planned it.

They will know...

Once the Gentile issue was solved, the next question the early Church had to face was, “Without Judaism, how does our faith in Jesus set us apart from other people? What external actions mark us as being unique?” By the end of the first century, one Christian writer had zeroed in on one specific dimension of the Christian life to answer that question. The author was John; the dimension, love (I Jn 4: 7-10).

Though the earliest Christian author, Paul, had eloquently praised love throughout his writings (especially in I Corinthians 13), John makes that action the centerpiece of the two liturgical readings that bear his name.

First, he quotes Jesus’ words in the Gospel (Jn 15: 9-17): “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in His love....This I command you: Love one another.”

Then John uses his own words to express the same concept in the second reading: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.”

Our ancestors in the faith clearly understood the uniqueness Judaism gave to their faith. They were willing to sacrifice that only when they began to understand the uniqueness of their love of one another.

Their insight leaves us with just one problem: If our ancestors were correct, then why are Jews more distinct today for observing those 613 Torah laws than we Christians are distinct for observing Jesus’ one law of love?

(05-22-03)