Those who insist Jesus gave His first disciples a detailed blueprint of how His Church should be set up can't defend their position from Scripture.

I strongly suggest one reads the first two chapters of Paul's Letter to the Galatians before listening to Sunday's three readings. If our present Church is the only one we know, we'll be astounded to discover that for the first 15 to 20 years of the Christian era, all Jesus' followers were Jewish.

During that period, Gentiles who wanted to become Jesus' disciples were expected to become Jews. They attended Sabbath synagogue services, kept the 613 Torah laws and never ate a single pork rind.

Gentiles welcome

This started to change around the late 40s when a few "liberal" Christian communities began to admit Gentiles into their number without demanding they first convert to Judaism. All heaven broke loose at this point. Galatians offers us just a small glimpse of the animosity this shift in direction engendered. (After reading the first two chapters, I strongly urge you to glance at 5:12.)

There obviously was no Church blueprint. Paul never mentions one; neither does Luke, not even in his idealized "Jerusalem Council" passage, which comprises the first reading (Acts 15: 1-2, 22-29).

Assuming the events Paul narrates in Galatians are some of the same events Luke narrates in Acts 30 years later, we realize each approaches the Gentiles problem from a different angle. Paul regards their admission into Christianity as an exception; Luke presumes their presence in the Church is the norm, not the exception.

Christianity changed dramatically between the days of Paul and Luke. But because these changes are so widely accepted by the 80s, Luke can state that Paul and Barnabas' mission to the Gentiles springs in part from "the decision of the Holy Spirit." Though their actions originally caused "no little dissension and debate," Luke smooths everything over. By the end of the passage, everyone in the early Church is reading from the same page.

Scripture scholars agree that Luke is more into theology than history. And like many theologians, he doesn't hesitate to change his history to make it mesh into his theology. Though we have Paul's more historical version of the dispute to fall back on, we can still appreciate Luke's theological reflection on a problem that almost tore Jesus' Church apart. He shows God's hand directing the Church at a time when two contradictory factions believe each is taking the road Jesus wished.

Which way?

Since most of us won't live long enough to benefit from future theological insights into the Church conflicts of our day and age, how are we to know what path to follow? Like the author of the second reading (Rev 21: 10-14, 22-23), we want to have a part in creating the new Jerusalem. But without a blueprint, how can we be certain we're building and not tearing down?

Perhaps the most secure path is the one outlined by the evangelist who had the most time to reflect on the formation of Jesus' Church: John. Writing in the mid-90s, he constantly has Jesus stress the importance of the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel (Jn 14: 23-29), for instance, Jesus assures His community that this one essential element in Christianity will "teach you everything and remind you of all I told you."

Later, in chapter 16, He goes even further, reminding His disciples, "I have much more to tell you; you cannot bear it now. But the Spirit of truth will guide you to all truth."

Instead of a blueprint, Jesus gives His community the Holy Spirit: a force consistently opening doors we would never notice had been placed in front of us if we relied only on our own powers. Thankfully, our ancestors in the faith walked the paths those doors revealed. If they hadn't, none of us reading this commentary would ever have known the taste of a B.L.T. sandwich.

(05-17-01)