Though St. Luke usually paints a picture in the Acts of the Apostles of a Church that proceeds inexorably from the narrow confines of Jerusalem to the spacious "ends of the earth," he does point out some rough spots in that steady progression. Sunday’s first reading describes on of those bumps (Acts 15: 1-2, 22-29).

Not everyone in the early Church agreed with Paul and Barnabas’ practice of baptizing Gentiles without first converting them to Judaism. "Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers and sisters, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to 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."

Eventually, the "whole Church" agrees with the direction the local Church in Antioch has taken, and sends representatives to that Syrian community, assuring them that what they and the Holy Spirit have decided about Gentile conversions is the correct path to follow.

Worldwide

We know from several of Paul’s letters, written at least 30 years before Acts, that the Gentile issue didn’t end with the sending of those representatives. The "Judiazer" conflict continued until and beyond Paul’s martyrdom. (Rev. Raymond Brown thought these arch-conservative Christians probably were responsible for Paul and Peter’s betrayal to the Roman authorities!)

Yet by the time Luke compiled his two-volume work, most of the battles were over. Christian-ity was rapidly becoming a Gentile religion. Jewish converts were rare.

Such a drastic change in the first-century Church was one of the reasons our sacred authors place so much emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Only by relying on the Spirit’s guidance could Christians know how far to go beyond the program of Jewish reform that the historical Jesus had outlined for His first disciples.

This seems to be why John, the last evangelist, has Jesus stress the necessity of the Holy Spirit during His Last Supper discourse (Jn 14: 23-29). Notice how Jesus’ promise of the Spirit is formulated: "The Advocate," Jesus assures His followers, "the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you."

Yet the Spirit’s role isn’t limited just to reminding Christians of the things the historical Jesus taught. The Spirit, as Jesus mentions later, will lead them to understand what they cannot "bear to hear now." One of those "unbearable" things seems to have been the acceptance of Gentiles into the Church as Gentiles.

Spirit at work

The only problem with being open to the Spirit’s moving us to the "new" is that we could forget the old and not understand the significance of the new. For instance, we Catholics are accustomed to look at the Apostles through a non-biblical filter in which they’re the Church’s first bishops or priests. We ignore the way the sacred writers looked at them.

Still rooted in the Judaism which gave birth to Christianity, the author of Revelation uses symbolism that only a Jewish follower of Jesus can appreciate (Rev. 21: 10-14, 22-23). He talks about the "holy city of Jerusalem coming down from heaven from God," with its gates being named after "the twelve tribes of the Israelites." The twelve gates parallel the "twelve courses of stones as its foundation, on which were inscribed the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb."

Only by going back to the Hebrew Scriptures can one understand why Jesus traveled with the Twelve.

It’s important not only to see where the Holy Spirit is leading us. We also must have some knowledge of where we’ve been, or else we’ll never understand the direction we’re going.

(5/13/04)