6th Sunday of Easter (C); May 5, 2013
Acts 15:1-2,22-29 Ps 67 Rv 21:10-14 Jn 14:23-29
Deacon Jim McFadden; Folsom Prison
(The first reading is taken from the 15th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, which is about the Council of Jerusalem that allowed Gentiles into the Church. This Council, like all councils, is full of disputes But, we must never lose sight that the Holy Spirit is guiding and directing the Church.)
All of the readings today tells us a great deal about the Church. Let’s look at each one and see if we can come to a deeper understanding of the Church, which is the Body of Christ, here on earth.
In the 15th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we’re brought right into the heart of a controversy, which nearly brought the early and fledging Church to its knees. There was a tension between Tradition and innovation. Sound familiar? All the first Christians were Jews, raised within the traditions of the Jewish religion. Their minds and hearts were formed with the Torah and the prophets. Jesus was a Jew—he wasn’t a Catholic! He’d go to Temple, celebrate Passover, etc. As a child he was circumcised on the 8th day. At 12 years of age he commented on the Torah in the temple. Furthermore, Jesus was recognized as the fulfillment of Judaism—the culmination of God’s promises to his people. Therefore, it was natural for those who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God would want to function as Jews. We hear in Luke’s gospel, for example, that the Apostles following the Ascension went to the Temple praising God, acting as good Jews.
At the same time Jesus clearly represented something new. Paul was the one who saw this most clearly. Primarily because of the Cross and Resurrection, Paul said that we’re no longer saved by the Law. We’re saved by our faith in Jesus Christ. Circumcision, dietary laws, particular practices that marked Jews as being ethnically separate—these should give way to a new universalism. Paul said that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or freeman, no man or woman. That’s Paul—do you see how radical that was? For a Jew at that time, the Jew/Gentile distinction was enormously important. You live in a prison culture where in-group/out-group distinctions are comparably important. But, for Paul these distinctions have been erased in Christ. This was a very radical claim then as it is today. That’s the novelty of Catholic Christianity. Can you accept that? Can you accept that everyone in Christ is your brother?
But, the Church did not readily accept Paul’s universal challenge, but fell into bickering and arguing about who could be a Christian. The conflict would not resolve itself; so, the elders decide to meet in Jerusalem to work things out. This gathering came to be called The Council of Jerusalem—the first council of the Catholic Church, which has had twenty altogether, the latest being Vatican II.
We have a summary of what they decided. Listen: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and us not to place upon 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” (Acts 15:28-29).
Today, these prescriptions may seem a bit fussy, but at the time, all of these taken together was a huge concession. The early Christians decided they’d no longer be concerned about circumcision which was a highly valued practice of ancient Jews because it was a sign of the covenant and went back all the way to Abraham. They would dispense with most dietary laws that strict Jews followed. What they were hanging onto were some essential things—prohibition against idolatry, which remains in place today. And, they came out against unlawful marriages.
We might say, “Well, isn’t that a nice piece of ancient history. What’s that go to do with me here at Folsom Prison?” It’s got everything to do with you. If you are a Christian, you are because of this Council, which made that decision.
Think if they had gone the other way—that they decided that all the ancient practices, especially circumcision, would stay in place. Christianity may have devolved in very short order as a small sect of Judaism. It may never have moved out of Palestine. I’m preaching to you as an Irish American deacon and I’m doing so because of this council, which allowed people like me and you into the family of Israel.
O.K., did they fight about this? You bet they did! The Acts of the Apostles give us a condensed, cleaned up version of it; it only gives us a hint of the tension that existed within the nascent Christian community, which lasted all of Paul’s lifetime and beyond.
We should remember that councils usually arise over issues that are so hotly contested that they threaten the very life of the Church. Now go forward from the Council of Jerusalem to the next at Nicaea in 325, which was called to deal with the Arian challenge which the Alexandrian priest Arius said that Jesus wasn’t really divine. They fought before, during, and after the Council of Nicaea. We proclaim the resolution of that conflict when we make the Profession of Faith; we say:
“I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father…” We are repeating the words of the Council of Nicaea.
Think of the Council of Constance that resolved the crisis of three popes. Or, the Council of Trent following the Protestant Reformation. Think of Vatican II, which was called to address the problems of the modern age.
Brothers, here’s what we learn about all of this regarding our Church. All our current bickering, religious food fights, arguments are nothing new in the life of the Church. They’ve been there from the beginning. But, at times they become so disruptive, so problematic, that they have to be addressed; hence, the councils.
When you reflect upon the Council of Jerusalem and study the subsequent 19 other councils, you see a history of a conflicted, fighting Church that somehow finds a way to resolve its problems. How does the Church do that? How do you, the Church at Folsom Prison resolve your conflicts? Do you fall back to the conventional fight/flight responses? When confronted with injustice or violence, do you answer in kind—do you try to get even? Or, when you run into aggression, do you run away or submit, which just encourages the aggressor to do even more violence? Or, are you open to Jesus’ third way? Again, we go back to Acts: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and us….” (v. 28). That’s the Third Way.
Let’s explore this more by looking at our Gospel for today. Jesus promises at the Last Supper that he would send an Advocate, which is the Holy Spirit, who would “teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” (Jn 15:26). Jesus comes to us as the Incarnation of the Word of God. But, after he ascends to his Father, he and the Father will send the Holy Spirit, the 3rd person of the Trinity, who will live within the Church, reminding the Church of all that Jesus said.
When will this happen? How will it happen? It will happen up and down the centuries. It will happen in the midst of our arguing and bickering. It will happen as we struggle to resolve questions, challenges, and conflicts. The councils of the Church, beginning with Jerusalem and going all the way to our time with Vatican II, is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, which is guiding and directing the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ. And, who is the Body of Christ? It is the People of God, those who have been initiated into the Church by baptism. Walls, cellbocks, artificial social distinctions cannot keep the Holy Spirit from guiding and directing you. You are the Church at Folsom Prison! You have access to the Holy Spirit, which can transform you and your world. That’s the purpose of the Church: we’re not a debating society or an institution. We are a living organism, whose purpose is to change the world through the power of the Holy Spirit!
Our second reading confirms this challenge. In the Book of Revelation John the Visionary says that the heavenly Jerusalem is coming down out of heaven from God (Rv 21:10b). There is no temple in that city because the city itself has become the Temple because God’s Spirit has so thoroughly invaded the New Jerusalem. Again, Brothers, the purpose of the Church is to change the world. God is trusting that you will accept this call here at Folsom Prison. If not you, who? If not here, where?
When we read these three readings and draw together the lessons about the life of the Church, we find great confidence in the fact that it is the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, who still guides us and still leads us. Brothers, this partnership of the Church and the Holy Spirit cannot be overcome! Amen.