22 May 2022 at St Peter, St Agnes, and St William Catholic Churches in Naples, FL
Acts of the Apostles 15, 1-2 & 22-29 + Psalm 67 + Revelation 21, 10-14 & 22-23 + John 14, 23-29
If you have been following the First Reading for the past several weeks, you might well have been left on edge last week when Paul returns to Antioch and reports how “he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.” If this were being reported on “WINK NEWS”, another voice would then say: “Stay tuned, details at six.” This is one of those “OhOh!” moments when you know trouble is coming.
Antioch after the destruction of Jerusalem was the place where things were happening. There were many Jews there some of whom had fled from the Roman destruction. There were also many Greeks there as well as Assyrians. It was a powerhouse of trade, commerce, and economy. That Jewish community was frantic to preserve their identity, customs, and traditions, especially after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. It is not hard to imagine how they heard this news. They must also have known that Paul and his companion had been run out of town in other places for just such a comment.
On the surface, the issue was circumcision, that physical and religious custom that verified and confirmed one’s place among the chosen people. Paul replaced circumcision with baptism making women and gentiles as legitimate as any Jew. In their thinking; what happens to the Sabbath? What happens to the centrality of Jerusalem? What happens to the accepted scriptures and the moral traditions based upon them? In other words, does one have to be a religious Jew in order to be a Christian? With that, we can read clearly that things blew up, and the Greek community sent Paul to meet with Peter and James and the leaders of other communities to work it out.
I’m always amused by the way Luke describes that meeting. It’s almost as though he is embarrassed by the intensity of it all when he tells us: “No little dissension and debate took place.” We know what that means. They really got at it! He does not tell us how long it went on maybe a week or two, maybe more; but he does tell us what they did and how they worked; and the evidence of their success is our assembly today. If it had not gone as it did, Christianity would simply been a small sect of Judaism, closed to the world, centered on Jerusalem. Perhaps Western Civilization as we know it might never have happened.
This fifteenth chapter of Acts has never been more important to us than it is today. I like to think that if everyone had paid more attention to it there might never have been a Protestant reformation. If everyone had paid more attention to it, there might never have been an Orthodox-Roman Catholic split.
If we wake up and pay attention, we seem to be approaching a crises like they faced in Antioch once again. Funny how history repeats it’s self when no one looks back to learn the lessons history can teach. There is news these days of the Methodist Church splitting apart, and they are not the only ones. We ought not think we will escape this tragedy. The so-called “culture warriors” and their opponents are ready to expel one another. Serious issues that define and establish our identity are everywhere: abortion, LGBTQ issues, divorce, remarriage, our response to violence, gun control, racism, and immigration are testing not just our nation, but our church as well. Our identity, our mission, and our future are being tested. Looking the other way will not do.
Those people, that Church in Antioch survived, and we can learn from them. What they teach us is the wisdom of patience, of listening with respect rather than judgement, the wisdom of prayer to the Holy Spirit, and in the end, a willingness to change. Would that our civic leadership could learn as well seems like a distant hope right now! However, our immediate issue is our Church. Contrary to the culture in which we live, it is never a matter of winning or losing, because if anyone loses, we are all losers. What they came to understand by the Holy Spirit was that God’s dwelling place is not the Temple, but, as Revelation proclaimed last week, the human race. This church is God’s dwelling, not because of that Tabernacle, but because we are here. That Tabernacle has something within it because we have been here. Listening, reading, trusting Act of the Apostles Chapter 15 can ensure that the door of faith remains open. It might not just be open for others, but give us hope that it is open for us.