SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ ACTS 15:22-31; PS 56:8-12; JOHN 15:12-17 ]
As the Church extended beyond the confines of Palestine into non-Jewish territories, many gentiles were converted to the faith. Whilst it was good news for the early Christians, it was also a source of tension as the Jewish Christians who were brought up in the Jewish culture found it difficult to co-exist with non-Jewish Christians. The Jews, although converts to Christianity, were still very much Jewish in their way of life. In truth, it is quite difficult to separate culture from faith since faith is always expressed through culture. So the Jewish Christians, being the pioneers of the Christian Faith, sought to impose their culture on the Gentile Christians. But such Jewish practices were alien to the non-Jews. This attempt to pressurize the Gentile Christians to adopt Jewish culture was met with much opposition.
At the root of the conflict was a lack of love and sensitivity to each other. Instead of resolving the tension through dialogue and mutual understanding the Jewish Christians used the highhanded way of imposing their customs on them. As a result, they unsettled the Gentile Christians. We can imagine the unhappiness, squabbles and confusion arising from the Jewish Christians’ stance that they were not “Christians” because they were not Jews.
If only they remembered the commandment the Lord gave to them, “love one another, as I have loved you.” In fact, twice in the gospel, He repeated, “What I command you is to love one another.” This is what the Lord has commissioned us all to do. “I commissioned you to go out and to bear fruit, fruit that will last.” But we are not simply called to love. We are called to love as He loved us. This principle makes the love of a Christian different from others. Most people desire to love, regardless of their religious affiliation. But a Christian is called to love not with his love or what he thinks love is all about. He is to love in the same manner the Lord has loved him.
How did the Lord love us? He emptied Himself of His divinity to assume our humanity. He sacrificed His comforts to share in our human weakness, pain and suffering. He was not legalistic in the way He interpreted the Laws but always in the spirit of the law. When necessary, He even broke the Sabbath Law for a greater good, especially in healing the sick. He did not slavishly observe the Jewish customs and taboos but instead ate and drank with sinners, tax-collectors and prostitutes. He was for the outcasts and the marginalized. Towards non-Jews and pagans, He would praise them for their faith, as in the case of the Centurion whose servant was healed by the Lord, or the Syro-Phonecian woman’s daughter.
Accordingly, the apostles in Jerusalem and the elders took the same cue from our Lord.Instead of settling all issues in a legalistic manner, they proceeded from the path of love. How beautiful that they began by addressing the Gentile Christians as “brothers!” In the beginning of the letter they said, “The apostles and elders, your brothers, send greetings to the brothers of pagan birth in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia.” They considered them as brothers of the faith, not aliens or strangers. This meant that Gentile Christians too shared the same faith and privileges of the Jewish Christians. They were not second class members of the Church but given the same status.
Secondly, right from the outset, they declared that such instructions did not come from them. “We hear that some of our members have disturbed you with their demands and have unsettled your minds. They acted without any authority from us.” Those who made those demands were not authorized by the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem. In rejecting the authority of these people, the Church put to rest any notion that such impositions were part of the Christian Faith. Consequently, the people were to desist in paying any attention to such rumor mongering and personal opinions of these Jewish Christian believers.
Thirdly, they wrote the letter of clarification stating what was permitted and what should not be done. By having it written down, all would have a reference point should disagreements arise again. It is always better to put things in black and white so that there is no misinterpretation. Keeping minutes of meetings is very important, especially contracts, so that we can always return to what was discussed and agreed upon. When it is reliant on word of mouth alone, the message will get distorted, expanded, embellished and overlaid by other interpretations as it gets transmitted down the line. So they made sure the decision of the council was documented.
Fourthly, they wanted to give a personal touch to their sentiments for the Gentile Christians. They did not want to appear as if it was merely a juridical order. Rather, it was a decision based on love. To show their sincerity and love, the letter was accompanied not just by Paul and Barnabas, but they sent two highly respected elders from Jerusalem to authenticate and explain the decision of the Jerusalem Council. They wrote, “we have decided unanimously to elect delegates and to send them to you with Barnabas and Paul, men we highly respect who have dedicated their lives to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accordingly we are sending you Judas and Silas, who will confirm by word of mouth what we have written in this letter.”
This is an important lesson, especially in these days of modern communication which has become more and more impersonal. As a result, emails and letters sometimes cause more misinterpretation as the context is missing. Often the message is clouded by emotive words causing the recipient to react and retaliate. There is no opportunity for immediate clarification. This gives rise to more misunderstanding. Most of all, without personal contact, we tend to say things without mincing our words, as if we are writing to an impersonal object. But when we see a person face to face, we have to weigh our words carefully so that we do not hurt the feelings and sentiments of the other person. So much distancing and disasters happen today because people are afraid to confront each other directly, choosing instead to communicate via email and smses. This also explains why relationships even between husband and wife, children, siblings and friends are strained and estranged because we no longer feel for and with each other.
Fifthly, they kept as essential, the most sensitive things, namely, the taboos. They only asked for compliance in what were considered most critical at that point in time. And even then, it was purely out of sensitivity to the Jewish culture. This was a concrete manifestation of charity. St Paul himself wrote about eating food offered to idols to the Corinthians. We know that “no idol in the world really exists and that there is no God but one.” (1 Cor 8:4) Nevertheless, he also recognized that “It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.” (1 Cor 8:7) Thus, he advised us to “take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” (1 Cor 8:9) He concluded, “therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.” (1 Cor 8:13) When there is love, we put the interests of the other person before ours. We can compromise and give in to others not because what we do is wrong but because we love and respect the other person who could be offended or scandalized by what we do and lose their faith. We must not always insist on our rights. Jesus gave up all His rights to save us all. “Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.” (1 Cor 9:12b) Truly, if we claim we love our brothers and sisters, we must seek to please them and protect their peace of mind.
In the final analysis, we must seek to build each other up, not destroy each other. We should seek to offer encouragement to each other. Whatever we do must lead to a win-win solution, not a win-lose outcome. We cannot be thinking only of ourselves, our convenience and our needs. Jesus assured us that when we love each other the way He loves us, then all our prayers will be answered. “Then the Father will give you anything you ask him in my name.” When our prayers are made in union with Jesus for the good of all, surely the Father will hear us.
For us to share the mind and heart of Jesus, we must endeavor first to be His friends. For the love of Jesus, we will do anything for Him. He said, “A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends, if you do what I command you. I shall not call you servants anymore, because a servant does not know his master’s business; I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father.” So let us cultivate our friendship with Jesus by spending time in prayer and basking in His love and wisdom. If we do that, then we will indeed bear the fruits of love and peace. Then we will indeed by our love for others, show that we are truly the friends of Jesus because we act and conduct ourselves the way Jesus loves us.