First Reading: Acts 15:1-2, 22-29; Second Reading: Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23; Gospel: John 14:23-29
A crisis had been brewing for some time in the Christian Communities (churches) of the first Christian century. It began when Gentiles (pagans, non-Jews) were admitted into the Christian Community. There were two factions. One faction held the conviction that Gentiles admitted into the Church were bound to full observance of the laws, customs, and practices of conservative Jewish-Christian Communities. The other faction was just as determined that Gentile converts did not have to become Jews to become Christians; in other words, they were not bound to the full observance of Judaism. Paul and his group belonged to the latter faction. They can correctly be called the progressives. The setting is in the Christian Community in the city of Antioch in Syria, where the followers of Christ were first called Christians. The question was especially about the law of male
circumcision. The opening verse of our first reading sums it up. “Some had come down from Judea (Jerusalem) and were instructing the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom (law) of Moses, you cannot be saved.’”
Paul and Barnabas, leading figures in the Church at Antioch, vehemently opposed the disrupting Judean Christians. Something had to be done to bring the two factions into peaceful coexistence. The Church of Antioch, which had first sent Barnabas and Saul into the missions, now decided to send them to Jerusalem to discuss problems with the apostles and elders. The result: the Council of Jerusalem in 49 A.D. Our first reading omits the “minutes” of the council, but gives us some of the results. A compromise was reached. Luke reports this compromise in a letter of the council to the Church at Antioch. The decision of the council was expressed as “the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us . . . .” Male circumcision was not to be required for entrance into the Christian Community. A win for Paul, Barnabas, and Antioch. But they had to yield to pressure from the Jewish Christian faction on other points of Jewish practice and law: abstaining from meat sacrificed to pagan gods, from animal blood, from unlawful marriage. Did the compromise work? Perhaps for some. The final victory went to the progressive faction, as the Jewish-Christians with their customs disappeared and the Church became a Church overwhelmingly Gentile.
The Responsorial Psalm 67 began its life as a prayer of thanksgiving for a good harvest. The liturgy omits the harvest part. Emphasis is on the Gentiles (nations) praising God. This emphasis connects the Psalm with the victory Paul and Barnabas won for the Gentiles at the Council of Jerusalem. Though not part of our first reading, Luke reports the reaction to the letter from the council, “When they had read it, they rejoiced . . . .” The People’s Response says it well, “O God, let all the Gentiles (nations) praise you.”
The second reading is from the Apocalypse (Revelation). Last Sunday the prophet John in a vision saw the holy city Jerusalem descending from the sky onto the new earth. He saw the city populated by the human race. In today’s reading he describes the city gleaming with “the splendor of God.” It had a high wall and twelve gates. Most interesting is the fact that there is no temple. This echoes a debate at the end of the first century whether or not the Jerusalem temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., should be rebuilt. The Gospel of John says no, because Jesus is the new temple. The Apocalypse of John says no, because the temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb.
The gospel reading takes us back once more to the Last Supper. In the other three gospels Jesus says very little at the Last Supper. In the Gospel of John he begins addressing his disciples in chapter thirteen, then continues the sermon through chapters 14 to 17 included. This long Last Supper Discourse should be understood not as verbatim report of what Jesus said at the Last Supper, but rather as a meditation on Jesus’ words to his disciples at the Last Supper. There is much repetition in this meditation. The first point is the connection between love and acceptance of the word (message, revelation) that Jesus brings from his Father. “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come and make our home with him.” In other words, obedience to Jesus’ message results in divine indwelling in a Christian. Thus we have heard about Father and Son. Next Jesus says, “The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name . . . .” A Parakletos in Greek is one who can be summoned, called upon. Called upon for what? A legal assistant, a lawyer, counselor, advocate, consoler, intercessor. A wide-ranging job description for our Paraclete, the Holy Spirit.
What work does the gospel assign to the Holy Spirit? “He will teach you all things and remind you of what I have told you.” This tells us that not all revelation is written in our Scriptures. The authors of biblical documents wrote what was needed for Israelite/Jewish communities in the Old Testament, just as New Testament authors did for their Christian communities. Some of God’s revelation remained unwritten. It was and is passed on through oral tradition. Being human himself, Jesus knew the forgetfulness of human beings. Another work for the Paraclete, “He will remind you of all that I told you.” Jesus bestows peace on his disciples, “not as the world gives,” not a transient peace, but a Shalom, total well-being with security that comes from knowing that God dwells in us. Jesus asks them to celebrate his departure, “because the Father is greater than I.” Does this alter the revelation of equality between Father and Son (and Holy Spirit)? No way! It can be understood that the Father is greater than the Son in the Son’s created, human nature. It can also be understood in the sense that the Father is the Source of the Son from all eternity, just as the Holy Spirit from all eternity proceeds from Father and Son.