In the final weeks of the Easter season, the Gospel readings for the Sundays and weekdays are taken almost entirely from Jesus’ farewell discourse in John 13–17. In saying goodbye to his disciples, Jesus reflects on what their lives will be like when he will no longer be with them as he was during his earthly life. He considers what should characterize their lives after his departure and how the movement begun by him might continue in his physical absence.
One means of carrying on the movement begun by Jesus is fidelity to his words, especially his “new commandment” to love one another. The reason for the existence of the Gospels is to promote this fidelity. Not everything that came up in the life of the church after Jesus’ resurrection, however, is covered in the Gospels. For these and other issues that have emerged over the centuries, what was and is needed is the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In today’s passage from John 14, Jesus promises to send the “Advocate” (traditionally known as the Paraclete) or Holy Spirit. The Advocate’s task will be to teach the followers of Jesus everything they need to know and to remind them of the words of Jesus. The Advocate is to be the “stand-in” for or representative of the earthly Jesus. What would allow the disciples to carry on from the earthly Jesus and bring his word to others was the gift of the Holy Spirit. But to be instructed by the Advocate it is necessary first of all to be open to the Holy Spirit. That involves recognizing that God may have surprises in store for us as individuals and as a community of faith.
Today’s reading from Acts 15 provides a good example of attentiveness to the surprising promptings of the Holy Spirit. In 2007 the issue treated in Acts 15 may seem curiously antiquarian. But it concerns a momentous decision in the history of the early church. The question was, Do non-Jews have to become Jews in order to be real Christians? The church had begun as a small sect within Judaism. Jesus himself and his first followers were Jews. They generally regarded their movement as a new way of being Jewish. However, when Gentiles saw the theological and ethical values associated with the Christian movement and began even in the eyes of Christian Jews to receive the Holy Spirit, the question quickly arose, Do these people have to undergo circumcision and observe the Jewish laws pertaining to the Sabbath rest, foods and ritual purity?
According to Acts 15, this question was the main topic of what is often considered to be the first “council” in the church’s history. The apostles, including Paul and Barnabas, gathered in Jerusalem and openly debated the matter. They came up with a compromise decree by which non-Jews were to obey some precepts of the Law but were not obligated to become Jews and to observe all the precepts of the Mosaic law. This decision meant that the Jesus movement was no longer a sect within Judaism (like the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes) but rather was on its way to becoming a world religion.
The decision made by the apostles was not simply a wise compromise or the product of effective strategic planning. Rather, the apostles prefaced their decree with an important statement: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us….” On first hearing, that could sound arrogant or even cynical. But in the context of Acts it affirms the primacy of the Holy Spirit in guiding and governing the movement begun by Jesus. Non-Jews were already receiving the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit had effectively solved the problem. It was the Holy Spirit who first made the church of the first century into a global church, and who still challenges the church of the 21st century to continue the process.
Today’s selection from the New Jerusalem passage in Revelation 21 moves us from the past and present of the church into the future fullness of God’s kingdom. The New Jerusalem will need no light supply, since God’s glory will be sufficient to provide ample lighting. And there will be no temple in the New Jerusalem, since Almighty God and the Lamb will be present in person.
In many dioceses Thursday of this week is the feast of Jesus’ Ascension. The readings from Luke 24:46-53 and Acts 1:1-11 describe in graphic detail what other Evangelists present in less direct ways. In Luke’s schema of salvation history, the risen Jesus must depart in order for the time of the Holy Spirit and the church to commence. But the reading from Ephesians 1:17-23 (or Heb 9:24-28; 10:19-23) assures us that through Jesus’ death and resurrection we already participate in the divine glory that now animates the body of Christ as we move forward to its fullness.