When people disagree with one another about deeply held convictions, especially those based on religious beliefs, coming to peaceable agreement is no easy task. The vitriolic exchanges and even threats of physical violence that have been voiced in the process of reforming health care in the United States, for example, are quite different from the way the first Christians resolved their differences regarding observance of the Mosaic law in changing circumstances.
Today’s first reading abbreviates Luke’s description of the process, as it presents the problem and then jumps to the agreed-upon solution. It is helpful to look at the omitted verses from Acts 15 to see the steps by which communities of faith can accept and live out the gift of peace that Jesus promises his disciples in the Gospel.
As the Jesus movement spread outward to include more and more gentiles, heated debates ensued over whether these newcomers should keep the whole of the Mosaic law. Some said yes, some said no, and others argued for a compromise position: keep some observances, but not others. The next question was inevitable: if gentile Christians did not need to be circumcised or to observe all the dietary regulations, then should Jewish Christians continue to be bound by them? How would a mixed community be able to eat together if some were keeping kosher and others not?
As Acts 15 recounts, albeit in an idealized way, there came a point when a group from Judea, not authorized by the Jerusalem leaders, came to Antioch, where Paul and Barnabas were recounting all that God was doing through them in their missionary travels among the gentiles. The Judeans, who were arguing for full observance of the law by gentiles, created no little dissension and debate, as Paul and Barnabas took them on, holding that gentiles should not be bound by the law.
In the verses omitted from today’s first reading, Luke describes how all the leaders gathered in Jerusalem to resolve the dispute. First there was intense listening by all sides. Paul and Barnabas reported what God had done through them in gentile lands. Then some of the Pharisees who had become believers spoke of their conviction that the whole law must be observed by all. After much debate, Peter finally stood and put forth a decisive argument: it was apparent that God had given the Holy Spirit to the gentiles as well as to Jewish Christians, making no distinction between the two. He then argued for a relaxation of observance of the law. Then the leaders listened again to Paul and Barnabas as they described “the signs and wonders God had worked among the gentiles through them” (15:12). Next James, the leader of the Jerusalem community, quoted a text from Am 9:11-12 concerning God’s ingathering of gentiles. He then proposed a compromise, as we hear in the remainder of today’s first reading.
Through deep and respectful listening to all sides, careful attention to what the Spirit is doing in present experience, study of the Scriptures, reflection on tradition, respectful debate and discussion, silence and prayer the first Christians arrived at a solution that allowed for communal living in peace among people of differing convictions. This process did not resolve the problem once and for all, but it gives us an example of how we might receive and live from the gift of peace given to us by the risen Christ.