During the Easter season, the readings celebrate the joy of the resurrection which culminates at Pentecost with the enduring gift of the Holy Spirit. The readings from Acts recount the Spirit-directed spread of the Gospel and the almost idyllic life of the early church, even amid suffering and persecution. We read these stories with a certain nostalgia for a simpler time, when God was so tangibly present.
Yet today’s first reading speaks of one of the most serious conflicts in the early church. Acts 15 tells of a landmark controversy, at what is often called the Jerusalem Council, between factions from the Jerusalem mother church and Paul and Barnabas over whether Gentiles must undergo circumcision in order to follow the Jewish Messiah, Jesus. The description of the division as dissension and controversy uses two of the strongest terms in antiquity for events that can destroy the fabric of a community.
While the first reading today depicts only the cause and the resolution of the controversy, the preceding weekday readings take us through the whole chapter. Acts 15 is at the mathematical midpoint of the book and represents a changing of the guard, since the Twelve Apostles disappear from Acts, while the final chapters recount the career of Paul. The dispute arises after Paul comes to Jerusalem and recounts the conversion of the Gentiles. Converted Pharisees appear and claim that no one can become a Christian without circumcision. Before dismissing this as an arcane ritual, we should remember that first-century Jewish people saw this as an indispensable sign of God’s covenant dating back to Abraham. The First and Second Book of Maccabees tell of people who died horrible deaths rather than abandon this practice. These Jewish converts may have cited a saying of Jesus such as Mt. 5:18that Jesus came not to abolish the law and prophets but to fulfill themand pointed out that he himself was circumcised.
The dispute is resolved under the leadership of Peter, who recounts that God had called him to welcome the Gentiles (Acts 10), and by James, the leader of the Jewish-Christian Jerusalem church, who affirms Peter’s experience and gives scriptural grounds for the acceptance of Gentiles (Acts 15:14-18). Today’s reading presents the letter that Paul and Barnabas were to carry ratifying their missionary practice of not requiring circumcision, while observing certain practices that provided a way to peaceful coexistence among Jewish and Gentile converts.
Today the terms dissent and dissenters have become shibboleths hurled at anyone who does not seem to toe a (selectively) orthodox line. Yet the Jerusalem council illustrates the need to have faithful dissent. Peter’s response to the division is that God revealed to him that the Gentiles received the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:8), and Paul and Barnabas recount the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles (15:12). These experiences lead the Apostles and elders to conclude that it seems good to Holy Spirit and to us to allow uncircumcised Gentiles into the family of faith.
During this and every Easter season the church is summoned to read the signs of the times, to see how God is working outside of traditional structures of belief and practice, and to discern new modes of living the Gospel. How can this happen? John’s Gospel tells us: The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.