Our reading at Mass from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 15, 7-21) brings us to a critical moment in the life of the early church– the Council of Jerusalem, which decided whether and on what terms gentiles would be accepted into the new Christian movement. Its decision to admit the gentiles led to a rapid expansion of the church as non-Jews from all parts of the Roman world embraced the faith.
Luke Timothy Johnson has a fine commentary on this crucial event. (Acts of the Apostles: Sacra Pagina, Liturgical Press 1992)
Did a meeting really take place? Johnson writes “we can state with considerable confidence that in the first decades of the Christian movement an important meeting was held concerning the legitimacy and basis of the Gentile mission; that participants included Paul and Peter and James and Barnabas; that certain agreements were reached which, in one way or another, secured the basic freedom of the Gentile initiative. The most striking agreement between the sources comes, in fact, at the religious level. With only very slight variation, both Luke and Paul agree that the basis of the mission to the Gentiles was a matter of God’s gift, (Acts15,11. Gal 2,9) and that God was equally at work in the Apostle Paul as he was in the Apostle Peter. (Acts 15,7-8.12; Gal 2,8)”
Notice the hesitancy of the original Jewish followers of Jesus to accept gentiles into their ranks. That’s evident in Peter’s strong reluctance to meet the Roman centurion Cornelius as he visits believers of his own kind around Joppa. Not only are the disciples slow to recognize their Risen Lord, they’re slow to accept his plans for expanding their ranks. Peter must see signs of God at work in Cornelius before baptizing him and his household. Paul, James and Barnabas also must see God’s gifts in the outsiders they meet before they recognize that God is calling them to believe.
God sows seeds of faith, but we’re as slow to recognize the action of God in others as the first disciples were. We have trouble seeing God’s action in the stranger and in the unexpected. We need enlightenment.
Johnson notes that the Church’s journey through time is marked by conflict and debate. We must accept those conditions today too. Those who follow Jesus will not always agree with each other; there are strong opinions and differences among believers.
One thing I would add. Besides conflict and debate, our reading today speaks of the “silence” that comes as they debate. We’re in the presence of our transcendent God, whose ways and thoughts are above ours. We need silence to discern God’s will. Too much talk can get in the way.
Then God said: Let the earth bring forth every kind of living creature: tame animals, crawling things, and every kind of wild animal. And so it happened: God made every kind of wild animal, every kind of tame animal, and every kind of thing that crawls on the ground. Clean and unclean he created them. God saw that it was good.
Now when the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands. (For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves. And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles [and beds].) So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”
God’s orderly and functional arrangement of the cosmos into day and night (time), sea, sky, and dry land (space), filled with heavenly lights, animals, plants, and humankind was pronounced “good” seven times.
The universe of the scribes and Pharisees, however, was contaminated and polluted, filled with categories of clean/unclean and pure/impure that were foreign to the creation story.
So where did the distinction of clean and unclean come from? Jesus, who fearlessly interacted with centurions, lepers, “tax collectors and sinners,” walked in Gentile territory and breathed Gentile air, made no division in the created world between clean and unclean. Look within the heart, he said, and root out the true source of defilement.
Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them… For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.
Mark 7:15, 21-23
A centuries-old religious consciousness that developed out of the purification laws and rituals of the Mosaic covenant was hard to challenge. Many heroes of Israel were celebrated as martyrs in defense of their laws and customs. The prophet Daniel admirably withstood pressure from the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar to partake of the royal food and wine, receiving only kosher vegetables and water (Daniel 1:8-17). In consequence, the Lord filled him with prophetic insight. The scribe Eleazar of Maccabean fame was martyred for refusing to eat pork as a sign of assimilation to Hellenistic culture (2 Maccabees 6:18-31).
Jesus alone could not transform religious consciousness. He left that work to the Holy Spirit, the Advocate and enlightener of hearts. It was not to Daniel or Eleazar, whose witness preserved the Hebrew faith, that the following vision was given, but to Peter the apostle:
The next day, while they were on their way and nearing the city, Peter went up to the roof terrace to pray at about noontime. He was hungry and wished to eat, and while they were making preparations he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something resembling a large sheet coming down, lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all the earth’s four-legged animals and reptiles and the birds of the sky. A voice said to him, “Get up, Peter. Slaughter and eat.” But Peter said, “Certainly not, sir. For never have I eaten anything profane and unclean.” The voice spoke to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane.”This happened three times, and then the object was taken up into the sky.
The vision stunned Peter. The Holy Spirit who gave him the vision also prompted the Roman centurion Cornelius to summon Peter to his house. The shocking actions of Jesus now became Peter’s own as he opened his speech with this revelation:
You know that it is unlawful for a Jewish man to associate with, or visit, a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call any person profane or unclean.
The division between Jew and Gentile was not created “in the beginning,” but developed out of the covenant between God and Abraham, “father of many nations” (Genesis 17:4). The final goal of the divine-human covenant is oneness in Christ, as expressed by Paul:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
With the Son’s revelation of the Father and the Holy Spirit, humanity is now destined for a life even beyond that of Eden. For with Paul’s inclusion of “male and female” among the divisions overcome by Christ, Adam is transfigured to the Trinitarian fullness of the divine image as persons transcending individuals:
St. Gregory of Nyssa writes:
Scripture says in the first place, “God made man; in the image of God, he made him.” Only after that is it added, “He made them male and female,” a division foreign to the divine attributes.2
Human persons in the image of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the whole theandric nature by grace through Jesus Christ. As the person of the Son of God is neither male nor female, Trinitarian fullness integrates the gender division into the oneness of deified human nature.
Pentecostal baptism by the descent of tongues of fire upon unique persons crowned the work of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Body of Christ is thus One Many, mirroring the One Three Trinity.
Peter did not break with Abraham and Moses, but finally saw the Light guiding Israel down the centuries:
In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.
The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were astounded that the gift of the holy Spirit should have been poured out on the Gentiles also, for they could hear them speaking in tongues and glorifying God.
In Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, all creation is moving towards its fulfillment in the glory of the Blessed Trinity.
God made all things good. Knowledge of good and evil Marked clean and unclean spaces, Birds, beasts, persons and races— A world un-paradisal— Till Christ died on wood.
1 According to the New American Bible (Revised Edition) footnote, “The vision is intended to prepare Peter to share the food of Cornelius’ household without qualms of conscience.” It is not a prescription for food culture.
In Genesis 1:29-30, God actually intended vegetarianism for humans and animals. See NABRE footnote: “According to the Priestly tradition, the human race was originally intended to live on plants and fruits as were the animals (see v. 30), an arrangement that God will later change (9:3) in view of the human inclination to violence.”
2 St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Creation of Man 16. From Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Genesis 1-11, Andrew Louth and Marco Conti, editors, and Thomas C. Oden, general editor (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 35.