Friday, May 7, 2010

You Are My Friends If You Do What I Command You. This Is My Commandment: Love One Another As I Have Loved You.

Friday of Fifth Week of Easter
Reading I
Acts 15:22-31
The Apostles and presbyters,
in agreement with the whole Church,
decided to choose representatives
and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.
The ones chosen were Judas,
who was called Barsabbas,
and Silas, leaders among the brothers.
This is the letter delivered by them:
“The Apostles and the presbyters, your brothers,
to the brothers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia
of Gentile origin: greetings.
Since we have heard that some of our number
who went out without any mandate from us
have upset you with their teachings
and disturbed your peace of mind,
we have with one accord
decided to choose representatives
and to send them to you
along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,
who have dedicated their lives
to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So we are sending Judas and Silas
who will also convey this same message
by word of mouth:
‘It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us
not to place on you any burden
beyond these necessities,
namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols,
from blood, from meats of strangled animals,
and from unlawful marriage.
If you keep free of these,
you will be doing what is right. Farewell.’“

And so they were sent on their journey.
Upon their arrival in Antioch
they called the assembly together
and delivered the letter.
When the people read it,
they were delighted with the exhortation.
Having decided that circumcision should no longer be imposed on non-Jewish converts, the community leaders together with the whole church gathered together in Jerusalem to promulgate their decision to the wider Church.

They sent a delegation to Antioch in Syria, which was effectively the centre of the Greek-speaking Christians (both Jews and Gentiles). Wisely, the delegation included representatives from the Jerusalem community. Among those from Jerusalem three leaders are mentioned: Judas, Barsabbas and Silas. It is not clear who Barsabbas is but in the first chapter of Acts we are told that a Joseph Barsabbas was one of the two candidates chosen to replace Judas Iscariot. But, as we know, “the lot fell on Matthias”. Silas became a missionary companion of Paul and we will meet him on the Second Missionary Journey. He is the same person known as Silvanus in some of the Pauline letters. At this time he was a leader in the Jerusalem church and called a ‘prophet’ (15:32) and, like Paul, was a Roman citizen (16:37).

But with them went Paul and Barnabas, who represented the outer limits of the Church and who had raised the issue in the first place. Apparently there was unanimous agreement with both the choice of messengers and the contents of the letter which they carried.

The letter comes from the “apostles and the elders  (Greek: presbyeroi) your brothers” in Jerusalem and is addressed to the “brothers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia who are of Gentile origin”. Antioch was the leading city of the combined and adjoining provinces of Syria and Cilicia. It is significant that the Jerusalem leaders call themselves “brothers” of the Gentile converts, thus identifying all as belonging to the same family.

They speak apologetically of the Jewish Christians who had, apparently on their own initiative, gone to Antioch to complain about the non-circumcision of Gentile converts. That is why they are sending a delegation from Jerusalem together with Paul and Barnabas, who have their full endorsement. They are men who “have dedicated their lives to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

They then make a significant statement: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us…” Not only are they speaking unanimously in their own name but they know they have the full endorsement of the Holy Spirit in their decision. They then list the four exceptions mentioned above, Jewish practices which were still binding on all.

We should note the interesting process that is being described during the past three days’ readings.

The Spirit is with the whole Church and communicates its faith with the centre. The centre then discerns and recognises where the Spirit is working and issues an authoritative statement giving confirmation under the guidance of that Spirit.

The Church still works this way. The Pope is not the one who tells the Church what to believe; he tells the Church what it believes after listening to the faith of the whole Church. This listening process on the part of Rome is crucial for the growth and development of the Church in so many different areas with very different needs and aspirations.

There is another element in today’s reading which at first sight seems to be contradictory. Having ruled out the obligation to be circumcised, they still forbid eating meat sacrificed to idols, abstaining from blood, the meat of strangled animals and “illicit” sexual union.

Yet this shows the need for a sensitive balance between the feelings of the Gentiles and those of the Jews. Circumcision was a much more sensitive (in every sense!) issue, involving as it did mutilation of the body and in a particularly delicate area touching not only the body but the whole area of sexuality and generation.

The other Jewish traditions which were still being imposed could be lived with without great difficulty. In the course of time they too would fall away.

All of these issues concerning inviolable principles and acceptable areas of compromise are just as relevant in our Church today as they were at the beginning.
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Psalm 57
I will give you thanks among the peoples, O Lord.
My heart is steadfast, O God; my heart is steadfast;
I will sing and chant praise.
Awake, O my soul; awake, lyre and harp!
I will wake the dawn.
I will give you thanks among the peoples, O Lord.
I will give thanks to you among the peoples, O LORD,
I will chant your praise among the nations.
For your mercy towers to the heavens,
and your faithfulness to the skies.
Be exalted above the heavens, O God;
above all the earth be your glory!
I will give you thanks among the peoples, O Lord.
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John 15:12-17
Jesus said to his disciples:
“This is my commandment:
love one another as I love you.
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
You are my friends
if you do what I command you.
I no longer call you slaves,
because a slave does not know
what his master is doing.
I have called you friends,
because I have told you everything
I have heard from my Father.
It was not you who chose me,
but I who chose you
and appointed you to go
and bear fruit that will remain,
so that whatever you ask the Father
in my name he may give you.
This I command you: love one another.”
Jesus, speaking to his disciples at the Last Supper, continues to talk about the centrality of love. He expresses it in a central commandment: perhaps surprisingly to some, this commandment is not to love God, or to love Jesus, but to love one another. God does not need to be mentioned because that love is only possible when God is acting in and through us. That is the touchstone of the genuineness of our love for God. And the measure of that love is that of Jesus for us. If that is not clear enough, he spells it out: the greatest possible love a person can have is to sacrifice one’s life for one’s friends. That may mean dying for others but it can also mean living for others; in either case our primary concern is concern for the need of the brother or sister. And it is the only path to demonstrate that we love God and that God’s love is in us. Jesus shows that love by his own death for his friends.
And who are his friends? They are those who do what he commands and what he commands is that we love each other to the same degree that he loves us. Earlier Jesus told his disciples, after washing their feet, that he was their Lord and Master, but now he also calls them his friends and not servants. Jesus is our Lord but he is also our Brother and our Friend. Because of that he has shared with us all he has received from his Father. Obviously, it is for us to share all we know about Jesus with others too. Finally, he reminds them that they are his followers, because he has chosen them; they have not chosen him. We do not confer any favour on Jesus by following him. We are only answering a call that has already come from him. And the response to that call is to “bear fruit”, lasting fruit. Our lives must be productive, productive in love, in caring, in justice, in compassion, in building up the world of the Kingdom. And we need have no fear. God is with us and everything we need will be given to us to become fruitful. And once again he repeats the core commandment: Love one another. How much of all this is descriptive of my life?


Sarah in the tent said...

'our beloved Barnabas and Paul,
who have dedicated their lives
to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ'

I have often puzzled about the holy name, why it should be hallowed, not taken in vain, and why God might do certain things only for the sake of His name, even what it is. Maybe this phrase points us to Paul's life as an example of how to approach the holy name.

'.. abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell'

These are very gentle words and, as far as I am aware, they have never stopped Europeans from strangling their chickens or tucking into blood sausage (fried black pudding - a favourite of mine!). The Holy Spirit has said 'If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right'; not 'If you persist in doing them, you will be condemned' - almost more like guidance than a prohibition. It's also strange that the question related to circumcision, while the answer concerns food and sex. I suppose it's all to do with community. The Jewish community was closed off from the outside by circumcision, while the gentiles were called to be more open. Or were the injunctions against blood and the meat of strangled animals just two examples of the first injunction against meat sacrificed to idols? The main danger to God's people - Jews and later Christians - has always been idolatry. Perhaps Christian communities are called to avoid even the fruit of idolatry. Idolatry is often shown metaphorically as adultery in the Old Testament. So perhaps this again relates the 'unlawful marriages' back to idolatry. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is giving practical guidelines for ordinary people which, if followed, will work in their hearts against the idolatry that surrounds them.

The last word is 'Farewell'. It sounds rather poignant to me. Almost like a parting of the ways.

In one of his Good Friday sermons, the Pope pointed out that the first 'thou shalt not' was spoken by God in the Garden of Eden and concerned food: 'Of the fruit ... thou shalt not eat.' That fruit was not just any old fruit. We have to think about what we eat and sometimes decide not to eat at all.

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

The First Commandment of the Decalogue is: “I AM the Lord your God; you shall not have other gods before me. “ It clearly prohibits idolatry: the worship of false gods, other entities than the Lord. The Second Commandment is: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”
Sarah, you wrote, “I have often puzzled ... why God might do certain things only for the sake of his name, even what it is.” Truth is, God does everything “for the sake of his name”, and the name of God is YAHWEH, Hebrew translated I AM. Then, you answer your own question (perhaps without realizing it): This phrase points out how we should approach the holy name, and Paul’s missionary activity as well as his epistles are a wonderful example of how Paul gave glory to God’s holy name.

The decision of the Council of Jerusalem shows us how the leaders of the newly founded Church guided the pagan converts to the Way of Jesus in giving glory to God’s name. “'…abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell.” These are indeed “gentle words”, and the intent is quite clearly to allow folks who wring the neck of chickens [by the way, I learned how to do that when I was a lad], or to enjoy black pudding and blood sausage. Christ’s followers in every generation have practiced fasting and abstinence as penitential practices. But the way in which this is done varies from place to place, according to the norms of that particular church, on a national, regional, or diocesan basis.

In conclusion, you are on the mark in saying that these norms are “guidance rather than prohibition”. The purpose of God’s law, and therefore of church law, is to help people to draw closer to God – that is, to grow in holiness. I am again reminded of the summers I spent on the farm, when I was a youngster: It is a lot easier to get a wandering lamb to return to the flock by dangling a tidbit on a string in front of him than to whack him on the hindquarters with a stick.

P.S. It should be no surprise that “food and sex” seem to be the focus of church law from the time of the apostles to the present day. Nutrition and reproduction are the two essential practices necessary to perpetuate the race -- gluttony and sexual misbehavior are bound to be the focus of temptations to leave the path and wander into the wilderness. It is no coincidence that the first “thou shalt not” was about food. Temptation is all about appetite. The way to holiness is not to deny our appetites, but to allow the grace of God to teach us to control them.