Thursday, May 10, 2007

Thursday in the 5th Week of Easter
Freeing the Burdened or Burdening the Free?

Readings: Acts 15:7-21; Psalm 96:1-2a, 2b-3, 10; John 15:9-11

Continuing where we left off yesterday, the first reading again offers us a concrete illustration of what it looks like when a Christian community tries to follow Christ’s instruction to remain in my love. The Council of Jerusalem, as it is sometimes referred to, reaches its climax with several crucially important speeches. We are told that the discussion had gone on a long time. And we can probably imagine what this means. Do we not have experiences of such discussions – where many people speak and many things are said but no connection seems to be made, no meeting of the minds achieved, no satisfactory solution reached? And then Peter rises and speaks in a way that somehow silenced the entire assembly. Was this only because of who he was or the force of his personality? Was the silence only due to the fact that people respected and deferred to Peter the Rock? Perhaps. But more likely than not, it also had something to do with what Peter said.

Consider the gist of his speech. It’s really an appeal to go back to the basics, the bare essentials, of the Christian faith. Remember, says Peter, we believe that we are saved in the same way as (the pagan Christians) are: through the grace of the Lord Jesus. More than the observance of any religious regulation, it is through the grace of God in Christ that we are saved. And how has this grace been communicated to us in the past? Again, Peter invites his listeners to remember how God showed his approval of (the pagan Christians) by giving the Holy Spirit to them just as he had to us. The community should thus not make it more burdensome than necessary for them to come to and to remain in the faith. In effect, Peter shifts the direction of the debate from the drafting and enforcing of rules and regulations to the question of how God is continuing to love God’s people.

His speech also helps the assembly to listen with open ears and hearts to the experience of Barnabas and Paul, to their account of how God had been working through them among the pagans. And James then confirms the thrust of these speeches by highlighting how this is entirely in harmony with scripture.

This is what the love of Christ looked like in the Council of Jerusalem. For the early Christians, it meant recalling that, whether we are Jew or gentile, we do not save ourselves, but are instead saved by the grace of God in Christ. It meant remembering their own concrete experiences of God in the past so that they could better recognize God’s ongoing presence and work in the present, even when it manifested itself in surprising and unsettling ways. It also meant finding validation of such experiences from a Spirit-filled interpretation of scripture and so reaching a decision that freed rather than burdened others. This is what love looked like then.

What might it look like – who are the pagans – for us today?

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