In the first readings these past few days at Mass, we have recounted for us (in Acts) the Council of Jerusalem, which scholars generally date to around 50 AD. The Council was a pivotal moment in the history of the Church since it would set forth an identity for the Church that was independent from the culture of Judaism per se, and it would open wide the door of inculturation to the Gentiles. This surely had a significant impact upon evangelization in the early Church.
Catholic ecclesiology is evident here in that we see a very Catholic model of how the Church deals with a matter of significant pastoral practice and doctrine properly. In effect what we see is the same model that the Catholic Church has used right up to the present day. In this and in all subsequent Ecumenical Councils, there is a gathering of the Bishops, presided over by the Pope, that considers and even debates a matter. If consensus cannot be reached, the Pope resolves the disagreement. Once a decision is reached, a letter is issued to the entire Church and the decision is considered binding.
All these elements are seen in this first council, though in somewhat seminal form. Let’s consider this First Council of the Church in Jerusalem (c. 50 AD), beginning first with the remote preparation.
1. Bring in the Gentiles! – The Lord, just before ascending, gave the Apostles the great commission: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). Hence, the Gentiles are now to be summoned and included in the ranks of discipleship and in the ranks of the Church.
2. But it looks like the Church was mighty slow in beginning any outreach to the Gentiles. It is true that on the day of Pentecost people from every nation heard the Sermon of Peter and 3000 were converted. By they were all Jews (Acts 2). In fact, it seems that at first, the Church did little to leave Jerusalem and go anywhere, let alone to all the nations.
3. Perhaps as a swift kick in the pants, the Lord allowed a persecution to break out in Jerusalem after the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7). This caused the Gospel to begin a northward trek, at least into Samaria. Samaritans however are not usually considered Gentiles, since they were a group that had intermarried with Jews in the 8th Century BC. There is also the Baptism of an Ethiopian Official, but he too was a Jew.
4. Fifteen Years?! The time line of Acts is a bit speculative. However if we study it carefully and compare it to some of what Paul says (esp. in Galatians), it would seem that it was probably 12–15 years before the baptism of the first Gentile! If this is true then it is a disgrace. There were, of course, strong racial animosities between Jews and Gentiles that may explain the slow response to Jesus’ commission. But though it explains the delay, it does not excuse it.
5. Time for another kick in the pants. This time the Lord went to Peter, who was praying on a rooftop in Joppa, and by means of a vision, taught him that he was not to call unclean what God had called clean. The Lord then sent to Peter an entourage from Cornelius, a high Roman military official seeking baptism. Cornelius, of course, was a Gentile. The entourage requests that Peter go with them to meet Cornelius at Cesarea. At first Peter is reluctant, but then recalling the vision (kick in the pants) that God had given him, decides to go. In Cesarea he does something unthinkable. Peter, a Jew, enters the house of a Gentile. Peter has learned his lesson, and as the first Pope has been guided by God to do what is right and just. After a conversation with Cornelius and the whole household, and aided by signs from the Holy Spirit, Peter has them baptized. Praise the Lord! It was about time. (All of this is detailed in Acts 10.)
6. Many were not happy with what Peter had done and confront him on it. Peter explains his vision as well as the manifestation of the Holy Spirit and then insists that this is how it is going to be. While it is a true that these early Christians felt freer to question Peter than we would the Pope today, it is also a fact that what Peter has done is binding even if some of them don’t like it. What Peter has done will stand. Once Peter has answered them definitively, they reluctantly assent and declare (somewhat cynically): “God has granted life-giving repentance even to the Gentiles!” (Acts 11:18)
7. Trouble Brewing – So the mission to the Gentiles is finally open! But that does not mean that trouble is over. As Paul, Barnabas, and others begin to bring in large numbers of Gentile converts, some among the Jewish Christians begin to object that the converts are not like Jews. They insist that the Gentiles be circumcised and follow the whole of Jewish Law, not just the moral precepts but also the cultural norms: kosher diet, purification rites, etc. That is where we picked up the story in yesterday’s Mass.
8. The Council of Jerusalem – Luke is a master of understatement and says, “Because there arose no little dissension and debate … ” (Acts 15:2) it was decided to ask the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem to gather and consider the matter. So the Apostles and some presbyters (priests) with them meet. Peter is there, of course, as is James, who was especially prominent in Jerusalem among the Apostles and would later become bishop. Once again, Luke rather humorously understates the matter by saying, “After much debate, Peter arose” (Acts 15:7).
In effect, Peter arises to settle the matter since, it would seem, the Apostles and presbyters are divided. Had not Peter received this charge from the Lord? The Lord had prophesied, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded to sift you all like wheat but I have prayed for you Peter, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers (Luke 22:31-32). Now Peter fulfills this text, as he will again, and as will every Pope after him.
In his remarks, St. Peter dismisses the notion that the Gentiles should be made to take up the whole burden of Jewish customs. Paul and Barnabas rise to support this. Then James (who, though while it is not clear, may have felt otherwise) rises to assent to the decision and asks that a letter be sent forth to all the Churches explaining the decision. He also asks for and obtains a few concessions.
So there you have it—the First Council. And that Council, like all the Church-wide Councils that would follow, was a gathering of the bishops in the presence of Peter (the Pope), who worked to unite them. A decision was made, and a decree, binding on the whole Church, was sent out—very Catholic, actually. We have kept this biblical model ever since. Our Protestant brethren have departed from it because they have no Pope to settle things when they dispute. They have split endlessly into tens of thousands of denominations and factions. When no one is pope, every one is pope.
A final thought – Notice how the decree to the Churches is worded: It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us (Acts 15:28). In the end, we trust the Holy Spirit to guide the Church in matters of faith and morals. We trust that decrees and doctrines that issue forth from Councils of the Bishops with the Pope are inspired by and authored by the Holy Spirit Himself. And there it is, right in Scripture, the affirmation that when the Church speaks solemnly in this way it is not just some bishops and the Pope as men, it is the Holy Spirit who speaks with them.
The Church—so very Catholic from the start!