In the first reading at today’s Mass is recounted the Council of Jerusalem, which scholars generally date to around 50 A.D. It was a pivotal moment in the history of the Church, since it would set forth an identity for the Church that was independent of the culture of Judaism per se, and would open wide the door of inculturation to the Gentiles. This surely had a significant effect on evangelization in the early Church.
Catholic ecclesiology is evident here in this first council in that we have a very Catholic model of how a matter of significant pastoral practice and doctrine is properly dealt with in the Church. What we see here is the same model that the Catholic Church has continued to use right up to the present day. In this and all subsequent ecumenical councils, there is a gathering of the bishops, presided over by the Pope, which considers and may even debate a matter. In the event that consensus cannot be reached, the Pope resolves the debate. Once a decision is reached it is considered binding and a letter is issued to the whole Church.
All these elements are seen in this first council of the Church in Jerusalem, though in seminal form. Let’s consider this council, beginning with some background.
1. Bring in the Gentiles! Just prior to ascending, the Lord 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 were now to be summoned and included in the ranks of discipleship and of the Church.
2. But the Church was mighty slow in beginning any outreach to the Gentiles. While it is true that on the day of Pentecost people from every nation heard the sermon of Peter, and more than 3000 converted, they were all Jews (Acts 2). In fact, it seems that at first the Church did little to leave Jerusalem and go anywhere at all 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, into Samaria at least. Samaritans, however, are not usually considered Gentiles, since they were a group that had intermarried with Jews in the 8th century B.C. There was also the baptism of an Ethiopian official, but he, too, was a Jew.
4. Fifteen Years? The timeline of Acts is a bit speculative. However, if we study it carefully and compare it to some of what Paul says (especially in Galatians), it would seem that it was 12 to 15 years before the baptism of the first Gentile took place! If this is true then it is a disgrace. There was strong racial animosity between Jews and Gentiles, and that may explain the slow response to Jesus’ commission. It may explain it, but it does not excuse it.
5. Time for another kick in the pants. This time the Lord goes to Peter, who was praying on a rooftop in Joppa, and by means of a vision teaches him that he should not call unclean what God calls clean. The Lord then sends to Peter an entourage from Cornelius, a high Roman military official seeking baptism. Cornelius, of course, is a Gentile. The entourage requests that Peter accompany them to meet Cornelius at Cesarea. At first, he is reluctant. But then recalling the vision (kick in the pants) that God gave him, Peter decides to go. In Cesarea, he does something unthinkable: Peter, a Jew, enters the house of a Gentile. He 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, as well as signs from the Holy Spirit, Peter baptizes them. Praise the Lord! It was about time. (All of this is detailed in Acts 10.)
6. Many are not happy with what Peter has done and they confront him on it. Peter explains his vision and also the manifestation of the Holy Spirit, insisting that this is how it is going to be. And while it is 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 is brewing. So, the mission to the Gentiles is finally open. But that does not mean that the 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 they are not like Jews and insist that the Gentiles must 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, a master of understatement, 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. Of course Peter is there, as is James, who was especially prominent in Jerusalem among the Apostles and would later become bishop there. Once again, Luke rather humorously understates the matter by saying, “After much debate, Peter arose” (Acts 15:7).
Peter arises to settle the matter since, it would seem, the Apostles themselves were 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). Peter now fulfills this text, as he will again in the future, and as will every Pope after him. Peter clearly dismisses any 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 it seems 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 it is, the first council of the Church. And that council, like all the Church-wide councils that would follow, was a gathering of the bishops in the presence of Peter, who worked to unite them. At a council, a decision is made and a decree binding on the whole Church is sent out—very Catholic, actually. We have kept this Biblical model ever since that first council. Our Protestant brethren have departed from it because they have no pope to settle things when there is disagreement. They have split into tens of thousands of denominations and factions. When no one is pope, everyone 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 the bishops and the Pope speaking as men, it is the Holy Spirit speaking with them.
The Church—Catholic from the Start!