Pope Francis, in his address to the Diocese of Rome, reminds his listeners–and us–of the unprecedented situation the early Jewish followers of Jesus had to confront. The mandate to take the Good News to the wide world would bring the Body into novel situations. When the ancient Jews spread in diaspora to the world, there was no initiative to make converts. It did happen now and then. But the preservation of the Covenant culture was the priority.
Jesus changed things. The Holy Spirit gave the impulse to preach the Good News, and because of the fruits of that Spirit, a crisis arose, and a question was asked: Is it needful for every follower of Jesus to become a Jew? It’s easy enough for us to answer that question. Not so easy for the early Church as described in the fifteenth chapter of Acts:
So it was back then. Some converts from Judaism, in their self-absorption, maintained that there could be no salvation without submission to the Law of Moses. In this way, they opposed Paul, who proclaimed salvation directly in the name of Jesus. This opposition would have compromised the reception of the new pagan converts.
Paul and others did not want to lose converts. Outside of Jerusalem, they saw the fruits of the Spirit in the preaching of Jesus’ message:
Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem, to the Apostles and the elders. It was not easy: in discussing this problem, the arguments appeared irreconcilable; they debated at length. It was a matter of recognizing God’s freedom of action, that no obstacles could prevent him from touching the hearts of people of any moral or religious background. The situation was resolved when they accepted the evidence that “God, who knows the heart” – as a good “cardiologist” – was on the side of the pagans being admitted to salvation, since he “gave them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us” (Acts 15:8).
The movement of the early Church was to step back from limits on God. There was no long history of Christianity, and perhaps a bit more freedom was seen as important. Enough time had passed to see God at work, and to allow more time to see if Paul and others outside of Jerusalem would be fruitful in their efforts to apply the Lord’s mandatum.
In this way, respect was shown for the sensibilities of all and excesses were tempered. They learned from Peter’s experience with Cornelius. Indeed, the final “document” presents the Spirit as the protagonist in the process of decision-making and reflects the wisdom that he is always capable of inspiring: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessary things” (Acts 15:28).
The observation of the Holy Spirit as the main character, if you will, remains important today. If a synod process is to work, the Spirit must be front and center, and our words and deeds must gesture and bow to, and accept and endorse the agency of the Third Person.
This speech is copyright © Dicastero per la Comunicazione – Libreria Editrice Vaticana