‘Some men came down from Judea and taught the brothers: ‘Unless you have yourselves circumcised in the tradition of Moses you cannot be saved.’ This led to disagreement, and after Paul and Barnabas had a long argument with these men it was arranged that Paul and Barnabas should go up to Jerusalem and discuss the problem with the Apostles.”
This seemingly minor detail from the Acts of the Apostles demonstrates that disagreement and friction within the Church are not recent phenomena. They were present from the very beginning as the Church struggled to understand her true identity.
What was truly essential to the Church as the presence of the Risen Christ among his people? Not unnaturally, many of the earliest Christians, coming from a Jewish background, wanted to hold on to the laws and customs of their Jewish culture. They were conditioned to believe that anyone baptised into the Church would be subject to the regulations of the Jewish law that continued to govern their lives. Paul and Barnabas, on the other hand, had baptised many non-Jewish converts who had no knowledge of the Jewish law. Was the Jewish law to be imposed on those who had no knowledge of Judaism? More importantly, and this was the crucial question: how are we truly saved? By obedience to the ancient law of Moses or by our saving communion with Christ?
The manner in which these differences were resolved at the Council of Jerusalem says much to us today. There is a danger that differences, when allowed to harden without proper discussion, will drive us apart.
From the very beginning of this dispute there was an unspoken realisation that we are ruled not by our differences, but by the presence of the Holy Spirit and fidelity to the teaching of Christ handed down through the Apostles. It was for this reason, to avoid the dangers of division, that Paul and Barnabas took the dispute to the Apostles in Jerusalem and were willing to be bound by their decision.
Disputes will inevitably arise in the modern Church. Our differences will never destroy us if we share a humility that listens to what is said and is open to the guiding presence of the Holy Spirit. Significantly, the resolution of this first major dispute in the Church was seen as the work of the Holy Spirit and came from a humility that listens. “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and ourselves not to saddle you with any burden beyond these essentials: you are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from fornication. Avoid these, and you will do what is right.”
This was a judgment that did not allow the Jewish law to displace Christ as the sole source of salvation and, at the same time, required non-Jewish Christians to avoid excesses that were particularly repugnant to those of a Jewish background.
The guiding principles of the decision reached at Jerusalem incorporate the principles given by Jesus in his final discourse at the Last Supper: “If anyone loves me he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home in him.”
Our first obedience is to the presence of the Father and the Son among us rather than to our differences. “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all I have said to you.”
We are not alone in our differences. We live in the presence of the Holy Spirit, a Spirit that remains hidden from our pride, but is revealed to the attentiveness of our humility. “Peace I bequeath to you, my own peace I give you.” Whatever destroys this God-given peace is rarely from God.