On the Feast of St. James of Jerusalem we read a selection from Acts 15 in which he presides over what has come to be called the “Council of Jerusalem.” The issue, of course, is whether or how to accept Gentiles, alongside Jews, into the early Church.
We still use scriptural accounts like this to help us wrestle with contentious issues in the Church today. Let me share a brief selection from “To Set Our Hope On Christ” — the little book submitted as part of The Episcopal Church’s response to the Windor Report. Referring to Acts 15, the authors wrote:
“The point of these accounts in Acts is that a particular part of the Church (Peter and his friends) has an experience of the Spirit that prompts them to question and reinterpret what they would previously have seen as a clear commandment of Scripture, not to associate with a particular group of people who were considered unclean. After careful deliberation and much discussion (Acts 10-15) the Church as a whole agrees.”
“Not everyone agrees, however. The New Testament itslef reflect a number of patterns of Christian life with varying degrees of openness to Gentiles — Paul and Mark reflect clear openness while Matthew and Revelation are more guarded. What seems to have convinced the rest of the Church is Peter’s credibility as a witness (on behalf of Cornelius and the rest) that the gifts of the Holy Spirit were indeed present among [the Gentiles], that that they were living lives of holiness, understood differently, but holy lives nonetheless. The Church as a whole gradually shifted its position, but only after careful reflection. In the meantime, there was room for a diversity of lifestyles, which were all understood as committed to seeking holiness in the Lord.”
“In summary, these reflections on the Scriptural witness to early Christian life highlight two crucial features of our tradition. First, we have always believed that God opens hearts and minds to discover yet deeper dimensions of Christ’s saving power at work, far beyond our limited power to conceive it.”
“Second, tradition tells us that by God’s grace we ought not to let discouragement at disagreements jeopardize our common work for God’s misssion in the world. If God the Holy Spirit can hold the early followers of Jesus Christ together, even when they disagreed over so central a question as who might come within the reach of the Savior’s embrace, then surely we must not let Satan turn our differences into divisions.”
“May we hold [those differences] all the more humbly before Christ, that he may bless our proclamation of the Gospel in all the many and differing places and conditions of the whole human family.” (To Set Our Hope On Christ, pages 15-17)
May we indeed do that. Hold our differences humbly before Christ. And let us pray for the leaders of the Church today that they may be granted the wisdom and abilities of St. James of Jerusalem, Brother of our Lord Jesus Christ, and Martyr!