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Homily for Wed of the 5th Wk of Easter, 10 May 2023, Jn 15,1-8
Today’s first reading is about the very first council convened by the apostles in order to address a conflict within the Church. I told you the other day about a misunderstanding that led to the defection of Mark from Paul and Barnabas. Luke does not explain what it was that had caused the misunderstanding but he gives us a hint. When Mark left the mission team in the town of Pamphylia, he proceeded, not to their home base in Antioch, but to Jerusalem, to the mother Church.
I suspect that Mark did so in order to consult the leadership body in Jerusalem about something he did not feel comfortable about. Well, today’s first reading tells us about it. It looks like the ones Mark had consulted in Jerusalem were the group that regarded James, not Peter, as the head of the Jerusalem community.
This James, by the way, was not really one of the twelve. Paul mentions him in Gal 1,19. He was known only as a “brother or relative of the Lord”, maybe a cousin, who seemed to be more assertive of his leadership role in Jerusalem than Peter. I also suspect that this James led the group that insisted on requiring Gentile converts to become Jews first, before becoming Christian—meaning, to follow the strict regulations of the Law of Moses, including circumcision, food regulations and Sabbath observance.
But these guys were surprised that when Paul and Barnabas were called to report to Jerusalem for some questioning, they were welcomed warmly by the other apostles and elders who expressed their approval of what Paul and Barnabas had reported—namely, that many Gentiles had been converted and baptized to the Christian faith.
The issue divided the community. Some were for it; some were against it. Was the Christian faith to be restricted to Jewish converts, or should they welcome non-Jewish converts too without having to require them to abide by strict Jewish laws? In the midst of this division, the good thing was that whether for or against, the apostles and elders chose to remain open to dialogue. They submitted the issue to a process of consultation, open discussion and communal discernment—what they called a “Council” in western tradition (from the Latin concilium), which basically meant the same thing as “Synod” in the eastern tradition (from the Greek Synodos). In this process, the voice of sobriety and conciliation eventually came from Peter, and was later only affirmed by “James”.
I have a feeling that John, who was close to Peter, had contributed to the resolution of the conflict. Of course it was not until later that he wrote his reflection on the vine and the branches in today’s Gospel. While it was true that Jesus wanted his disciples to focus first on the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” in their mission, what were they to do if Gentiles were also being drawn to Gospel of Jesus Christ and were also experiencing an anointing by the Holy Spirit? They were becoming like new branches being grafted into the vine, and the vine is Christ himself.
Whether Jew or Greek or belonging to any other culture, what mattered most was their attachment to the vine. It was by the kind of fruit that they bore that they could discern whether or not they were really connected to Christ, the true vine.
Today’s Office of the Readings in the breviary has an interesting 2nd century letter to Diognetus that epresses clearly how Christians eventually learned to distinguish between the essentials and non-essentials of the faith. The writer says,
“Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs…. Unlike some other people, they do not espouse purely human precepts. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign. And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country… They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law.”