Brief synopsis of the readings: Continuing through the Acts of the Apostles we find the young church in a crisis over, of all things, circumcision. Some were telling non Jewish followers of Jesus that they had to become Jews (and the men circumcised) to be saved. Paul and Barnabas saw this conflict as serious and sent delegates to affirm that this was untrue and they didn’t need to become Jews first. In John’s Gospel Jesus continues to teach at the Last Supper and tells those gathered: “If anyone loves me he will keep my word.”
I recently finished rereading The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels. If the term “Gnostic” puzzles you, you’re not alone. In the century after Jesus’ resurrection several books were written. We know many of these books: the four Gospels, the letters of Paul, Revelation, etc. But at the same time other books were written that we don’t know much about: The Gospels of Thomas, Mary, Phillip; The Apocalypse of Peter; The Teachings of Silvanus. And many others.
Unlike the books we see as the New Testament these Gnostic books don’t argue that we find salvation through a belief that Jesus died and rose from the dead. These books suggested that the Christian path forward was instead recognizing that salvation came through attaining “secret knowledge,” or gnosis. Gnostics eschewed the idea that followers of Jesus needed to obey the hierarchy or that there was much value in martyrdom. As I read about these books it was clear that they held much in common with what we now know as the teachings of Buddhism.
It’s not hard to see how this would lead to conflict and it set up a showdown between the Gnostics and the Orthodox Christians. Clearly the Orthodox Christians won, and they demanded that all Gnostic books be destroyed. Almost all were, but in Egypt someone took these books (scrolls, actually) and buried them. Nearly 2,000 years later, in 1945, an ordinary Egyptian stumbled on them and sold them. They were purchased by scholars who translated them and now we can read them (and I suggest you begin with Dr. Pagel’s excellent book).
These writings fascinate many of us, but even Dr. Pagels acknowledge that if the Gnostics had prevailed it’s hard to imagine the Christian church would have survived. Without a clear understanding of what we believe and what we don’t, we can’t really develop into a cohesive faith. Suggesting that all followers of Jesus should find his individual path of self awareness and avoid any sense of doctrine or belief clearly isn’t a path to a church that we would recognize.
And that brings us to the first reading. As someone who has spent years in Christian education, and part of that time in Christian education to children, it’s a source of amusement that the first battleground happened over circumcision. I love watching otherwise good teachers break into a sweat attempting to explain circumcision to children (the body language is hilarious). Truth is, we really don’t know the roots of circumcision, but it held an important place in God’s covenant with Abraham. Even today virtually all Jews, even otherwise nonobservant Jews, practice circumcision.
But circumcision’s place in today’s first reading spoke to a larger issue: if a pagan (non Jew) heard the word of Jesus and wanted to become a follower, must he first become a Jew? As with many conflicts this began with two sides who had no idea there was a difference of opinion.
For Paul, Barnabas, and others, it was clear. I’ve spoke about this before, but by the time of Paul it was clear that not all Jews would become Christians. Paul and Barnabas clearly saw this as an opportunity to open this new faith to the whole world and were puzzled by the other side. The other side (led by “Some men [who] came down from Judea”) assumed this new faith was open only to Jews, or those who decided to become Jews and couldn’t understand why Paul and Barnabas didn’t agree with them.
I can only imagine how these pagans who wish to become Christians felt as the matter was being settled, and how grateful pagan women breathed a sigh of relief. But I find great interest in this line from the reading: “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves not to saddle you with any burden beyond [the] essentials.”
We also find the Holy Spirit in today’s Gospel where Jesus says: “I have said these things to you while I was still with you; but 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.”
It’s easy for us, in 2019, to take for granted the role of the Holy Spirit but we shouldn’t. In a few weeks we’ll celebrate the feast of the Holy Trinity, but the role of the Holy Spirit was far from settled by the time Acts and John were written. I think much of what we now believe about the Holy Spirit came from these readings. Clearly the Spirit’s role comes to us not from what had previously happened, but from what we can learn from this day forward.
Catholics and many other Christians celebrate the sacrament of Confirmation as teenagers and (myself included) many were tasked with memorizing the 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, endurance, knowledge, piety, and awe. And yes, I had to go to Google to find the list. But all these gifts allow us a path forward in deciding what we should do. Through these gifts the Holy Spirit leads us, individually and collectively, into a future that builds us up as a Church and as the people of God.
I think the Holy Spirit was clearly on the side of the Orthodox Christians and not on the side of the Gnostics. Much of writing fascinates me, but if they had won the battle so many years ago, I can’t imagine any of us would even know who Jesus was.
Thank you, Holy Spirit.