During the Easter season we have been hearing from the Acts of the Apostles; a record written by Saint Luke of how the early church expanded as the disciples went out into the whole world. We read how the early Christians owned everything in common, how many died courageously in defense of the faith, and how thousands were baptized at a time after zeal-filled sermons delivered by the apostles. It is easy to mistakenly conclude that everything was rosy and peachy back then… some yearn for those days of old, “oh if only we could go back to that time when everyone got along.” But today’s passage from Acts shows that the early church was not free of disagreements and infighting.
The first significant controversy in the early church was important yet fairly simple. The debate was this: should those who are not Jews, need to first become Jews before they can be baptized and become Christians? Or can they simply skip becoming Jewish, and be baptized right away. It’s a legitimate question: Christianity arose out of Judaism, so many argued that those who wished to be part of the Church, should first embrace the Jewish faith.
Why was this point so important? The question was foundational – if non-Jews or Gentiles as they were called – must first become Jews, they would have to follow the Jewish dietary laws, and other laws, including the circumcision of men. Since the times of Abraham, male Jews are circumcised as babies to mark them as members of God’s chosen people. Do Christians need to follow these laws, or not? Do adult men who wish to be baptized also need to be circumcised?
Saint Paul, on one side, argued it was not necessary to embrace the Jewish law before baptism – circumcision was not necessary. He argued that baptism provided a circumcision of the heart – which was more important. He would say that Baptism alone marked the new Christians as members of God’s chosen people. Others begged to differ. Paul spoke strongly on this point, even confronting Saint Peter on it.
How was this dispute resolved? We hear it in today’s first reading. In the year 48, representatives from the early churches were sent to Jerusalem and consensus was reached, a way forward was found. “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities…”. The early Church identified the components of the Jewish law that would still be followed by Christians: “to abstain from meat scarified to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage.” The gathering of Church leaders said, “if you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right.” The issue was solved.
The dispute was resolved first by gathering all interested parties, then by invoking the Holy Spirit, and finally reaching a consensus. This has been the way of the Church for centuries.
Jesus promised that the Father would send the Advocate, or Holy Spirit, to both teach us and remind us of everything He taught. The Church has invoked and trusted the presence of the Holy Spirit, God among us, to guide us through challenging times, and find our way. God has not left us orphans, but has sent the Holy Spirit to guide.
It is impossible to avoid conflict and disputes: think of our own families, relationships, workplaces, clubs, friends, churches, etc. Wherever people gather, there will eventually arise conflict, and the church is not an exception.
Today’s readings pose a challenging question to us, “how do we resolve conflict in our lives?”
Do we imitate our elders in the faith who gathered to address the conflict head-on with the assistance of the Holy Spirit? Do we do this with a spirit to find consensus where all parties find a beneficial way forward?
Or do we choose to let the conflict rage within us. Do we gossip and talk to everyone else about it, except those involved? Do we slander and speak wrongly of those we disagree with? Do we disparage them? Do we seek revenge or become vindictive towards those we disagree with?
Our modern world encourages tolerance and open-mindedness, yet at the same time, paradoxically, it also encourages us to quickly cancel others after one mistake, vilify and dehumanize those we disagree with, and to listen only to those we agree with. More and more, we live in independent silos or echo chambers, and the chasm that exists between people with different opinions or points of views becomes ever wider. Agreement and consensus is frowned upon, some are suspicious of dialogue.
How do each of us resolve conflict?
The early Church gives us a good example: gathering all those involved, praying to the Holy Spirit for inspiration, and reaching agreements. May the promised Holy Spirit help us resolve the conflicts of our lives, that we may become instruments of His peace.