These words are revolutionary. They are addressed by the Apostles and the elders of the Church in Jerusalem to the “believers of Gentile origin”, in other words, the believers who were not Jews. They are also the work of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, left to themselves, the leaders of the primitive Church would simply never have come to such a radical determination. After the resurrection of Jesus, the apostles hadn’t the slightest intention of preaching the gospel to people who were not Jews. In their perspective, the resurrection of Jesus was an event within the fold of Judaism, relevant only to Jews. It was unthinkable for them to propose the gospel to anyone who wasn’t Jewish. In what has been called the “second Pentecost”, Peter goes into the house of a Roman centurion only because he received clear and unmistakable direction from an angel to do just that. And he witnessed the outpouring of the Spirit upon this pagan household, to his great astonishment. Paul turned his attention and efforts to the Gentiles, not because it was his first idea, but for lack of success among his own Jewish people. Indeed, all of the apostles eventually turned their attention to other peoples either for lack of success among the Jews, or because they were actually driven out of the Jewish fold by the violence of the leadership.
Slowly but surely, under the weight of the evidence, they came to understand and to accept that God was making disciples and believers out of Gentiles. But that was only the first hurdle. There was a second, equally difficult hurdle for the early Judeo-Christian Church to overcome. It seemed obvious to many if not most Judeo-Christians, because Christianity was a development of Judaism, that in order to become Christian, one had to become Jewish. One had to adopt Jewish laws and customs.
Inevitably, this became, as we see in today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, a major issue, which needed to be addressed at the highest level, at a council of the apostles and elders of the Church. Today’s reading omits the fascinating debate that takes place over this issue, and retains only its conclusion, which they communicate in a letter to the Gentile Christians, saying, essentially: “You are free. Go in peace. You need not become Jews in order to become Christians. Just stay away from the flesh of animals that have been sacrificed to pagan idols, from blood, from any animal that has been strangled, and from fornication.”
When we consider, here and there in the Acts of the Apostles, the first disciples’ utter lack of intention to preach the gospel in the non-Jewish world, and a very widely shared feeling that one must be Jewish in order to be Christian, we just know that the revolution contained in today’s reading from Acts would never have happened outside of an intervention by the Holy Spirit. The Church would have remained only a sub-category of Judaism.
But the Spirit did intervene, and the Church did burst the limits of Judaism, to become a truly universal Church. What can we take from this momentous fact? The deeper fact that God the Father, in the Holy Spirit, does indeed take care of his Church. How restful it is to know that the Holy Spirit is present to the Church, guiding it in the ways that the Father wants, that the Father knows are the best. If we learn anything from the book of the Acts of the Apostles it is that we must, and that we can trust the Holy Spirit of God to take care of us, God’s Church, the Body of Christ. Blessed be God for the Providence of the Holy Spirit, the outpouring of which we will celebrate in just two weeks, at Pentecost.