Acts 15:1-33 (The First Council of Jerusalem)
After completing my previous post on Saturday, reflecting on the Keys to the Kingdom, I went off to Mass to sing, as it was my turn on the schedule. Little did I know that my prayers and reflection on the discovery of those keys would be answered.
My new Catholic pastor Fr. Bill chose to preach not directly on the selected Scripture readings for the weekend. He touched off briefly on the second reading, Hebrews 11:1-2 & 8-12, on Abraham as the Church's 'Father in Faith'; and then took off on the reason the Council of Jerusalem was gathered in about the year 50 CE.
The question before the council: How Jewish was the Christian Church going to be?
The issue: Peter and the other Apostles were of the Jewish faith, as was Jesus. While Jesus had often questioned the intent of the Jewish leadership of his time, he was nonetheless devout and maintained the required practices of the faith. The Apostles' preaching had developed a modest following in and around Jerusalem, though naturally kept in check by the political climate around the place. Progress was slow, and generally kept from overwhelming fanfare.
On the other hand, Paul of Tarsus had begun to spread the Good News, in areas apart from Judea. Paul, whose original intent had been to snuff out the Light of Christ, had instead become a most steadfast light-bearer. His message was not taken too well in Jerusalem (he was seen as a turncoat), so the Apostles sent him out to reach people elsewhere. And indeed, there were many people of the Jewish faith to be reached. But Paul welcomed all within earshot to hear the message he was sent to preach, and there were just as many, if not more, enlightened by the message of a resurrected Savior who brought life and hope to a troubled world. The question was the Jewish practice of circumcision. It was required of all Jewish men - they went through this painful surgical procedure a week after birth. Those who would convert to the community of The Way, it was thought, should be required to undergo this process as an adult.
(Okay, guys, this is about us, as we have the equipment. Ladies, please skip to the next paragraph. Guys, would you be willing to shed a portion of your flesh anywhere on your body - let alone one of the most sensitive spots??)
Pain and suffering. Isn't that what Jesus endured in bitter agony, anguish, and torment - so that the rest of us would not? (A very important point with multiple implications, that will be addressed further.)
After much debate (whittled down to a handful of verses by Luke), it was determined that the significance of the symbolism of circumcision not understood by the Gentiles paled in comparison to their potential lost support. Conversion meant lots of good things, not only to the people; not the least of which was mutual care and concern for each other. The Apostles were doing the math, as it were; calculating the potential as well as the risk. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the Church chose to take on the risk. After all, those who had walked in Jesus' company knew through direct experience that Jesus looked at the world differently. They saw his priorites as more important.
Fr. Bill then took us to the present. It is no secret that the Catholic liturgy is undergoing revision again. It has been commanded by the Powers That Be that vernacular translations of the Mass more closely match the Latin text of the Roman Missal, Latin being the official language of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet it seems that neither Jesus, nor his disciples, nor the evangelists and writers of the New Testament, spoke or wrote in Latin. They spoke Aramaic or Hebrew or Greek. These texts were formally translated to Latin beginning in roughly the 4th Century.
Consider for a moment the humor found when one goes through several languages to arrive at a literal translation to important instruction. There are examples of it all over the Internet. Now consider that for Catholics, the 'new' translation of the Missal is not really new at all, but resurrects texts not used in nearly half a century. "The Lord be with you." But no longer "also with you," but rather "with your spirit." Wanna run that by me again? The body isn't good enough anymore?
The most contested of these texts is in the transliteration of the Nicene Creed. In Latin, the phrase Consubstantialem Patri; in our current English use, "one in being with the Father" becomes "con-substantive with the Father." As Fr. Bill quipped, when is the last time you used or heard the word "con-substantive" used in a sentence? (Reminiscent of watching the National Spelling Bee.) Then he continued to suggest that just maybe, considering the state of the Church and her priesthood, and the general state of the world, that priorities might not quite be in order.
That was the answer to my prayer. Compassion and mercy were still on top of the list where God was concerned. Yes, there would still be all these other things, and like Peter, our most well-intended thoughts and actions may get in the way of what we're called to do and to be. This reaffirmed what I had tersely written at the conclusion of my last post. I must first be open to receiving God's compassion and mercy, understand I have already received it, and spread it in every possible way. The lines in the sand that humanity insists must be drawn will always be there. Jesus showed us that these lines must not become too solid, lest we forget our own ultimate destiny on life's pilgrimage.
And then Fr. Bill finishes his homily, and invites the congregation to "profess our faith...before we change our minds." This causes one of the loudest outbursts of laughter I've heard in a Catholic Church in a long time...which makes me wonder if I can possibly sing the remainder of the service and keep a dignified face. God provided the grace, as always.
On Sunday, it was out to Cornerstone, the Methodist congregation I have come to consider a second spiritual home.
On the plan for the day - the sermon from a missionary to, of all places, Lithuania. I was intrigued for several reasons. One, the missionary is from the Cornerstone congregation; two, Lithuania's demography is 95% Christian (and likely 90% Catholic); and third, the music director at my Catholic church is a Lithuanian immigrant. There are fewer than 700 registered Methodists in the entire country, and only six pastors; yet, people there refer to the Methodist Church as "the little Church that cares."
Given the demographics, the preacher wondered why he was being sent to Lithuania. Then he began to research the country's history of struggles and occupation. Territorial ownership changed many times over the last 700 years; the last, as one of the Soviet Russian republics, was thrown out nearly twenty years ago. Under Soviet and Communist rule, Catholicism was left barely intact as the state religion. Even so, many churches were ordered converted for secular use, including one cathedral which became an atheist museum and cultural center.
A popular shrine in Lithuania is the (English name) "Hill of Crosses." Wikipedia states that as of 2006 there are an estimated 100,000 crosses of various sizes and styles that have been left there for just as many needs and intentions. Looking at the pictures provided by Wikipedia, and one other provided by the missionary during his sermon, it is clear that a majority of these crosses bear the body of the crucified Jesus, something particular but not necessarily limited to Catholicism. Given their history, Lithuanian Christians have been immersed in the aspect of Jesus as the Suffering Servant; and with it, the theology that one can expect to live this life in misery in anticipation of a glorious life in heaven.
Catholics in America should also recognize this theology. Until about fifty years ago, pain and suffering was as standard fare in preaching as is daily Holy Communion. Even today, Catholics confront that part of their identity during Lent. Many of us have an understanding now that this theology, while indeed accurate, is incomplete.
Straddling the fence as I do, I know that this is preached even today. Still, I also take this with an understanding that this is how many people have come to cope with life; and that a majority of Christians will resonate with it at least once in their lifetime. That there is a "little church that cares" is by God's design. Not that big churches don't care; I can confidently say they do. What holds things back are the things of our flawed humanity, and the weaknesses permeate everything of this world, just as do our strengths and triumphs.
In 1991 Lithuania broke away as a Russian territory and reestablished itself as an independent state. It was a courageous move. More courageous still will be the day when we're all aware that it takes joy and triumph as well as pain and suffering to exalt every valley and straddle the mountaintops, to make the crooked roads straight, and the rough places plain. How we will do it will depend on the priorities we set; but the greatest of these -for me- will be in the tender compassion of God, as the dawn of a new day breaks upon us. May it shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and may it guide all of our footsteps in the way of everlasting peace.