Our first scripture is an excerpt from the New Testament book entitled Acts of the Apostles. Remember, the Church presents select passages from the Acts of the Apostles at Sunday and daily Masses throughout the season of Easter. Whereas the Gospels present the one, true God, who reveals himself in the human body of the Lord Jesus, the Book of Acts presents the revelation of the God in Christ in a new and surprising kind of body- a body called the Church.
Today’s excerpt from the Book of Acts presents the early Church as beset by a conflict. The earliest disciples are struggling to understand the criteria by which one knows a person to be a Christian. Was it criteria established by worldly custom and culture or something deeper or more significant? Is the Church meant to impose on all Christians the dictates the of the Law of Moses, for it was that Law that established the criteria by which people could be identified as Israelites, and, if the Church is the new Israel, might those criteria also apply to Christians?
If the Church imposed the Law of Moses, then all male Christians would have to undergo circumcision and all Christians would have to observe the details of the Law, particularly in regards to which foods were acceptable to eat and which foods were not.
Why was circumcision important for Israelites? Because it literally marked one’s identity as an Israelite in a man’s flesh and indicated that being an Israelite was linked to the very act of procreation- one became an Israelite by being a physical descendent of an Israelite.
The Laws regarding foods were important as they pertained to a reality basic and essential to life and human association. Meals are often in our culture solitary affairs, but in the ancient world, meals were familial, cultural, and public acts. Through the associations of whom one ate with and what kinds of foods you ate with others, you demonstrated who you are. This perspective gives further insight into the popular maxim- “you are what you eat” and extends it further to say “you are whom you eat with”.
The Apostles understood that God in Christ has reconstituted Israel, changed and transformed it, and in doing so opened up Israel to those who were not born as Israelites and did not share their basic customs, like the dietary requirements of the Law of Moses. One could become as Israelite without as a pre-condition, that one would have to have been raised from birth within Israelite culture.
Identity, therefore, would be established, not by circumcision, but by Baptism, and the essential dietary requirement would not be what foods and with whom one ate dinner with, but the sacred meal of the Eucharist.
This makes sense to us because it is the reality we have always known, but it was a reality that was absolutely new to the earliest disciples.
The early Church was comprised mostly of cultural Israelites, men who had been circumcised and men and women who had been raised from birth in the particular culture of the Israelites. These Israelite disciples of the Lord Jesus, many of whom who had likely known the Lord Jesus personally, found this identity question to be vexing- hard to understand and difficult to believe. The Apostles had to help the early Church understand that the criteria for understanding Christian identity were Christ the Lord’s criteria- not culture or custom, no matter how ancient or revered.
For Christ the Lord, one’s identity as a Christian “happens” through Baptism, through a profession in faith and Christ and willingness to serve him… Identity as a Christian “happens” through our participation in the Eucharist. Sacraments are essentials to Christian identity, not customs. The Christian makes an act of faith in Christ, not an act of faith in culture.
The lesson here is that while culture and custom are significant and helpful, and that while both can work to advance the mission of the Church, neither custom or culture has the power to make us Christians.
Christ makes Christians. A Christian is chosen by Christ and the sign of Christ’s election is Baptism. No one becomes a Christian simply because of a historical association of one’s ethnicity or family or nation with the Church. As I said, it is Christ who makes Christians, not custom or culture.
The second scripture for today is an excerpt from the Book of Revelation. We have been privileged to hear select passages from the Book of Revelation throughout the Easter season. The Book of Revelation is the last book of the Bible and it is certainly one of the strangest and most controversial.
I have been presenting these excerpts from the Book of Revelation to you as providing a view of both worldly and heavenly realities from the perspective of God. We are seeing things as God sees things, and this is why what the author of the Book of Revelation describes seems so fantastic and incredible. How things look from our perspective is extremely narrow. God sees so much more than what we can see.
Last week we heard from the Book of Revelation about how God in Christ understands his relationship with the Church- likening it to the relationship of a bridegroom and bride, of husband and wife. This week, God’s perspective shifts and we see another vision of the Church- in this vision the Church is likened to a city.
What are the characteristics of a city? Cities are about relationships, teeming with different people and interests. Cities are full of politics, culture, art, architecture,religion, economics and law. Cities are full of ingenuity, creativity, and all sorts of activities. All these characteristics of cities are also divinely ordained characteristics of the Church.
You see, the Church is not an escape from all those elements through which humanity expresses itself, all those elements that constitute human experience, but instead, the Church is the elevation, the sanctification of all what makes us human.
The vision of the Church as city means that the Church cannot simply be a private club, theological debating society, or spiritual discussion group. Nor can the interests of the Church be limited to only the parochial or the diocesan.
The Church is public, not private and the reality of the Church is divinely ordained to impact all human endeavors and relationships. The Church is, from God in Christ’s perspective, a city, and when we try to reduce God’s vision of the Church and seek to accommodate God’s perspective to our own narrowness, then the Church falters and fails.
Finally, the Gospel for today…
Christ the Lord testifies that his disciples will receive the Holy Spirit.
What is the Holy Spirit?
The Holy Spirit is the love that is shared between the Father and the Son, and by love, what is meant is the relationship of the Father and the Son.
So what Christ testifies that his disciples will receive is his own relationship with his Heavenly Father. Christ intends, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to make us the children of God!
The lesson? Your dignity as a person does not come from the worldly attainments of wealth, pleasure, power and honor. Your dignity as a person does not come from citizenship, political affiliation, race or ethnicity. Your dignity as a human person does not come from the law.
Your dignity as a person comes from the Holy Spirit- that relationship that makes you God’s son or daughter.
Also, Christ testifies that his disciples will have peace. What does he mean by this?
The peace that Christ gives is confidence in his power to overcome sin, death and the devil.
Sin, death and the devil have power over us inasmuch as we fear all three. This fear can paralyze us and tempt us to believe they are more powerful than God. Christ the Lord reveals in his resurrection that God is more powerful that sin, death and the devil, and they only power they have over us is the power we surrender to them.
Christ is God. God proves to us in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus that his power infinitely exceeds that of sin, death and the devil and he promises that those who follow him, he will make available a gift of an uncanny and overwhelming peace, a confidence that comes from the act of faith that sin can be forgiven, death can be overcome and the devil can be defeated.