In today’s first reading we hear about the first great controversy in the Church. It dealt with the relationship of the Jewish law to the Christian faith. It sounds odd to us today, but Jesus lived as a Jew, all the apostles lived as Jews, and Jesus even said that His mission was to the members of the house of Israel. When the apostles went out and spread the Good News after Pentecost, they preached to the Jews. Philip the Deacon seems to have been the first to preach to the Samaritans, then calling for Peter and John to come lay hands on them after he baptized them. This is not a giant change, since Samaritans worshiped the God of Israel and observed the law of Moses.
Gentiles and the Rules
In the tenth chapter of Acts of the Apostles we read about the baptism of the first Gentile. Cornelius, a virtuous non-Christian, has a vision that prompts him to send his servants to Peter. Peter, meanwhile, also has a vision while praying. I like the words of Scripture because it says that Peter was praying, but also looking forward to lunch. It is encouraging to know amid our struggles in prayer that even the apostles had trouble keeping their concentration in prayer.
Peter, then, has the vision of a wide array of animals caught in a net, with the voice that commands him to kill and eat. When Peter objects in his trance that he has never eaten anything unclean, the voice says: “What God has made clean you are not to call unclean.” All this is repeated twice. When the vision ends, Cornelius’ servants have arrived, asking for Peter to accompany them. I like to think that Peter, sensing the bestowal of a large grace from God, made the sacrifice of skipping the lunch he had been anticipating.
When Peter arrives at Cornelius’ house the next day and finds the signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence, he baptizes Cornelius and all his household. Some in the Church later demanded an explanation for this, but they accept it when Peter explains.
In today’s reading, seemingly a few years after Peter’s vision, we see that some are insisting that Gentile converts observe the Jewish law. I suppose they reasoned that there could be Gentile converts to the Church, just as there had been Gentile converts to Judaism, but the former, like the latter, should observe the law of Moses.
Tomorrow we’ll hear of the proceedings of this meeting. First Peter speaks, saying unequivocally that Gentile converts should not be forced to observe the law of Moses. Barnabas and Paul then add their testimony about the grace of God active among the Gentiles. James, leader of the Church in Jerusalem, then reaffirms what has been said, adding that Gentiles should observe a few clauses of the law to avoid giving scandal in a Jewish society.
Some Christians today aver that James had authority over Peter, since he seems to have the last word. I think rather that James represented those Christians who had the strongest attachment to the Jewish law and who needed to be convinced of this novel practice. When James and the Church in Jerusalem acquiesced, the whole Church rejoiced at the new blessing God was giving the Church.
In any case, even if it is not completely clear from a human perspective about who has the ultimate authority, there is no doubt from God’s perspective: God revealed it to Peter.
Today we give thanks to the guidance God has provided throughout the centuries through Peter and his successors.