Spirit in the Church

by John R. Donahue, S.J

America- The National Catholic Weekly
Sixth Sunday of Easter (C), May 20, 2001
Readings: Acts 15:1-2; 22-29; Ps. 67; Rev. 21:10-14, 22-23; Jn. 14:23-29

May the peoples praise you, O God; may all the peoples praise you!
(Ps. 67:5)

During the Easter season, the readings celebrate the joy of the
resurrection which culminates at Pentecost with the enduring gift of the
Holy Spirit. The readings from Acts recount the Spirit-directed spread of
the Gospel and the almost idyllic life of the early church, even amid
suffering and persecution. We read these stories with a certain nostalgia
for a simpler time, when God was so tangibly present.

Yet today’s first reading speaks of one of the most serious conflicts in
the early church. Acts 15 tells of a landmark controversy, at what is
often called the Jerusalem Council, between factions from the Jerusalem
mother church and Paul and Barnabas over whether Gentiles must undergo
circumcision in order to follow the Jewish Messiah, Jesus. The
description of the division as “dissension” and “controversy” uses two of
strongest terms in antiquity for events that can destroy the fabric of a

While the first reading today depicts only the cause and the resolution
of the controversy, the preceding weekday readings take us through the
whole chapter. Acts 15 is at the mathematical midpoint of the book and
represents a changing of the guard, since the Twelve Apostles disappear
from Acts, while the final chapters recount the career of Paul. The
dispute arises after Paul comes to Jerusalem and recounts the conversion
of the Gentiles. Converted Pharisees appear and claim that no one can
become a Christian without circumcision. Before dismissing this as an
arcane ritual, we should remember that first-century Jewish people saw
this as an indispensable sign of God’s covenant dating back to Abraham.
The First and Second Book of Maccabees tell of people who died horrible
deaths rather than abandon this practice. These Jewish converts may have
cited a saying of Jesus such as Mt. 5:18-that Jesus came not to abolish
the law and prophets but to fulfill them-and pointed out that he himself
was circumcised.

The dispute is resolved under the leadership of Peter, who recounts that
God had called him to welcome the Gentiles (Acts 10), and by James, the
leader of the Jewish-Christian Jerusalem church, who affirms Peter’s
experience and gives scriptural grounds for the acceptance of Gentiles
(Acts 15:14-18). Today’s reading presents the letter that Paul and
Barnabas were to carry ratifying their missionary practice of not
requiring circumcision, while observing certain practices that provided a
way to peaceful coexistence among Jewish and Gentile converts.

Today the terms dissent and dissenters have become shibboleths hurled at
anyone who does not seem to toe a (selectively) orthodox line. Yet the
Jerusalem council illustrates the need to have faithful dissent. Peter’s
response to the division is that God revealed to him that the Gentiles
received the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:8), and Paul and Barnabas recount “the
signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles”
(15:12). These experiences lead the Apostles and elders to conclude that
“it seems good to Holy Spirit and to us” to allow uncircumcised Gentiles
into the family of faith.

During this and every Easter season the church is summoned to read the
signs of the times, to see how God is working outside of traditional
structures of belief and practice, and to discern new modes of living the
Gospel. How can this happen? John’s Gospel tells us: “The Advocate, the
Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you
everything and remind you of all that I told you.”

John R. Donahue, S.J., is professor of New Testament studies at the
Jesuit School of Theology and Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley.