After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, "My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will." The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles.
After they finished speaking, James replied, "My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favourably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, "After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago." Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues."
O sing a new song to the Lord,
sing to the Lord all the earth.
O sing to the Lord, bless his name. (R./)
Proclaim his help day by day,
tell among the nations his glory
and his wonders among all the peoples. (R./)
Proclaim to the nations: 'God is king.'
The world he made firm in its place;
he will judge the peoples in fairness. (R./)
Jesus said to them: "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete."
Both Peter and Paul had found a ready welcome for the Gospel from their non-Jewish hearers. They found among foreigners exactly what Jesus asked from his first disciples, an honest, open welcome for the word of God. Peter recognised that the Holy Spirit was as clearly present in the family of the Roman Cornelius, as at Pentecost when the Spirit came to the original group in the upper room. So without further ado he baptized those new converts into the faith of Jesus. He knew that this was the right thing to do, even though it meant setting a new precedent and setting aside previous Jewish-Christian practice.
Sometimes we get new insights when faced with a fait accompli, such as meeting a person of undeniable honesty who opposes some Catholic traditions. There are sincere and intelligent people who object to some centuries-old doctrine. They are like those “gentiles” who received the Spirit despite what traditionalists might think. To conservative eyes, they seemed outside of God’s law, so how can they be Spirit guided? Or, are they partly right and we partly wrong, so that more dialogue is needed?
On this point the Bible offers two lines of advice: 1. We must not deny the presence of the Spirit wherever honesty and goodwill to others are manifestly present. This was St Peter’s position. 2. The other guideline comes from the Council of Jerusalem. The gentile converts were asked to respect deeply held sensitivities of their Jewish-Christian brethren. They must not use blood as food, nor marry with close relatives, nor eat any meat that had been sacrificed to pagan gods. Both sides were to make concessions to accommodate the others. Conversion does not consist only in accepting a doctrine as true; it is joining with a living family, where Jesus is the head.
Our Holy Scriptures have many texts about ‘joy’ and ‘rejoicing’. St Paul reckons that such joy is the fruit of the Spirit. In the gospel Jesus says he wants his own joy to be in us. This joy is at the heart of the gospel, unsurprisingly since gospel literally means ‘good news.’ On the night before his death Jesus wanted his joy to be in his disciples.
It may seem strange to speak of ‘joy’ in that rather ominous setting, with hostility and violent death facing him. The ‘joy’ of Jesus comes from knowing that he is loved by God the Father, no matter what. It also comes from sharing that love with his disciples and with all of us. Joy is the great by-product of authentic love, the Lord’s love for us and then our loving each other in his name.