The readings for the Easter season hearken back to the first days of Christianity.
As we read them, we walk in the footsteps of the first Christians as they try to figure out what it means to follow Christ. It isn’t as if they had all the rules spelled out for them in some sort of “Be a Christian” manual. They had to rely on the working of the Holy Spirit for guidance and discernment. Take one of the first major questions facing the developing church:
Do Christians have to be circumcised? Circumcision was an essential part of the Old Covenant, but was it necessary in the New Covenant of Jesus? After prayerful consideration, the leaders decided that no, circumcision wasn’t necessary.
That model of discerning the will of God for the Church continues to this day. The Holy Spirit is with the successors of the apostles: the bishops and Pope, the Magesterium of the Church. In accord with Jesus’ promise not to leave us alone, the Spirit remains active even to the present time.
So what does this mean to us? It means that through the teachings of the Church, we can be certain that we are following the authentic teachings of Jesus. We can trust that, with the continued guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church is passing on and protecting those teachings. That’s why we need the Catholic Church—to help guide our lives so that we might save our souls for eternity and live happy and fulfilled lives today.
Unpack the First Reading
In this reading we see the outcome of the first council in Church history. All “ecumenical councils” (world-wide gatherings of the bishops of the Church)—the first of which was held at Nicaea (in present day Turkey) in the year 325 A.D.—would look to Acts 15 as a prototype. Here, the thorny issue of what the Church should require of Gentile, or non-
Jewish converts to the Christian faith, is taken up by the apostles. In Acts 14:8-19, we see how heated this conflict can become with Paul’s stoning at Lystra. This recognition that God “had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27) had already been sanctioned by Peter back in Acts 10, when he had a vision showing God’s desire to include Gentile believers in this new Way, corroborated when the Holy Spirit fell on Gentiles to whom he was preaching, even prior to Baptism.
In effect, the question for the Jerusalem council was, “Must Gentiles convert to Judaism to become Christians? The answer, as just noted, had already been expressed in the ministries of St. Peter and St. Paul. This council of the apostles finds that Gentiles need not be circumcised or observe the requirements of the Mosaic law, that they need only refrain from idolatrous practices that would have been characteristic of the pagans: sacrificing animals to drink their blood, as well as ritualized sexual practices. (See Leviticus 17 and 18.) Jews, even today, call this the “Noahide law,” which they consider to be sufficient for righteousness among the Gentile peoples who are not bound by the Mosaic law. The Noahide law is that simple law which the Jews believed God had given to all the descendants of Noah. So, to be a Gentile Christian one need only refrain from idolatry (of course!) and enter the Church by faith and Baptism.
Unpack the Second Reading
From the council of Jerusalem and the assembly of the apostles in the first reading, we move now to the heavenly Jerusalem whose foundations are the same: “the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” The proliferation of twelves in this reading (twelve gates, twelve angels, twelve courses of stones and twelve apostles) remind us that the Church—both of earth and heaven— means not an end to the twelve tribes of Israel, but the continuation of Israel. That was the issue that troubled the Church of the book of Acts. Is the Church something entirely new or is it just a continuation of the Jewish religion? And, as we have seen, the answer is emphatically “Yes!” That is, it is entirely new with the newness of grace in Christ, and entirely in continuity with God’s plan from the beginning for Israel. So the ancient prayer of Israel, “let all the peoples praise thee!” (Psalm 67:5, RSV) is answered affirmatively by Jesus and the Church he founded, in which all the peoples now praise him.
In several verses from Acts 15 not part of our first reading, the Apostle James quotes three prophets of Israel in saying, “After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up, that the rest of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord” (Acts 15:16-18, RSV). Jesus is the rebuilt dwelling of David who calls both Jew and Gentile by name and who, as “living stones,” builds them up “into a spiritual house”(1 Peter 2:4-5). In its final, glorious form that spiritual house, the New Jerusalem, has no temple, “for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb.”
Unpack the Gospel
Here we see the promise that Jesus made to send His Holy Spirit to “teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” It is this Spirit, which we await anew in our anticipation of the Solemnity of Pentecost, who is the “living memory” and the “principle of every vital and truly saving action” in the Body of Christ, the Church (CCC 798 and 1099; Pius XII, encyclical, Mystici Corporis: DC 3808; Cf. John 14:26). The same Spirit which Jesus promised and then sent when he had returned to the right hand of the Father in heaven inspired the apostles to say in their letter to the Gentile believers that we saw in the first reading, “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us….” When the Church speaks through her appointed teachers, the heirs to the office of the apostles, the Pope and bishops, it is the Holy Spirit who speaks to us, teaches us, advocates for us, leading the Church “to all truth” (John 16:13).
With the Father and Son, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us by Baptism, making each of us a “temple of the holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19). This surprising promise, that the creator will come to dwell in his creature, is one we ought to constantly return to and rely upon. Great masters of the spiritual life from St. Augustine of Hippo to St. Teresa of Avila remind us that heaven is within us by Baptismal grace. The soul in grace need not go to mountaintops or to the great cathedrals to find God, for he is “more interior to me than my inmost self,” and as well “higher than my highest self ” (St. Augustine, Confessions III, 6).
Reflect & Discuss
Watch the short Opening the Word video found on the Community tab at StMichael.FORMED.org
According to the Gospel reading, what is the role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the apostles?
Why might it be difficult for some Catholics today to believe the Holy Spirit continues to guide the teaching of the Church?
Reprinted from Opening the Word Leader Guide with permission from Augustine Institute.