Lessons from the First Reading from Acts 15
The 1st Reading for May 22, Acts 15:1-6 , sets the stage for the 1st Council of the Church, presenting the sensitive issue at stake (circumcision), identifying the council participants (Apostles and presbyters), and introducing the meeting itself. To stick with the Lectionary, one has to wait till May 23rd to see what happened at the meeting, but, unlimited by that, we proceeded to discuss the action taken on whether the Christians were to be bound by terms of the covenant between God and Abraham. (Genesis 17:9-14)
Trouble-making activists were arguing that since the resurrection and arrival of the Holy Spirit, believers were following a different set of rules. Probably very familiar with the words of the Prophet Jeremiah, (Jeremiah 4:4) council members made the right decision, even without the benefit of St. Paul’s much later letter to the Romans in which he discussed “circumcision of the heart.”
Councils of the Catholic Church (22)
A second important issue resolved by this precedent in Acts 15 is the teaching authority of The Church, a precedent which has been followed 21 times down through the centuries. Wikipedia provides a very handy list of the Catholic Church Councils, The 1st Century Council of Jerusalem to the 20th Century Vatican 2, complete with hot links to more information about each. Here is the list copied from the article. I think the links should work.
Council List from Wikipedia
- 1 Ecumenical council of the New Testament period
- 2 Ecumenical councils of Antiquity
- 3 Papal councils during the Middle Ages
- 4 Conciliarism
- 5 Council of Trent
- 6 First Vatican Council
- 7 Second Vatican Council
Circumcision Wrap Up
The 15th Century Council of Florence, by the way, according to this footnote in the Wikipedia article, soundly condemned those who “observe” or “practice” circumcision as a religious practice. Still, it raises an interesting trivia question: Is Michelangelo’s David, on display in Florence, circumcised?
Law and Grace, Works and Faith, and Luther
The discussion about circumcision led deeper and deeper into discussion of law and grace and works vs. grace and Lutheran and Catholic theologies. As a student at a Lutheran seminary I was taught that Father Martin, in his younger years at least, free from any possible dementia, was a faithful Catholic, aligned with the teachings of the church fathers, and that it was actually Pope Leo X who had strayed into such as sale of indulgences to raise money for the church. Luther provided one written defense against the charges against him in the form of an essay, The Freedom of a Christian.
In 2002, nine years before being received into the Catholic Church, I wrote an “academic” paper on Luther’s essay. Then, a year or so after becoming Catholic, I reviewed the paper and published it with some introduction, on my Last of All.net blog on church and faith issues. I read it again just now and still believe it is sound theology consistent with Catholic teaching. If you are interested in such, take a look at it HERE and let me know what you think. I am always willing to listen and learn.
I have often quipped that if Pope Leo X, instead of excommunicating Luther, had just appointed him to a task force charged with organizing, for the Pope’s approval of course, reformation of the Church, the whole Protestant Reformation upheaval could have been avoided. But of course that is not true. The primary drivers of the Reformation were not the “reformers,” but the rise in literacy and the printing press, the beginnings of free enterprise replacement of feudalism, and the beginning of the ending of the unholy alliance of church and state which had allowed secular rulers to dictate the religion of all who lived in their domains regardless of what the citizens believed.
And of course such reform continues. I am personally very thankful for two particular Vatican II (1962-65) changes advocated 400 years earlier by Luther, Mass in the language of the people and increased participation of lay persons in the Mass. I was happily Southern Baptist at the time, preoccupied with college, Karen, and starting my first professional employment and had absolutely zero interest in the Catholic church. But without those two changes, I doubt I would have had the privilege of being received into the Catholic Church at Pentecost in 2011.
Extra: The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus
The Christians in the World is the title of an excerpt from this 1st or 2nd century epistle. The excerpt is included in the Office of Readings for 5/22/2019 and can be read at the Vatican website. If you don’t click any other link in this post, click this one and read very early and profound insights about living as a Christian.
Here is a teaser sentence: “They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law.”
If you really get steamed about the Epistle to Diognetus, you can read the whole thing HERE.