A reflection for the 6th Sunday in Easter, Year C. The readings are Acts 15:1-2, 22-29; Revelation 21:10-14; 22-23 and John 14:23-29.
Whoever loves me will keep my word and my Father will love them and we will come to them and make our home with them… (Jn 14:23) Let’s get this straight: If you love me; you will keep my word. That’s a no-brainer! If you love someone you care about what they think, what they say and what they want. If you love them, you do what they ask you to do. And for Christians who love Jesus, we want to keep his word.
Two weeks ago the readings at Mass told us about the Good Shepherd who says that His sheep know His voice. But Jesus’ voice is but one voice among many: The voice of pleasure and the voice of power; the voices of pride and despair, of fear and doubt. How do we know the voice of Christ? We listen. That’s it. We have to make quiet time for listening so we can tune in to the voice of Jesus. If our prayer time is consumed with speaking: Thanksgiving prayers and petition prayers and asking for forgiveness and offering praise – all the while listening to praise and worship music – then it’s a bit one-sided. We have to be quiet; silent, so we can listen. We need to start this today. Set aside quiet time each day. Be silent and listen. And when you do, how do you know you’re listening to the voice of Jesus so that you can keep his word? How do we discern His voice among all the voices in the world? And how do we recognize his voice when it’s about something that Jesus didn’t speak about? It’s easy to keep His word when it’s about something that Jesus spoke about, but how do we keep His word about stuff that Jesus never spoke about?
Let me make a proposal: The voice of Jesus is the voice of the Church. Or rather, the voice of the Church is the voice of Jesus. Jesus gives His voice to the Church. He gives His voice to the apostles; He gives them His authority and that’s the way it’s been from the beginning of Christianity.
See what’s happening in the Book of Acts (15:1—29): The disciples are doing what Jesus asked them to do: They are keeping His word. They are going to the ends of the earth making disciples. And Paul and Barnabas are disciple-making machines. And most of their converts are gentiles: People of non-Jewish background. But what happens? They’re in Antioch and to Antioch comes a group of Jewish-Christians (converts from Judaism; called the Judaizers) and they tell the gentile-Christians that in order for them to be Christian, they have to follow the Law of Moses: All the Jewish Levitical laws. Remember that the Jewish people had strict laws about what they could eat and not eat, about washing, about rituals and sacrifice and other things. And the main issue was the issue of circumcision. These Judaizers said that in order to be saved you had to be circumcised. But they had a “not small dissent or debate” with Paul and Barnabas. That means they had a big dissent and debate with Paul and Barnabas. They duked it out because Paul and Barnabas are pretty sure that this teaching is wrong. But is it up to Paul and Barnabas to make this decision? No. They are not the Church leadership. They are important but they are not the Church leadership. So they take the matter to Jerusalem to the Church leadership, the Apostles. And we have the first Church council. We call it the Council of Jerusalem. And ever since then, when the Church encounters a matter that needs to be defined or clarified, they gather as a council in order to define doctrine or teaching. We’ve heard of the Council of Trent and the Council of Chalcedon and the two Vatican Councils. Well, in the Book of Acts we have the first council in Jerusalem. They had a problem that had to be solved; a teaching that had to be defined. And it’s something that Jesus never spoke about: Circumcision. Jesus never spoke about what Gentiles should or shouldn’t do if they became Christians. So the Apostles and Church leaders gather and make a decision. And we know that they decide that you do not have to be Jewish, in order to be a Christian.
How do they decide? With the Holy Spirit. The letter they send back to Antioch says, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us…” (Acts 15:28) It doesn’t say they decided under the guidance of the Holy Spirit or that the Holy Spirit inspired them to decide. No. They decided together with the Holy Spirit. And that’s the way the Church has been since then. Together with the Holy Spirit, doctrine can be defined because the Church speaks with the authority and the voice of Jesus.
Look at the Gospel (John 14:23-29): Jesus says to the Apostles: “The Father will send you the Holy Spirit in my name and He will teach you everything and will remind you of everything that I have spoken.” What does that mean? It means that of the things Jesus spoke about, the Spirit will remind us; but of the things Jesus didn’t speak about, the Spirit will teach us. So we are guaranteed that the Church leadership will always, together with the Holy Spirit, speak with the authority and voice of Christ, whenever they speak as a whole. Jesus does not give His Spirit to 12 individual people; He gives His Spirit to them as Church and so it’s not whatever an individual Bishop says, but when the Bishops and the Holy Father speak as the College of Bishops or in the context of a Ecumenical Council.
I believe that this happens whenever the Holy Father, together with the College of Bishops speak as a whole. In the last couple of years we’ve all heard of Synods of Bishops. This is another occasion when Bishops come together with the Holy Father and they look at a situation that may need to be defined. Out of the Synod comes an Apostolic Exhortation (the latest one, Amoris Laetitia, the Joy of Love, on the challenges faced by the family). With an Exhortation the Holy Father gives some pastoral advice to the people. This is exactly what the Apostles did at that first council. Interesting that some translations refer to the letter from the Council of Jerusalem as an exhortation; The Apostles exhort the people in Antioch.) We have to trust that to this day, the Bishops who are the successors of the Apostles, together with the successor of Peter, still make decisions together with the Holy Spirit.
Church leadership is important and it’s always been this way. The Book of Revelation (21:10-23) presents us with a beautiful and immense city: The New Jerusalem. And many scholars agree that when the Book of Revelation speaks of the New Jerusalem it refers to the Church. See what this city looks like: It has a wall with 12 gates and over each gate are written the names of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. That’s where we came from. That’s our heritage; the old Jerusalem, the first Covenant. But there are 12 foundations and over each foundation are written the names of the 12 apostles. Jesus said to Peter, you are a rock and on this rock I will build my Church. (Mt 16:18) The foundation of the Church is the 12 apostles and it’s always been that way. That foundation continues today with the successors of the Apostles, the Bishops and our Holy Father, Pope Francis.
So, if we want to love Jesus and keep his word we have to listen to the Church. If we do we will keep His word and the Father will come to us and the Father, Son and Spirit will come to us and make their home with us. (Jn 14:23)
Not entirely unrelated, I want to ask you your opinion on the words “doctrine” and “dogma”. What do they mean? When the Holy Father speaks together with the Bishops and the Holy Spirit to define a particular Church teaching, is that dogma or doctrine? Write to me and tell me what you think. I would say that “doctrine” cannot change because it is absolute; it deals with faith or morals. Perhaps I should be using the word “dogma” to mean that. Not sure. What do you think? I’ll explain better next week.
Photo Credit: Bishops and cardinals attend a session of the Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 24. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Every week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: firstname.lastname@example.org