It’s a providential coincidence (if that is not an oxymoron) that Mother’s Day this year falls on the Sixth Sunday of Easter. One of the themes that tie together the Mass readings for today (click on the title of this post to read them) is the mystery of the Church, which is, of course, our spiritual mother. As the Church Fathers used to say, “No one can have God as his Father who does not have the Church as his Mother.”
The first reading, from Acts 15, gives us a synopsis of the events of the council of Jerusalem, a council which in hindsight might rightly be called the First Ecumenical Council of the Catholic (Universal) Church.
The controversy that led to this council was the issue of circumcision for Gentile Christians. Was it necessary for Gentiles to become Jews (i.e. submit to circumcision) in order for them to enter into the New Covenant community (the Church?). The response of the apostles and elders (presbuteroi, whence “priests”)of the early church was, “No.”
It’s instructive to observe here how the early Church handled controversy. Significantly, they did not split into two different denominations (The Church of the Gentile Mission and the True Orthodox Church of the First Covenant) and go their separate ways.
Instead, they submitted the question to those who had proper authority, and abided by their decision.
Notice the authority with which the leaders of the Church make their decision: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us …” The apostles and elders took seriously the words of Jesus recorded for us in the Gospel reading: “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.” The animation of the Church by the Holy Spirit is so tangible that the decisions of the Church are the decisions of the Holy Spirit.
As a Protestant pastor, I was always somewhat puzzled by why the Bible contained no instructions about when to break off and form a new church, about when to give up on the leadership of one’s “denomination” and start over from scratch. You will read nothing in the Bible about schism, or about what to do when the Church as a whole makes “the wrong decision”, or how to react when the Church is “hopelessly” corrupt. In hindsight, I understand why no such instructions are found there. The confidence of the early Church, reflected in the Scriptures, is that the Holy Spirit guides those entrusted with the care of the universal Church—whether “the apostles and elders” of the first century or their successors today. Schism is not justified, because it amounts to a lack of faith in the Holy Spirit to guide the Church aright.
That sounds like a strong statement to non-Catholic ears, but I suggest to you, there is no other ecclesiology (doctrine of the Church) that is either Scriptural or workable in practice.
The second reading speaks of the New Jerusalem coming out of heaven from God, built on the foundation of the apostles. This ties with the first reading, as the apostles and their decisions form the spiritual basis for the unity of the universal church. It also ties into the gospel reading, in which Jesus commissions the apostles for this ministry, and promises them the aid of the Holy Spirit to perform it. The New Jerusalem is not an exclusively eschatological (end times) reality. We experience it now, in the mystical Body of Christ we call the Church. Compare Eph 2:19-22 and Hebrews 12:22-24 with the imagery of Rev 21. The imagery of the New Jerusalem applies to the Body of Christ that we experience even now in this life.
Recently a close friend who is not a Catholic criticized me (gently) for my commitment to an "organization" (i.e. the Catholic Church) which "obstructs" my personal relationship with Christ. I do not find, however, that the Scriptures view the Church, even the visible Church, merely as an "organization." Instead, despite the failings of her human and imperfect members, she remains the voice of the Holy Spirit and the New Jerusalem of God.