In the first reading today, the battle for the truth of the Gospel reaches a climax. The early Christians are split about whether or not Gentile Christians must observe the Law of Moses. Is circumcision required to become one of God’s people? Or is it enough to live by faith?
The contention arises because Jesus was a Jew, and he faithfully kept the Law of the Old covenant. Moreover, the Apostles were Jews, who kept the Law of the covenant. This Law was given to Moses on Mount Sinai by God. It made the Jews distinctive people and separate from every other people. It divided the Jews from the gentiles. The Law included moral laws like the 10 commandments, but it also included ceremonial laws which regaled Jewish worship. When the Jews failed to observe the Law, God permitted them to be sent into exile. Therefore, observance of the Law was central to the Jewish faith.
The disciples, who were followers of Jesus, continued to observe the Law until the Holy Spirit reminded the Church of all that Jesus had taught them. After receiving a vision telling him “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane,” Peter is invited to come stay at the house of Cornelius who is a gentile man respected by the whole Jewish nation. Yet, because Cornelius is a gentile; he is profane to the according to the Law, and the Jews cannot have fellowship with him. The Spirit was beginning something marvelous. Inspired, by the Holy Spirit, Cornelius sent for Peter so that he might hear the Gospel. Seeing such faith in Cornelius, Peter exclaims, “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:9-34). The Holy Spirit then descends upon the circumcised and the uncircumcised in the room with Peter and Cornelius in a demonstration of power. Peter has an epiphany that God desires salvation, not just for the Jews, but also for the gentiles also, so Peter baptizes the first gentiles, making them part of the people of God.
This is a radical shift in Jewish theology. Before, God’s people were made known by works of the Law. One became part of God’s people through circumcision, observing the 10 commandments, and the dietary laws listed in detail in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, though testified to by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom 3:21). God’s righteousness no longer belongs only to the Jews, but it belongs to all people who have faith.
How can this be? Why are we not bound to the Old law? Paul writes, “For through the law I died to the law, that I might live for God” Gal (2:19). The Law itself paves the way for being freed from the law through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Paschal mystery is the fulfillment of the Old Law and the establishment of the New Law testified to by the Law and the Prophets. It has always been for the sake of this new Law given by Christ that the Old Law existed.
This new Law is the law of the Spirit, the law of Love. It is the law of the Spirit because it is the Spirit who teaches it to us. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit… will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you. It is the law of Love because this is the lesson of the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son as love and so the Spirit teaches us to love God and neighbor. God’s righteousness is no longer just an exterior reality unable to change our hearts. It becomes and interior reality, not in the flesh, but of the heart. Righteousness is God’s gift to us. It is not something we merited by observance of the Law.
The council of Jerusalem, which we hear described in the first reading was called together to the binding power of the Old Law. After Peter and then Paul began baptizing the gentiles, some early Christians began saying “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.” The Judaizers, as the Scriptures call them, insisted that the Old Law was still in effect. The Apostles, whom Jesus promised to send the Spirit to guide them, faithfully recalled Jesus’ teaching, speaking authoritatively just as our bishops today gather to listen to the Spirit and speak authoritatively. The Apostles concluded that we are not bound to the old Law, we have been set free to live with Jesus Christ. The Old Law as fulfilled its purpose by preparing us for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is now enough to have faith.