Thoughts on the First Reading for the Sixth Sunday in Easter

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Some of our number who went out without any mandate from us have upset you with their teachings…. We have with one accord decided to choose representatives and send them to you. Acts 15:24, 27

The wall of the city had twelve courses of stone as its foundations, on which were inscribed the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

Revelation 21:14

The fifteenth chapter of Acts describes the apostolic college, the apostles at Jerusalem, at work guiding the Church and keeping it safe from error. Paul and Barnabas had found the Church in Antioch much troubled by those who taught, “Unless you are circumcised, you cannot be saved.” Paul did not decide the matter for himself but went to Jerusalem to obtain the judgment of the apostles at what would be known as the Council of Jerusalem. There Paul and his companion Barnabas found Peter and perhaps also James and John (Acts 15:7, Galatians 2:9).<br.> Just who is and who is not an apostle in the account of Acts can be confusing. The word apostle is a Greek word describing one who is sent out, in the sense of Matthew 28:19: Go, baptize, and teach. In the first instance the apostles are the Eleven, or the Eleven plus Mathias, who was elected by the Holy Spirit under the criteria that he had been with the apostolic mission from the beginning so that he was a first-hand witness (Acts 1:21–26). Surrounding the eleven, and commissioned by them, was a larger group also called apostles, among whom Paul is chief example. When Paul enumerates those to whom Jesus had appeared after his resurrection the Twelve are a category different from “all the apostles” (Acts 15:5).

Taken together the Twelve are subject to human weakness and not a promising lot. There is Judas the betrayer, Peter the denier, Thomas who doubts, Phillip who does not know that in Jesus he has seen the Father, James and John who jockey for first place in the kingdom, and Matthew, recently the willing tax collector for the occupying power. They cannot watch with their Lord for one hour in Gethsemane, and even after Jesus is raised from death they require instruction as to how He fulfills Scripture (Luke 23:25–27). Pentecost changed all that, and after the Holy Spirit came upon them they had courage enough to fulfill their vocations as those He had sent. This meant defending the faith and it also meant bringing into the apostolic mission those who were fit to perpetuate the message and the sacramental life of the Church.

In the first reading for this Sunday we find the Jerusalem apostles dealing with a situation in which certain brothers who had not been sent have taken upon themselves the teaching mission that belongs to the apostles. “Some of our number who went out without any mandate from us have upset you with their teachings and disturbed your peace of mind. We have with one accord decided to choose representatives and send them to you along with our brother Paul.” The message from Jerusalem countered the unauthorized advice that Gentile converts must be circumcised, requiring only that they respect Jewish law and sensibilities by abstaining from idolatry, unchastity, from eating what has been strangled and blood (Acts 15:20).

Christianity was a popular, if controversial, and in the context of Roman culture morally revolutionary, movement, that had spread quickly. When Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians about the year 45, twelve years after Pentecost, there were churches throughout Greece, north and south, Macedonia and Achaia (1 Thessalonians 1:7), and when Paul travelled to Jerusalem from Antioch he found Christians in Samaria and Phoenicia (Acts 15:3). And already, as Acts attests, there were teachers and movements that represented what Paul named vehemently “another gospel” (Galatians 1:6–7). We can make a fair guess as to what this other gospel was. In Acts it was the protest of Jewish Christians that Gentiles must obey the Law of Moses. These would later be named Ebionites, Jewish Christians who objected to what they saw as Paul’s derogation of the law. There were also those who interpreted the coming of Jesus not against the background of the Old Testament prophecy but in the context of a kind of vernacular body-soul dualism rooted in ancient Orphism and contemporary Platonism. In his letters John the Presbyter inveighs against these as deniers of the Incarnation, those who denied that Jesus had come in the flesh (1 John 4:2–4, 2 John 7). Later there would be a movement founded by Marcion of Pontus whose teachers considered Paul the only apostle and denied the God of the Old Testament.

In 1 Corinthians Paul explains his situation with regard to false apostles.

“What I do I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that they in their boasted mission work on the same terms as we do. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange that his servants disguise themselves as servants of righteousness (2 Corinthians 11:14).

 

These are the false teachers whom Peter describes in his second Epistle (2:1). Jude complained that “ungodly persons who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only master and Lord Jesus Christ” had secretly gained admission to the Church (4).

When Acts tells us that the Jerusalem apostles implicitly denied the authority of those whom they had not sent, but then sent with authority Silas and Judas, we are witnessing the apostolic ministry fulfilling its mission. And ever afterward the answer to the question: Where is the Gospel; where is the Church? would be that true teaching and God-given authority belong to those who have been sent, the apostolic ministry and its true successors. This little fellowship, the Twelve, is the most important committee the world has ever known. When they died at the hand of the state, perhaps in the sixties or seventies, perhaps earlier, they surely seemed to the world criminal failures, but they were the foundation on which the Church would be built and their successors would perpetuate the faith until the end of time. For the overseers—and that is the Greek word before it was Germanized into ‘bishop’—have as their task teaching the faith. For this purpose each promises to his predecessors that he will teach the faith received, adding nothing and omitting nothing, and that it will be his purpose to send into the world men like himself until the end of time.

These successors, although they bear the burden of the apostolic ministry, are not themselves apostles, even in the extended sense in which there were many apostles in the first century. The Twelve are chosen above all others. When the prophet John saw the descent of the New Jerusalem out of heaven from God, he saw that the “the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (Revelation 21:14). Rooted in the prophecies of the Old Testament, the apostolic mission was founded not on books or manifestoes but on twelve men and their successors. They would bear witness through their teaching, and this would be the holy tradition, and through their writing, for nothing—the Apocalypse, which is a book of prophecy having authority coordinate with the apostolic letters, aside—would be in the New Testament that was not the work of an apostle or a reiteration of his witness.

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