I think all of us would like to belong to an elite. It’s a heady feeling like nothing else, a connection that makes us feel strong. When I was in college, I joined a fraternity. It wasn’t a social fraternity, it was a professional music fraternity, but we had to do quite a few unusual things during the 6 weeks we were pledging. We had to carry a cigarette lighter and a dollar’s worth of change. We had to carry a notebook for actives to write demerits, and a pen and highlighter so people could write them and mark them off. We had to speak to actives when they walked by. Of course, I was a non-conformist who carried 100 pennies in change and my cigarette lighter looked like a small blow torch. It was a hassle, but we did it, and for the most part, belonging to that group was a very one of the most positive experiences in my life. It provided status, contacts, a place to go, things to do, a vision of making music for the benefit of all.
In today’s first reading, we hear a story about the first great controversy in the early church. Antioch was major crossroads of commerce in the eastern Mediterranean, and it was there that people first became known as Christians. There was very little structure of leadership in the church at that time, and so they were figuring out a lot of things about living the life that Christ taught. In the beginning with the Apostles, all of Jesus’ followers were Jewish who remained practicing Jews; they attended synagogue, paid the Temple tax, and made pilgrimages to Jerusalem periodically. The community at Antioch also helped the community of Jerusalem out financially on occasion. However, it was here that people who were not Jewish became Christians in significant numbers. Many of these were probably folks who were sympathetic to Judaism but hadn’t made the commitment to become Jewish, however there were probably many folks who became Christian without being acquainted with Jewish practice. Into this church came a some folks who said that it was necessary to go through the entire process of converting to Judaism in order to become Christian. That wasn’t unknown in the ancient world: some scholars think that in the previous three centuries Judaism had been a missionary religion that spread throughout the Mediterranean world, and so this request wasn’t as far fetched as first thought. But there were people who evidently didn’t want to become Jewish as well as Christian, and this was a big questions for the Church to confront as it was finding its identity.
After a lot of debate in Antioch, they decided to send a delegation to Jerusalem to ask what the Mother church thought, since many of the Apostles and Jesus’ original community were still living there. They listened to the arguments, heard Peter’s testimony of his vision in Jaffa about all the creatures of the world caught in one net, and a voice instructing him “kill and eat”. Well, Peter said,” I have never eaten anything unclean”. And God said, “What I have called clean, you must not call unclean.” And they heard Paul and Barnabas’ story about their journey of preaching to the people of the area around Antioch and how the Spirit was working though Gentile believers immediately.
So they prayed a lot, called on the Holy Spirit, and made a decision. They worked out what was important: to avoid taking part in pagan worship, which is what eating meat sacrificed to idols was about; to avoid illicit marriage; to avoid blood, which they felt carried the spirit and which consumption was a kind of blasphemy. They left out circumcision, occupations that were forbidden to Jewish people, and the kosher regulations, among other things. In doing so, they opened the door to the Kingdom to a much greater group of people than could have entered before.
As we go through our journey as church, it is our privilege to welcome people into our midst: our children as they come forward for their first Eucharist, our candidates and catechumens who seek to join us as Catholics. There is a great temptation within the Church to draw the lines more narrowly, to pass judgement on who should be Catholic and who should be Christian, to put additional requirements on membership than already exist. After all, there is no prestige in belonging to a fraternity that takes in everybody.
But our call as followers of Jesus is to stretch the boundaries, to welcome people with a minimum of conditions. The Jerusalem Council didn’t say anything goes; they set standards for Christianity that they considered basic, and they chose to draw the boundaries widely. The Jerusalem Council also decided that people didn’t need to do a lot of pointless detail work in order to become Christians. They figured out that God is not anal retentive. Our call is not to harden boundaries any more than they are already, we don’t need to add requirements of others or of ourselves to be Christian beyond what Jesus calls us to. As if Jesus Christ doesn’t call us to something that is difficult enough in the first place: living life in imitation of him.
Today we are gathered to love Christ and to keep the word of God. We are called to let Christ make a home in us. We do this rather dramatically in a few moments when we receive Communion. Christ doesn’t call us to be part an elite group with arbitrary rules of initiation, he calls of to embrace a way of life. Pope Francis has warned us about the dangers of elitism, of the desire for status that’s hindered the Church over the years; he calls us to walk with each other and with the marginalized humbly, as equals. The Spirit Jesus promised us come to transform bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood, and we share it so we can share Christ’s heart, Christ’s compassion, Christ’s love. It is when we can make room for one another freely that we can truly live the peace Christ offers us.