The grace to follow Christ comes from the Holy Spirit dwelling within us

Father R. Michael Schaab

By Father R. Michael Schaab

Fifth Sunday of Easter/April 24

Acts 14:21-27; Psalm 145:8-9,10-11,12-13; Revelation 21:1-5a; John 13:31-33a,34-35

The readings for the Fifth and Sixth Sundays of Easter direct the Church to reflect on its own nature in two ways — externally and internally. Externally we face the issue of expansion, and internally we struggle with the question of identity. These two reflections come together in what is known as the Problem of the Judaizers.

If the first Christians had remained solely in Jerusalem where Christ had preached, ministered, suffered, died and rose again, then the challenge of expansion never would have occurred. But Paul and Barnabas, along with other disciples, were called to take the Gospel to the Gentiles — the non-Jews, the pagans. In the readings from the Acts of the Apostles for the Fifth Sunday, Paul and Barnabas report on preaching in Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, Antioch, Pisidia, Pamphylia and Attalia. These were Gentile cities and regions.

On the Sixth Sunday, Paul and Barnabas are concerned for their Gentile converts to Christianity in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia.

As we prepare to celebrate the Ascension of the Lord, the Church reminds us in these readings that even though the Risen Christ has left this world, his Spirit is here today, within us and among us. That is our great consolation. That is the reason for the Church’s continued expansion. That essentially is the Church’s identity.

The readings for the 50 days of Easter chronicle the expansion of Christianity from Jerusalem to the whole Mediterranean area, even to Rome itself. (As an aside, the stained glass windows in St. Mary’s Cathedral chronicle the expansion of Christianity throughout the whole world, beyond the Mediterranean area — even to the Diocese of Peoria.) The reason for this expansion of the Church is more than the human idea that “bigger is better.”

John, in the reading from the Book of Revelation for the Fifth Sunday, says that Jesus came to dwell not only with the Jews, but with all people: “God’s dwelling is with the human race.” In the Responsorial Psalm for the Sixth Sunday we pray, “May all the peoples praise you!”

QUESTION OF IDENTITY

As the external expansion of the Church occurred, the early Christians were faced with an internal identity crisis. As the Palestinian Church became Mediterranean and the Hebrew Church became Gentile, what would be that core belief that would identify the growing number of converts as followers of Christ? The question of identity is wrapped up in the answer to the simple question, “What makes us Christians?”

Some felt that as the Church expanded it was necessary for its identity to keep connected to the religion of Israel. They claimed that in order to become a Christian, a Gentile would first have to convert to Judaism. Hadn’t Jesus been a Jew? Were not the Jews “God’s chosen people”? Wasn’t the Temple in Jerusalem the site of the Holy of Holies, where God dwelled on earth? People who held this position were known as the Judaizers, and they would send representatives to follow the Apostle Paul on his travels. As the Gentiles were converted by the preaching of Paul, they were quickly confused by the arguments of the Judaizers.

The reading from the Act of the Apostles for the Sixth Sunday refers to this: “Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.’” The Judaizers held that the Christian Church had to be both Jewish (Old Testament) and Christian (New Testament), which meant that the newly converted Gentile Christian men would have to be circumcised, and that newly baptized Gentiles, both women and men, would have to follow the Jewish dietary laws.

The struggle to answer this question of identity was the greatest crisis the early Church had to face. It was settled by what is known as the Council of Jerusalem. This is why “it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders (in order to get a decision) about this question.” Finally, the Council decided that Gentile Christians were not required to convert to Judaism.

That break from Judaism is referenced in John’s vision of Jerusalem, in the reading from Revelation for the Sixth Sunday, in which he “saw no temple in the city for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb.” The presence of God was no longer only in the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem. Remember the reading from the same book for the Fifth Sunday; “God’s dwelling is with the human race.”

SPIRIT DWELLS IN US

That leads us to the real identity of the Christian Church — from the first century down to the present. It is the new Temple of the Holy Spirit, not just in Jerusalem but wherever two or three followers gather in His name.

The Gospel for the Sixth Sunday reminds us of this as it lays the foundation for the celebration of Pentecost two weeks hence: “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 presence of the Holy Spirit in us, the Church, requires that we live according to God’s divine nature, not simply according to our human nature. And what is God’s nature? “God is love.” (1 John 4:8)

The requirements of the Mosaic Law pale in comparison to the requirements that God’s Law of Love places upon us. “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” (John 13:34) This would be an impossible task if it were not for God dwelling in us and granting us the grace we need to follow Christ. “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come and make our dwelling with him.” (John 14:23)

As we prepare to celebrate the Ascension of the Lord, the Church reminds us in these readings that even though the Risen Christ has left this world, his Spirit is here today, within us and among us. That is our great consolation. That is the reason for the Church’s continued expansion. That essentially is the Church’s identity.

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FATHER R. MICHAEL Schaab is a senior priest of the Diocese of Peoria who gives retreats and days of recollection, and who fills in as presider at parish Masses on weekends. He resides on a hobby farm in Putnam County.

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