PRUNING THE CHURCH OF CHRIST
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ ACTS 15:1-6; PS 122:1-5; JOHN 15:1-8 ]
Is Christianity an offshoot of Judaism, a sect or a different religion altogether? This was the crux of the crisis in Jerusalem. How they viewed Christianity determined how Christians conducted themselves.
Initially, Christianity was seen as the full flowering of Judaism by Christian Jewish converts. After all, the earliest Christians were all Jews and inherited the Jewish customs and beliefs. They were basically still Jews but accepted Jesus as the promised Messiah and the Son of God. They viewed Christ as the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament. This was what the early apostles sought to do in explaining their conviction of Jesus as Lord and the savior of the world. (cf Acts 1:22-36; 4:8-12; 5:30-32) That was why they were still worshipping at the Temple and breaking bread in their homes. They still saw themselves as Jews worshipping the same God with the clarification that Jesus was the Son of God and the Saviour of the world. It must be noted that it was only in AD 70, almost 40 years after the death and resurrection of Christ, that Christians were officially expelled from Judaism.
However, the Jewish authorities viewed the early Christians as deviant members of Judaism and a sect to be brought under control. There was the wise advice of Gamaliel to the Sanhedrin to leave them alone as had happened to Theudas who, “claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them – in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5:36-39)
For the Gentile Christian converts, however, they saw themselves as a new religion, even if there was some continuity with Judaism. Whilst it was true that Christianity had its history and origin from Judaism, yet, with the coming of Christ, there was also a discontinuity. We read that it was at Antioch that the disciples of Christ distinguished themselves from the Jews by calling themselves “Christians.” (cf Acts 11:26) Before that, they were known as those who belonged to the Way (cf Acts 9:2) that Saul sought to rein them in. For this reason, they did not see why they should observe the Jewish customs such as circumcision since they were not Jews.
At any rate, their salvation was founded on Christ’s saving work in His passion, death and resurrection. It was faith in Him that was the cause of their salvation, not through observance of the laws and the rituals. Hence, the gospel superseded the old laws. Indeed, St Peter later in the Council shared his observations. “God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15:7-11) If God had bestowed them the Holy Spirit, it meant that it was not required of them to be Jews first before they could receive salvation.
Indeed, salvation is through grace alone and we are justified by faith in Christ. St Paul, writing to the Galatians said, “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.” (Gal 2:15f) Indeed, St Paul said, “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” (Gal 2:19-21)
It was within this context that sharp disagreement among them started. Some Jewish Christians “came down from Judaea and taught the brothers, ‘Unless you have yourselves circumcised in the tradition of Moses you cannot be saved’. This led to disagreement, and after Paul and Barnabas had had a long argument with these men.” To avoid division and a split in the infant Church, “it was arranged that Paul and Barnabas and others of the church should go up to Jerusalem and discuss the problem with the apostles and elders.”
This same situation is also experienced in our times. History repeats itself. But our problem is greater in magnitude compared to the early Church. Disagreement was easily contained because the numbers of Christians were much fewer and there was no social media to spread fake news or half-truths, no social media to garner support for whichever position one held. Today, some Catholics are not happy with the developments of the Church, whether in doctrinal or moral teachings, especially with regard to marriage, divorce, sexual identity and family life; and the promotion of the culture of death. There are also quite a number of Catholics who cannot accept the changes in Vatican II, especially in the area of the liturgy and the apparent diluting of the Church’s mission and Catholic identity by no longer affirming that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church or outside of Christ.
The tensions in the Church get even more pronounced these days as Pope Francis sought to incarnate the gospel in the lives of the contemporary world, seeking to make the gospel more relevant, realistic and compassionate to a very broken world. But he has been accused of holding heretical views and abandoning orthodoxy. Indeed, it is not easy to get all Catholics to be united in their doctrinal views and practices as before because of social media, relativism and individualism. This is made even more difficult as authority even in the Church is no longer accepted with respect and submission.
So who is right and who is wrong? We can appreciate the concerns of traditionalists and the progressives in the Church. Each comes from a different vantage point, world view and experience. Both sides have their strengths and weaknesses. Those who belong to the Tridentine tradition think that we must go back to the basics, which for them means Tridentine or Pre Vatican II teachings and liturgy. Those who want change are impatient for change. We need to accommodate both positions. That was what the early Church did. We must appreciate the concerns of different parties and try to address their needs and aspirations. We are to accommodate each other’s position and preferences at least out of charity and sensitivity.
This is what it means to be pruned. Jesus said: ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that bears no fruit he cuts away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes to make it bear even more.” We must continue to pray, reflect and dialogue in the context of the Word of God. Jesus said, “You are pruned already, by means of the word that I have spoken to you.” Searching the scriptures together and studying them will help us to discern more clearly where the Lord is directing the Church in growth.
Regardless, we must all stay united in the Lord even if we have our disagreements. Jesus said, “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you. As a branch cannot bear fruit all by itself, but must remain part of the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing.” So no matter how much we disagree with one another, we must remain connected with Christ the One Vine and this Christ is the Head of the mystical Body, the Church. To separate ourselves from the Church, the Lord warns us “Anyone who does not remain in me is like a branch that has been thrown away – he withers; these branches are collected and thrown on the fire, and they are burnt.” However, the Lord assures us, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask what you will and you shall get it. It is to the glory of my Father that you should bear much fruit, and then you will be my disciples.”
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
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