Luke’s idealistic account of the early Church confronting theological and spiritual difference remains a powerful lesson for us still. The authentic interaction between God’s grace and human faith removes all those things that make it impossible for us to be one in heart and mind. The way of God seeks not to impose burden but rather invites and gently guides to what is good.
Jesus told his disciples that he had come to fulfill the law not to destroy it. He confounded his disciples’ expectations in the way he dealt with strangers and those who seeming failed to observe God’s law. He liberates rather than imposes burden. He challenges his friends to move beyond the comfort of the familiar to find joy in the difference of the stranger. For our own comfort, it is easy for us to demand that someone, in order to join the family, be accepted as friend, or welcomed as colleague, become just like us. However, in listening to how God has moved among those different than themselves, the disciples discover once again that God’s actions cannot be confined by their expectations of how things are supposed to be. God’s action and grace are bigger than their imaginations. Within this process of discovery of God, disagreement and dissent play an important role in discerning the essential from the accidental, the genuine from the false.
How do we come to know what is right and proper? We start with what God is doing in our lives. We listen rather than condemn. We welcome liberation rather than place burden. In our scripture, Luke unfolds the final step in that process of community discernment. As head of the Jerusalem church, James arrives at judgment, but does not make his decision alone. He listens to the experience of the people of God and how the Spirit is working among them. It is not enough that the “Mother Church” in Jerusalem decide. The apostles and elders cannot come to a complete understanding of God’s work by themselves but must also look to local churches who also must rejoice in the consolation at this decision. The teaching must be received. So, James send emissaries back “in peace” to them so that the decision articulated may truly be confirmed. Good news proclaimed from leadership must be accompanied by local prophets who can console and strengthen.
Whether it be welcoming new friends, someone new into family, or into believing community, God’s way invites us to embrace that person as who they are and to discover how God’s Spirit is working in their lives, not to prejudge them and try to make them just like us. Let us be slow to place the burden of our own expectations on each other, but rather seek to find joy in the unique gift God gives to us in each other.
Fr. Bob Grimm, SJ, Jesuit Counselor, Albers School of Business