Throughout the Easter season the first reading for both daily and Sunday Mass (albeit on separate cycles) comes from the Acts of the Apostles. The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the early church.
The Acts of the Apostles tells how the early church lived in community. In Acts 4:32-35 we read, “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.“
They faced repeated persecution. The disciples were arrested and placed in prison several times, only to be set free by God (for example see Acts 5:17-42). When they were told to stop preaching about Jesus, Peter replied, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29b).
The persecution of the early church would actually contribute to the spread of the faith. “On that day, there broke out a severe persecution of the church in Jerusalem, and all were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8:1).
The spread of the faith to the Gentiles would raise questions. Did Gentile converts need to be circumcised? Did Gentile converts need to follow all of the Mosaic Law?
Paul said no but not all agreed. “Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). They realized this question was too important for any one community to decide for themselves. “Because there arose no little dissension and debate by Paul and Barnabas with them, it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and presbyters about this question” (Acts 15:2). This led to the first council of the church. The story of this “Council of Jerusalem” is found in Acts 15 and was our first readings at daily Mass last week.
At this council, “The apostles and the presbyters met together to see about this matter” (Acts 15:6) and much debate took place.
How did they decide?
Acts 15:28 answers this question, “It is the decision of the holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities.” It was not merely a human decision. It was not decided by a democratic vote. First and foremost it was a decision of the Holy Spirit that the Gentile converts did not have to be circumcised and what parts of the Mosaic practice they had to follow. (Here I will note that circumcised was not simply eliminated and forgotten. Baptism became the way one became Christian. Baptism was not a human invention. Jesus himself was baptized and it was Jesus who said, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).)
They realized their work was not done with the decisions made. They had to make sure the decisions were properly communicated. “Since we have heard that 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 to send them to you along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul” (Acts 15:24-25).
Today there are many different voices tells us contradictory opinions. Even within the church, there are those who wish to change church teaching. For example, there are those who wish to abandon what the Bible says and what our Catholic faith has taught from the beginning about same-sex relationships. I have not read where any of them offer a justification for this that is consistent with what the Church has taught (for what the Church does teach on same-sex relationships, see my article “Towards Dignity and Truth: Compassionate Dialogue on Homosexuality”).
How is one to know what is right? The first question to ask is what they say consistent with what the Church has taught? Is it consistent with what we read in Bible? Do they speak with the authority of the magisterium of the Church (the Pope and the College of Bishops) or are they offering only an opinion? Having an academic degree does not make a person part of the magisterium. I am not part of the magisterium. I cannot and do not wish to offer new teachings. I merely seek to help people understand what our faith does teach. I do my best to cite the Bible and Church teaching so that you may not what I offer is not merely my own opinion and is consistent with Church teaching. Please pray that this is I do.
In today’s world, even when we hear something in the news that the Pope has spoken, we need to be careful of how we take it. In today’s world of mass media, genuine papal quotes can be taken out of context and/or misinterpreted. If you hear something the news reports the Pope said that seems contrary to our faith, do not rely solely on the news media. Check trusted Catholic news sources and when possible look for information directly from the Vatican. When official documents on church teaching are issued, they can generally be found in several languages on the Vatican website (www.vatican.va) the same day they are published.
There is one thing you must do to ensure that the true faith is always taught. Pray! Pray that the Holy Spirit is always guiding the Church and that this voice of truth is heard.