During his general audience Oct. 1 in St. Peter’s Square with more than 20,000 people, Pope Benedict XVI continued his series of teachings on St. Paul. He focused on Paul’s relationship with the other apostles — especially that with St. Peter, which was a relationship of respect and forthrightness.
Dear brothers and sisters,
The respect and veneration that St. Paul always cultivated for the Twelve Apostles did not diminish when he boldly defended the truth of the Gospel — which is none other than Jesus Christ, the Lord. Today, we will reflect on two episodes that demonstrate his respect for them and, at the same time, the freedom with which he addressed Cephas and the other apostles: the so-called Council of Jerusalem and an incident that occurred at Antioch in Syria that Paul recounts in his Letter to the Galatians (see Galatians 2:1-10; 2:11-14).
Every council and synod of the Church is “an event of the Spirit,” and its proceedings are representative of all of God’s people. Those who had the privilege of participating in the Second Vatican Council experienced this firsthand.
Thus, St. Luke, when telling us about the first council of the Church, which took place in Jerusalem, introduced the letter that the apostles sent at that time to the Christian communities of the Diaspora with these words: “‘It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us ...” (see Acts 15:28).
The Spirit, who is at work throughout the entire Church, led the apostles by the hand as they ventured on new paths, in order to make his plans a reality: He is the main architect in building the Church.
Nevertheless, the assembly at Jerusalem took place during a time of significant tension within the early community. The issue at stake was whether pagans who professed allegiance to Jesus Christ, the Lord, were required to be circumcised or whether they could legitimately be dispensed from the Mosaic Law — that is, from the observance of those norms that were required of “just men” who obeyed the Law — and, above all, whether they were dispensed from the Jewish norms governing ritual purification, clean and unclean foods, and the Sabbath.
The Council of Jerusalem
St. Paul refers to the gathering in Jerusalem in Galatians 2:1-10. Fourteen years after his encounter with the risen Christ at Damascus — in the middle of the 40s — Paul departed from Antioch in Syria with Barnabas, accompanied by Titus, his faithful co-worker who, because he was of Greek origin, was not required to be circumcised upon entering the Church.
At this time, Paul explained his gospel of freedom from the Law (see Galatians 2:6) to the Twelve Apostles, whom he described as the proper people to consult on this matter.
In light of his encounter with the risen Christ, it was his understanding that upon embracing the Gospel of Jesus Christ pagans no longer needed to be circumcised, follow dietary laws or observe the Sabbath as a sign of being justified: Christ is our justice, and all those who follow him are “just.” No other sign was needed to be considered just.
In a few lines in his Letter to the Galatians, Paul describes the outcome of the gathering in Jerusalem. He enthusiastically recalls how the gospel of freedom from the Law was approved by James, Cephas and John — the “pillars” who offered him and Barnabas their right hands as a sign of ecclesial communion in Christ (see Galatians 2:9).
If, as we noted, the Council of Jerusalem was for Luke an expression of the work of the Holy Spirit, for Paul it represented the decisive acknowledgment of the freedom that was shared by all those who took part in it — a freedom from those obligations that were derived from circumcision and from the Law — the freedom for which “Christ set us free so that we should remain free, no longer allow the yoke of slavery to be imposed on us” (see Galatians 5:1).
The liberating action of the Spirit is common to both Paul’s and Luke’s descriptions of the gathering in Jerusalem, because “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” Paul wrote in his Second Letter to the Corinthians (see 2 Corinthians 3:17).
True Christian Freedom
Nonetheless, the letters of St. Paul express with great clarity that Christian freedom is never to be identified with license or the freedom of choice to do as we please. Rather, Christian freedom is realized by conforming ourselves to Christ — that is, in true service to our brothers and sisters, especially those who are most in need.
That is why Paul’s report of the gathering closes with a reminder of the recommendation the apostles made to him: “They asked us only to be mindful of the poor, which is the very thing I was eager to do” (Galatians 2:10).
The Church is the birthplace of every council, and every council gives back to the Church. On that occasion, its attention was directed to the poor, who, according to Paul’s various comments in his letters, belonged primarily to the church in Jerusalem.
Paul’s concern for the poor — to which his Second Letter to the Corinthians (see 2 Corinthians 8-9) and the final part of his Letter to the Romans (see Romans 15) attest — shows his faithfulness to the decisions that were the fruit of that gathering.
Perhaps we are no longer able to fully comprehend the significance that Paul and his communities attributed to the collection for the poor of Jerusalem. Within the range of religious activities it was a totally new initiative: It was not obligatory, but free and spontaneous.
All the churches that Paul founded in the West took part in it. The collection was an expression of these communities’ debt towards the Mother Church of Palestine, from whom they had received the priceless gift of the Gospel.
Paul attached so much value to this gesture of sharing that he rarely called it simply a “collection.” To him it was rather a “service,” “blessing,” “love,” “grace,” and even “liturgy” (see 2 Corinthians 9).
This last term is especially surprising. It confers a worship value on the collection of money, as well.
On the one hand, it is a liturgical gesture or “service” that every community offers to God. On the other, it is an act of love that is done for the benefit of the people.
Love for the poor and the divine liturgy go hand in hand: Love for the poor is liturgy. These two aspects are present in every liturgy that we celebrate and experience within the Church, which, by its nature, opposes separation between worship and life, between faith and good works, and between prayer and charity towards our brothers and sisters.
Thus, the Council of Jerusalem originated in order to resolve the question of how to deal with those pagans who were joining the faith — opting for freedom from circumcision and from the observances that the Mosaic Law imposed — and ended with an ecclesial and pastoral decision that places faith in Jesus Christ and love for the poor of Jerusalem and of the entire Church at the center.
Peter in Antioch
The second episode is the well-known incident at Antioch in Syria, which attests to the inner freedom that Paul enjoyed: how to act during common meals between believers of Jewish origin and those of Gentile descent.
The other epicenter of Mosaic observance emerges here: the distinction between clean and unclean foods, which profoundly divided observant Jews and pagans. Initially, Cephas (Peter) shared meals with one group or the other. But when some Christians who were associated with James, “the brother of the Lord,” arrived (see Galatians 1:19), Peter began to avoid contact at table with the pagans in order to not scandalize those who continued to observe the dietary laws — a decision that Barnabas shared.
This decision profoundly divided those Christians who had been circumcised and those who were of pagan origin. Their behavior, which actually threatened the unity and freedom of the Church, aroused a heated reaction from Paul, who, at one point, accused Peter and the others of hypocrisy: “If you, though a Jew, are living like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (see Galatians 2:14).
Actually, Paul, on the one hand, and Peter and Barnabas on the other, had different concerns. For Peter and Barnabas, separation from the pagans was a way to protect and to avoid scandalizing believers from a Jewish background, while for Paul it risked causing a misunderstanding of the universal salvation in Christ that is offered to Jews and pagans alike.
If justification is realized merely by virtue of faith in Christ, of conformity to him, without any work of the Law, what sense was there in continuing to observe the dietary laws when sharing meals?
It is very likely that Peter and Paul’s perspectives were different. Peter did not want to lose those Jews who now adhered to the Gospel; Paul did not wish to diminish the redemptive value of Christ’s death for all believers.
Strangely enough, when writing to the Christians of Rome some years later (in the middle of the 50s), Paul found himself in a similar situation and asked the “strong” not to eat unclean food in order to not alienate or scandalize the “weak:” “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble” (see Romans 14:21).
Thus, the incident at Antioch was a learning lesson for both Peter and Paul. Only sincere dialogue that is open to the truth of the Gospel could guide the Church’s path: “The Kingdom of God is not a matter of food and drink, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (see Romans 14:17).
This is a lesson that we, too, should learn. With the different charisms entrusted to Peter and to Paul, let us all be guided by the Spirit, seeking to live in that freedom that has faith in Christ as its guide and service to our brothers and sisters as its concrete form.
The essential thing is to conform ourselves ever more closely to Christ. In this way, we become truly free and find within ourselves the real center and the profound essence of the Law: love of God and of our neighbor.
Let us ask the Lord to teach us to share his sentiments and to learn from him true freedom and the evangelical love that embraces every human being.