Acts 15:1-2, 22-29; Apocalypse 21:10-14, 22-23; John 14:23-29
'My husband and I have never had an argument in forty years.'
Call me judgmental, call me anything you want, but I find this impossible to believe. Leaving aside the question of the definition of the word argument I find this statement as incredible as the man (his name was not Joseph) who told me his wife 'had never committed a sin in her life.'
Arguments and conflicts are all around us; the devil loves them. Whether it is between couples, children, members of a parish or between nations, they're always there. And, coincidentally, like sin, they're not really such a big deal. What is far more important is the way we deal with them.
If the couple I quoted above meant that they had never dealt with controversy in their life, never actually confronted difficult issues, then I can well imagine they never had an argument. However, it might then be more honest to say, 'Our marriage is full of unresolved issues which we've never faced because we prefer not to have conflict.'
Controversy has dogged the Christian faith from its very beginning. When Jesus preached he was accused of disturbing the community. When he rose from the dead the disciples were accused of stealing the body, and when the Holy Spirit filled the Apostles with his power they were accused of 'drinking too much new wine.' This kind of controversy may sometimes best be dealt with by ignoring it. So what if there are voices from the sidelines criticising or laughing at the Church? As time moves on these voices often fade away and new ones take their place but the Church moves peacefully on, completing her mission.
We remember the first reading from Acts a couple of weeks ago. The Apostles were having so much success that huge crowds sought them out. The Jews, prompted by jealousy 'used blasphemies and contradicted everything Paul said.' When this didn't work they incited others to turn against Paul and Barnabas and had them expelled from the city. And we noted how well they handled this controversy: ..they shook the dust from their feet .. and went off .. filled with joy, and the Holy Spirit.
When controversy arises within the Church there is greater cause for alarm. Dissension within must be faced or it can poison the life of the community. Even more important are those controversies which threaten the very identity of the Church, her charge to bring her members into communion with Christ.
Today we hear: Some men came down from Judaea and taught the brothers, 'Unless you have yourselves circumcised in the tradition of Moses you cannot be saved.' This is serious stuff! Unless this is properly dealt with there could be very serious consequences, even a schism.
Paul and Barnabas strongly challenge the visitors and their unsettling teaching, indeed, they have 'a long argument with these men.' It would have been a far from pleasant episode. From the use of such phrases as 'long argument' and 'disturbed you with their demands' we can imagine these men from Jerusalem were not about to take no for an answer.
The fact that there was a dispute within the Church was not the real problem, such things will always take place till the end of time. The essential thing was that after the 'long argument' during which the issues were clarified, the Church leaders delegated Paul and Barnabas and others to go up to Jerusalem to present this problem to the leaders there. Only they, the Magisterium of the Church, had authority to resolve the matter.
The apostles and elders, with the help of the Holy Spirit, decided the visitors were wrong; neither circumcision, nor the lack of it, was a determinant in the attainment of salvation. As far as the Church was concerned: here endeth the dispute - the apostles had spoken. From this moment on no one who wanted to remain within the Church could legitimately insist on circumcision.
For us here today an enormously important and helpful principle emerges from this unpleasant dispute in the early community. It is indicated by the observation of the Apostles: They (these men) acted without any authority ... .
Whenever someone troubles you with a new teaching challenge them, and ask them on whose authority they speak.
- ‘Oh, we don’t call God him anymore.’
- ‘You don’t have to go to Mass on Sunday anymore if you don’t feel like it.’
- ‘You can use contraception if your conscience is comfortable with it.’
- ‘It’s ok to live a homosexual lifestyle.’
Never ask these people their reasons for their teaching - always and immediately ask: What is the authority for this teaching of yours? Can you show me a Church document, or a passage in the Catechism, or a statement from the Pope? It's a seriously bad thing to teach falsehood, no matter how plausible or modern or attractive it may seem.
Let me end with a quote from Pope Paul VI: If anyone pretends to call himself Catholic, a son of the Roman Church, he must accept all its dogmas and essential structures, and first of all, the authority of Peter, which is both the symbol of unity and the cement of Holy Church.