Culture is a way of life that encompasses a set of beliefs, laws, traditions, morality, language, and, more, within a given community or nation. We recall the conclusion of the first missionary journey of St. Paul and his companion Barnabas in last Sunday’s readings. With the expansion of Christianity to pagan territories, there was a mix of cultures and prior to the second missionary journey, there was a major cultural conflict in Jerusalem, which led to the First Ecumenical Council, known as the Council of Jerusalem.
Thus, it was necessary for Paul to return in order to address this conflict. However, what was the conflict all about? The first reading presents the cultural conflicts and the resolutions of the conflict between Jewish Christians and Non-Jewish Christians (Greek/Gentile Christians). It was the question of whether or not Greek Christians should practice Jewish customs. Some members of the Jerusalem community (Judea) wanted to impose on the Greek Christians of Antioch the same norms as the Jews of the mother community, that is, circumcision. They said, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). The Gentiles do not believe in circumcision but the Jews do. The Jewish culture once valued laws more than beliefs.
A Jew had to keep the law strictly. If he did not keep the Sabbath, have his children circumcised, and follow all the laws of his culture, he would be considered a heretic. Hence, as baptized Christians, do we need circumcision to be saved? Or is the Jewish culture supreme to the Gentile culture? This was resolved in a meeting with some members of each community that made up the Council of Jerusalem. The Jewish people held these laws and customs in high esteem but the Christians were more concerned about faith than the local laws and customs. The Gospel of John was written for this purpose, “That all men may believe that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing they may have eternal life in his name” (John 20:31). On various occasions, Christ emphasized, “whoever believes in me, has eternal life”. Life comes from faith, not from rules nor laws. So, the Jewish Christians separated themselves from the Jewish laws (they began to hold services of worship on Sundays instead of Saturdays because Christ rose from the dead, on Sunday and they no longer offered sacrifices in the temple. The only sacrifice was that of Jesus Christ.
No other sacrifice was necessary). As Christianity expanded to Gentile territories, many Jewish Christians thought that the Gentiles needed to follow the progression that the Jewish Christians had followed. They needed to embrace the Jewish culture before they could be admitted to the Christian culture. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (v.28), the Church realized that Gentiles did not need to be Jews, and could no longer be heathens. They were formed in a new Christian culture based on, whoever believes and is baptized is saved by faith in Christ Jesus (Mark 16:16). Christian Culture is what Christ presents to us in today’s Gospel, peace and love which can be realized by the power of the Holy Spirit. He said, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him…” (v.23). Christ calls us to demonstrate our love by keeping his word. He had just given his disciples a new commandment, “Love one another just as I have loved you” (John 14:15).
As he continued in his farewell discourse, He further said, “The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (v.26). This is a promise that the Holy Spirit will never leave his disciples. It will always help them to understand his teachings and to interpret those teachings for their immediate situations. This promise is visible in the first reading, when the Holy Spirit justly enlightened the Apostles and elders, and they were able to resolve the conflict between the Jewish Christians and the Greek/Non-Jewish Christians on the acceptance of the Jewish law as regards circumcision before non-Jews could become Christians (Acts 15:28). Christ speaks of his culture of peace when he said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (v.27). This is customarily used during Mass. Peace is not the absence of war. It is a gift from God. As he promised peace to his disciples, he did not offer a life without hardship. In fact, he offered this gift while preparing to face the cross.
He knew his disciples would soon face opposition from powerful enemies. His culture of peace and love is to maintain calmness in the midst of conflicts and hate through the help of the Holy Spirit. In one way or the other, we might have upheld our local cultures, customs, and laws, and might have presented it to be superior to others. There is no superior culture other than the universal Christian culture, which is neither Jewish nor pagan in character. What defines the true Christian culture is love, and the definition of God is love. Since God is Love, no culture surpasses God. If we truly love God, we will have peace and live in peace. How can we live in peace in a turbulent country like Nigeria? We pray through the Holy Spirit to enlighten us as He did to the Apostles.