Tag Archives: Book of Acts

James of Jerusalem: A Homily

St. James

All the apostles and elders kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, “My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written,
`After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord– even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.’
Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.”

Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. Acts 15:12-22a.

In the name of the living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Well, good morning, good morning. It’s good to be with you all this morning as we observe the Feast of James of Jerusalem, sometimes called James the Just and sometimes called the brother of our Lord.
When we look at the Gospel for this morning, we see James (along with the rest of Jesus’ family) being used as an argument against Jesus’ authority. Having heard Jesus teach and seen his deeds of power, Jesus’ family is used to make the argument that he’s nothing special. We know his mother, we know his brother, he’s the son of a working man. It’s so difficult for us to recognize holiness in our everyday lives. But that’s how God works: he makes the everyday holy. But it’s hard to see sometimes. Even James, we think, did not accept Jesus as messiah, as his Lord, until he witnessed the resurrection.
So, the reading this morning, from the Book of Acts, puts St. James in a place many of us know something about: he is smack dab in the middle of a church fight.  Very often in church fights, as is sometimes true in marriages, the fight isn’t really about what the fight is about. The fight isn’t about how messy and chaotic the drawers in the desk are; the fight is about how messy and chaotic our lives are. Or the fight isn’t about the style of worship; it’s about people feeling like they’re losing the church they grew up in. But sometimes a church fight can clarify doctrine, or can offer the Church what we now call a teaching moment.
One of my Jesuit brothers said, “Unity in the essential things, liberty in the nonessential things, and charity in all things.” This fight was about essential things—about the essentials of becoming a Christian and following Jesus and about salvation. So, James is caught up in a fight, and it’s a doozy.
Luke says, “certain individuals” were teaching that circumcision and following the law was necessary for salvation. Now, these folks were Pharisees. And they had heard what was happening with the Gentiles down in Antioch. And they were certainly right: they were correct about what had been the custom of the Jews in Jerusalem. But, like we so often do, they had confused those things that are customary with those things that are necessary.
And on the other side of this fight were Peter and Paul and Barnabas. And Peter, in the verse immediately before this passage we read today, argued that none of those things in the Mosaic law were necessary anymore. He said, “We believe that they will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as we will.”
It’s an important lesson for us today as well. Don’t try and out-God God. We so often underestimate the Holy Spirit—underestimate the power of grace. And when it comes time to make a decision, James (the head of the church in Jerusalem) speaks for the whole Church. He hears the voice of the prophet Amos in what’s been happening with the Gentiles. And he concludes, we shouldn’t trouble those who are turning to God. He knows that grace is enough; grace alone suffices to sustain us, to save us. Now, he does caution them about abstaining from food offered to idols, and otherwise acting like pagans. In other words, he advises them not to abuse their liberty.
So, the story of my namesake, St. James, is not a story about a guy who knows the truth in an instant. It’s a story about a guy who makes a couple of mistakes before he finally gets it right. We all need to hear the story of St. James, because it’s a story about the only necessary thing: God’s grace in our lives. And it’s a story about second chances. And, after all, ours is a religion of second chances.

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2013 James R. Dennis

Do You Understand What You Are Reading?

An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
     and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
     so he does not open his mouth.

In his humiliation justice was denied him.
      Who can describe his generation?
      For his life is taken away from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.  Acts 8:26-40.

In today’s Lectionary reading from the book of Acts, we encounter the disciple Phillip.  After the stoning of St. Stephen, while Saul was still persecuting the Church, Phillip preached in Samaria.  Now, Phillip was a layman, a deacon who waited on tables and distributed food to widows.  But while in Samaria, he healed many people and cast out unclean Spirits.  Then an angel appeared and told him to go south toward Gaza.  Without question or protest, Phillip goes down this “wilderness road.”

Phillip then meets this Ethiopian eunuch, a court official in the queen’s court, a man entrusted with the queen’s treasury.  (Because of their castration, eunuchs were considered particularly suitable to work in the courts of royal women. Because of their mutilation, however, good Jews could not touch, eat with, or even talk to eunuchs.) The Spirit directs Phillip to join him in the chariot.  There, the eunuch sits, reading a scroll from the 53rd chapter of Isaiah. 

Phillip asks this man if he understands the passage he is reading. The eunuch does not understand whether the passage is autobiographical or if the prophet is speaking of someone else.  Phillip explains to him the gospel (good news) about Jesus, demonstrating that the early Church had already begun to read the later passages of Isaiah (sometimes called 2nd Isaiah) through the lens of the Christian experience.

As they travel along, something remarkable happens.  They come upon a pool or creek or a puddle of water and the eunuch asks Phillip to baptize him. Phillip does so, expanding the Church well beyond the reach anyone would have imagined before.   Not coincidentally, this happens because two of God’s children read Scripture together, expanding the reach of the Word.  Often in community, we discover new ways to read and understand the good news Christ came to bring us.

Among other things, this passage reveals a remark able shift in the new Christian community:  a shift toward inclusion.  We remember that the holiness codes  mandated the exclusion of eunuchs from the community of believers.  Deut. 23:1; Lev . 21:17-21. The Holy Spirit directs Phillip to go a different direction.  The Holy Spirit (the real “actor” in this book we call Acts) continually pushes the boundaries of the Christian community.  Where we thought the answer was an obvious “no”, the Spirit responds with an enthusiastic “Yes!”  We often underestimate the breadth of God’s intent to save this world and His children.

The Ethiopian, who had been excluded from so much of the religious experience, found Jesus in the middle of the desert.  Out in the wilderness, Phillip saw the power of Jesus at work.  Scripture tells us that this Ethopian, this man excluded because of his brokenness, rejoiced when he was welcomed into the Church.

This passage also teaches that we do not come to the faith alone, and very few of us grow in the faith alone.  I pray that, as we encounter the living God in Holy Scripture and throughout creation, we remain, like Phillip, open to the movement of the Spirit.  And maybe then, like that Ethiopian in the desert, we will encounter Jesus in the wilderness.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Remembering Peter

Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’  Acts 10: 34-44.

Today, the Episcopal Church marks the confession of St. Peter the Apostle.  I have always found Peter one of the most approachable saints within the Church and a great source of hope.  Scripture records that he was quick to speak, even when he was deeply confused. Like me, Peter generally opened his mouth only to change feet.   But in today’s reading from the Book of Acts, Peter gets it right:  deeply and  thoroughly right.

This passage takes place as Peter visits the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion living in Caesarea.  Scripture doesn’t reveal much about Cornelius, although we learn that he prayed regularly, and practiced charity.  Cornelius, however, was also a Gentile, and no good Jew would have anything to do with him.  Peter traveled to his home as a result of a vision in which he heard God’s voice telling him:  “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Now, the disciples had already accepted that Jesus held the hope of salvation.  The question remained, however: whose salvation? Peter began his sermon with a remarkable notion:  in God’s economy, all of the distinctions we’ve drawn are erased.  While we strive to create barriers to and enclosures around the well of sanctification, Peter preached God (through Christ) had knocked them down.

We may be initially tempted to read this passage as talking about our relations with our brothers and sisters.  Clearly, no people enjoy a special claim to salvation, God’s love, or the redemptive work of Christ.  I think a fair reading, however, would also permit an interpretation that looks to our relentless drive to keep Jesus contained in a single corner of our lives.  We allow Jesus into our hearts from nine o’clock to eleven thirty on Sunday mornings, and maybe one evening a week, but will permit no trespassing beyond those boundaries.  We have created a sort of spiritual ghetto, excluding God from all but a narrow section of our lives.

Peter’s confession, his sermon, announces God’s radical, promiscuous hospitality:  all are welcome; Jesus is Lord over all; and his forgiveness is available to all.  Despite our best efforts, God’s love will overcome all our attempts to contain it.

During this season of Epiphany, we are drawn into images of light breaking into the darkness.  The star that came to rest over Bethlehem, the heavens torn open at Jesus’ baptism, and the transfiguration of Jesus:  all of these icons center on the astonishing entry of the “light of the world.”  I love physics and the study of light. If you’ve studied light much, you’ve noticed that when you’ve turned on a light switch, the light bathes every surface in a room.  Some of those surfaces, however, reflect light better than others.

I think that’s the case with our spiritual lives as well.  The light of Christ, having entered into the world has spread throughout all creation.  In some folks, that light is reflected back again, piercing and holding back the darkness.  Peter seems, despite his lesser angels, to have learned to reflect the light of Christ, and we properly remember him and his vision today.

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis