Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- I suppose the search for perfection, for the ideal, for a life not continually messed up by our own and others inadequacies and the problems of the world, is something which in some shape or form occupies most of us during our lives. Certainly it seems to be a prominent feature of most religions, as it was the occupation of so many ancient philosophers. We now accept that such absolute perfection is impossible this side of the grave, but nonetheless its pursuit to some extent shapes our lives as Christians: in the search for God; in our moral life; and indeed in many of our human undertakings, whether that be in parenting our children, in our studies in the academic field, in artistry, or what you will.
This is certainly the vision of the writer of the Apocalypse (Apoc 21:10-14.22-25) with his picture of the new and heavenly Jerusalem. It is a description of perfect symmetry in complete contrast to his description of the failures of the seven churches of the Province of Asia, which he clearly knew so well, and his harrowing account of the world as he saw it and its catastrophic destruction. The writer saw the Christian message as one of great battle between the powers of God and the good, and those of evil, here represented by the human city and the opportunities they gave for the corruption and exploitation of the human being. For him, things are seen in very black and white terms, and there seems to be little room for leeway between the two.
With Luke-Acts (Acts 15:1-2.22-29) however, we are hearing the story of the spread of Christianity by Paul and Barnabas in the decade after the crucifixion i.e. in the 40’s AD. According to this account, the disciples began their work from within Judaism and with its following of pagan sympathisers. Their search therefore for the God of Jesus Christ was to follow in the Jewish tradition, but with radical and significant differences. The first, as we see in our reading, was the renunciation of the need for male converts from paganism to be circumcised. This was a significant issue holding back ‘Godfearers’, that is pagan sympathisers with Judaism, from full conversion. We know that some in ancient cities were attracted to the high moral life of Jews and their ethical teachings, but that they rarely converted precisely because circumcision would have made them highly visible at the public baths and in the gymnasia, and could have courted trouble. Moreover, full adherence to Judaism, with its call to rigid separatism from pagans would have made the lives of converts near impossible.
Our account of what we call the Council of Jerusalem, around 49AD demonstrates a remarkable convergence of views in the Early Church, as they lay down quite limited parameters for convert practices. In Leviticus 17 in the Old Testament, we find a set of instructions about the slaughter and eating of meat, and the early church was at pains, as were the Jews, to separate themselves from pagan worship, in which the drinking of animal blood may have been significant. Strangled animals of course are those not drained of blood, indeed we know from all those now pristine and white Greek edifices that originally they would have run red with blood from the slaughter of animals. The temple of Zeus at Agrigento in Sicily had 100 altars for the slaughter of bulls. The other rule was against what the Jerusalem Bible calls ‘fornication’, in Greek, porneia, and a much wider term than we understand it today. In the first and second centuries AD, well before the development of extreme Christian ascetic practices, porneia had a wide meaning, from prohibiting abortions and infanticide, to guidance given to the thoughtful on the correct attitudes of mind and body required in the procreation of children. Naturally it also included teaching on the appropriate attitudes men and women should adopt generally towards their bodies, and this did include moderate and careful approaches to sex. What we witness here then, is the gentle teaching of the early church as it tried to aid its new converts in their growth in the faith, and as they went about their daily lives. Conversion, and the search for perfection, is a process, a long journey, and clearly not to be accomplished fully in this life.
Not long after Luke wrote his great opus, St John was at work on the Fourth Gospel, sharing with us his memories and reflections of the life of Jesus. It is significant that he too presents a gradualist understanding of our growth in God, of our journey to perfection, which I presume also reflects the values of Jesus himself. In our portion of the Gospel (John 14:23-29) he says that subsequent to his (Jesus’) departure, the Father will send the Holy Spirit who ‘Will teach you everything’ (and that this teaching will be in accord with Jesus’ own teaching whilst he was with them). The real appreciation of who Jesus is, and of what he stands for, therefore appears to be something we both already have, and which will be illumined by his departure, that is both his death and resurrection and his ascension to the Father. Significantly, he promises them his peace; “A peace the world cannot give”, reminding them that there is perfection only achievable beyond the grave, beyond his and by implication our own death. For we live, as always, in very uncertain times, and in the frailty of the human condition. It appears then, that the Gospel writers, unlike the writer of the Apocalypse, do not get hung up over the issue of our human perfection, and are comfortable with seeing it as within God’s remit, and can approach it with the gentleness of our Saviour.