Today, Father Steve reflects on one of the Easter season readings from the Acts of the Apostles, bringing to our attention the importance of understanding our "identity" as the Church and the New Israel.
I look forward to the days and weeks after Easter as the Church presents select passages from the Acts of the Apostles and yesterday's excerpt was one of my favorites. If you recall, the apostle Peter describes a vision in which a great canvas descends from the sky in which are animals of every variety. The Apostle is commanded by a voice to slaughter and eat, a command which causes Peter to protest that no unclean animal has ever or will ever pass his lips. He is then admonished that the Lord has declared the contents of the canvas to be "clean" and he is in no position to resist the Lord's command. The text then tells us that this vision was repeated three times- that specifically Petrine number which makes us recall the Gospel passage, "You will deny me three times..." and the three times which the Lord inquires of Peter whether he loves him and then tells him in response, "Feed my sheep." It seems that the Lord's command to Peter to "feed his sheep" is not just to be taken as spiritualized, but entails inviting the Lord's sheep to feed on that food which the Mosaic Law had expressly forbidden!
The vision is all about an argument regarding food, about how what Israel eats and with whom they eat demonstrates their relationship to the Lord. Further, it is also about a controversey that simmered and then boiled over in the early Church regarding how or whether the strict dietary laws of Israel were to be appropriated by or imposed on the Church. In other words, were all the details of the Mosaic Law still necessary for those Jews and Gentiles who had accepted Christ as Lord and Messiah? The Church was divided over this issue.
Since this issue seems light years away from our experience and seems to have been resolved centuries ago, it might mean very little to us. If it is important, it is considered to be so as a matter of history.
But, not so fast.
The real issue as stake here is not simply about what the faithful should or should not eat, but how Christ is the Messiah and what Israel has become as a result of his revelation. Because of Christ, Israel is now "for" the Gentiles (the Apostle Paul's idea that the Gentiles are "co-heirs" with the people of Israel should come to mind), and as such, the identifying marks of communion that had set God's people apart (indicators of their unique status as the Lord's holy people) have changed. Once it was circumcision and the dietary laws that had defined Israel's relationship to the Gentiles, and now, because of Christ, it is the Sacrament of Baptism and the Sacred Meal of the Eucharist. In the former way, the Gentiles were excluded from a share in God's promises to Israel, but in the latter way, they are now included.
Mind you, Israel is not supplanted or usurped in this new configuration of its identity, but it is changed and transformed. This is the real meaning of Saint Peter's peculiar vision. It is not simply about dietary laws, but it is about Christ and Israel and especially about what Israel has become because of him-- the reality that we know as the Church.
The transformation of Israel is an interesting way to understand the meaning of the Acts of the Apostles. The Apostles are all about recognizing what the revelation of Christ means for God's chosen people. Christ is the means by which Jew and Gentile are to share communion with the one, true God- the God of Israel. The Church is the privileged way that humanity comes to know Christ, and to be drawn into a relationship with the Church is to know Christ; to be related to Christ is to be related to the Church. The Lord does not meet his people half way in this regard, allowing either Jew or Gentile to opt for one or the other, for Christ or for the Church. Both are integral to the other, a truth that arrived in the life of the Apostle Paul in a blinding flash on the road to Damascus. Peter's vision was perhaps less blinding but no less strange, and it effected a change in him as significant as the conversion that transformed Saul's zeal for Israel into Paul's faith in the Church.
Understanding the identity of the Church as the realization of a new kind of Israel is perplexing to many Catholics. For centuries the identity of the Church that prevailed in people's minds was that of Christendom- the idea that the Church is the means of uniting the disparate cultures of Europe. Christendom only exists in broken vestiges and enduring nostalgia for some, but the idea continues to exert a powerful impact on popular understandings of the Church's identity.
The Second Vatican Council sought to affirm the identity of the Church as a new Israel in its ascription of the Church's identity as being "the people of God" (which is well referenced in the Scriptures as a name for Israel). Unfortunately, this association was often misunderstood and appropriated to justify attempts at remaking the Church into a fascimile of the modern nation state or as an international faith-based club. The identity of the Church as a new kind of Israel was lost on many and continues to be so today.
It seems to me that we have to learn to see the Church as the Apostles saw it and as Christ intends for his Church to be- the realization of his Messianic mission to effect the transformation of Israel into a communion in which Jew and Gentile share a relationship with the God of Israel. Through Christ the Messiah, all peoples are invited by the Lord to share communion with his divine life and presence- a communion that is not only with the Lord, but with the people he has chosen.
I take it as a significant challenge that many Catholics either do not know about or understand the implications of their identity as the new Israel. Not knowing who we are means that we do not know what we are supposed to be doing. The lack of a sense of our identity as a new kind of Israel leaves us with the mistaken impression that we can just make up the beliefs and practices of the Church to suit our preferences and needs, rather than accept these truths as a means of participating in the revelation of Christ the Lord. This, in turn, robs us of the grace and possibility of being for the world one, holy people- God's people: a new Israel.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.