What if all Christians in the past, including the apostles, were like a lot of the people we meet in our own churches? What if their church councils were very much like the church business meetings one might find today? To answer those questions, here’s a fanciful rendition, in the tradition of Erasmus’ comic colloquies, of the Council of Jerusalem (the official version of which is related in Acts 15). Some of the interplay between the characters may sound a trifle irreverent at first, but please remember that this is intended as a work of fiction—most of the lines poke fun at the quirks of various books of the New Testament, at scholarly theories about the composition of the Gospels, or at theological debates between modern denominations. I come from a family where a bit of playful teasing, a jab and a jest with a wink behind, is given and received as a sign of love. So here’s my playful teasing toward the Church through the ages (including the holy fathers who gave us the New Testament), offered in a spirit of fond affection.
(Please note: The Vatican has not yet offered its imprimatur to this work, but that will no doubt be quickly forthcoming.)
The Council of Jerusalem - A Comic Colloquy
Barnabas: Well, Paul, here we are! How does it feel to be back in your old stomping grounds?
Paul: Not good. We’ve got important work to do in this Council. But…well, you know how “church people” can be.
Barnabas: What? Are you saying that church business meetings are not your sole delight?
Peter: Is that you, friends? Come in, come in! It’s good that you arrived; James was about to begin things without you! Darn near took me pulling out that “keys of heaven given to me” bit to slow him down.
James: Yes, it’s a shame we didn’t get to hear about that again.
Peter: Come, friends, come. We’re glad you’re here…most of us, anyway. Look, we’ve got the whole gang back together. It took some digging to find some of them again, though. A few of the old boys seem to have nearly dropped off the map.
Barnabas: Ah yes, yes, hello! Hello, everyone. A merry synod to you all! John, you’re looking well. Sad to hear about your brother. “Lost his head again”, did he? Oh, sorry, perhaps that’s in poor taste.
John: Ha! No, that’s well put. Luke, put that in the records you’re jotting down there!
Luke: I most certainly will not! It is in poor taste.
Barnabas: Well, I see Matthew is here too, and Mark! I hear you boys are dueling scribes these days. Luke, you had better keep an eye on these two.
Luke: Don’t worry about that. Whatever they put down, I’ll make sure I get it straightened out.
Peter: And look here, gentlemen! Surely you remember Thomas! He was about to set off to—good heavens, where was that, Thomas?
Thomas: India, Peter. I’ve told you a hundred times already. India. But when I heard you lads were pulling a council together, I thought you probably needed a voice of reason in your midst. You are all too quick to jump to hasty conclusions.
Barnabas: Like that “Jesus is risen” thing, right, Thomas?
Thomas: Say what you will; I would rather be proved wrong in doubt than found wrong in haste.
Peter: And look, here’s my brother Andrew; and I’m sure you remember Philip.
Paul: Good to see you, friends. What have you been up to these past few years?
Andrew: Oh, not much. Nothing important enough to make it into Luke’s book there.
Luke: Fair enough.
Paul: But who are those others back there in the corner? I don’t really remember them.
Peter: Oh, they’re disciples, too. At least, I think I remember them being around. I can’t really tell you what they said…or did…or anything about them. But they were there, sure enough. There’s good old James the son of Alphaeus. And Thaddeus. Or is his name Jude? I can’t remember. And that one there, what was his name? Oh, yes, Simon the Zealot. Amazing he’s still alive, being a zealot and all. Very, very zealous…yes.
Barnabas: Ah, and I see Bartholomew over there too. Hello, Bartholomew!
John: Who are you talking to? Oh, that guy? Gosh, I’ve always called him Nathaniel!
Luke: I’m pretty sure his name is Bartholomew.
Mark: That’s what I put down.
Matthew: Me too.
John: Sorry, boys, I’m pretty sure it’s Nathaniel. Hey, Nathaniel! Is that your name, or is it Bartholomew? Oh, just a shrug, huh? Like you don’t know your own name! Well, darn it, you’re Nathaniel in my book!
Peter: Don’t go getting too steamed up now, John. And you three—if you’re going to be writing things down for us, don’t you think you ought to agree on the details?
Mark: While we’re on the subject…Matthew—does everyone call you that? Because I think I put down Levi in one of the stories—about Jesus calling you at the tax collector’s booth. Was that you? I may have used both names, come to think of it.
Luke: I think I did, too.
Matthew: Geez, get it together, guys. People are going to be reading this stuff for a long time to come. At least till Jesus comes back, and that might be another thirty years for all we know. Where did you two get so muddled up, anyway?
Luke: Well, I did have a collection of stuff that helped me pull it together. There wasn’t a good name for it, so I’ve thought up a couple possible names: We could call the earlier stuff “the Jesus traditions.” Or maybe just “Q”. I haven’t decided which is better. And I copied a bit of stuff from you, Mark. Hope you don’t mind. Have to say, though, some of it needed a bit of sprucing up.
Matthew: Small world! I used Q and Mark, too! Bet our books are pretty close then, eh, Luke?
Luke: Don’t count on it. I actually did research.
Matthew: Of course you did. You had to, because you weren’t there.
Peter: Boys, boys!
James: Hey, guys. Don’t you think we’d better get this thing started?
Peter: Yes, let’s! I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to this! What, why all the groans? This is the bread-and-fish of the life of the church!
James: Okay, if you’re so fired up. What say you start us off with a prayer?
Peter: What sort of prayer is good for starting off a church business meeting? Short and perfunctory?
John: Heavens, only if you call it a “business meeting”! How about we call it an “ecumenical council”? Then we could start it off with a grand, eloquent prayer that most of us won’t be able to follow or understand.
Peter: I’m not sure I’m the grand and eloquent type. James, do you want to do it?
John: Don’t let James do it! He’ll take up the whole session, the way he prays!
Peter: All right, OK. How about we all just say together that little thingy that Jesus taught us to say? Sound good?
Matthew: Hold on! If we’re doing that, we’d better have me lead it, then. You might have Luke’s version in your head, and sorry to say, my dear doctor, you’ve left a few bits out! (Research, my foot!) OK, here we go:
All: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.”
Luke: Quick question: are you sure Jesus said “forgive us our debts?” Wasn’t it “sins”?
Peter: I think he may be right, Matthew.
Matthew: Not the way I remember it.
John: Say, wouldn’t it be grand to put a nice little flourish on the end of that? A tagline, say? Something like, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever”. What do you think?
James: Gracious, if we’re going to just start changing things willy-nilly, this is going to be a long meeting…or council, whatever you prefer.
Peter: Right, then, who’s going to lead our council? Probably you or me, James. You’re the Lord’s brother (well...half-brother, I guess, or would you call yourself a step-brother?—I’m a little unclear on that); anyway, whatever you are to Jesus, everyone knows that I am his plucky sidekick.
James: I’ll do it.
Peter: OK by me.
James: Alright, then. We have a motion on the floor for me to be the moderator. Do I hear a second?
John: What’s a second?
James: Seconded, then. All in favor? OK, well, we’ll do it the other way, then. Any opposed? Yeah, very funny Paul. Alright. Any old business?
Peter: I think maybe we should talk about who gets to lead the church here in Jerusalem. I seem to remember that maybe that used to be my job…
James: Sorry, Peter, that subject has already been decided. Remember, you wanted to go to Rome anyway.
Peter: Oh, yeah. Withdrawn.
James: Moving on, then. New business? Yeah, Paul, I see your hand. OK, we’ll do your thing first.
Paul: I’m sure you gentlemen are well acquainted with my work by now. “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus, called by his grace, etc., etc.” So you must know that we’ve got quite a lot of Gentiles wanting to join our little movement. I know, right? Who saw that coming? Anyway, Gentiles being Gentiles, they’re a bit spleeny when it comes to a few things we’ve always done. Like cutting off certain anatomical parts, if you know what I mean. They don’t seem to be quite as keen on that as some of your lot are, James. I’m thinking that maybe we give them a pass on that one.
James: No circumcision? But we’ve never done it that way before.
Paul: We’ve never done it any way before.
Peter: But why wouldn’t they want to be circumcised? It’s the sign God gave us to show we’re in the covenant.
Luke: Speaking as a Gentile myself, and a doctor, it’s worth saying that circumcision is an unpleasant business for an adult. And most of you guys out there performing circumcisions, sorry to say, are not doctors.
Paul: Sure, sure. No one wants to see a knife heading down that way. But I can think of a few people for whom I wouldn’t mind if they tried performing it on themselves!
James: What a horrid thing to say! I hope you haven’t put that in any of your letters, Paul.
Paul: Ah, that’s beside the point. The real issue, I think, is that some people out there see this as a necessary work through which we earn salvation.
James: Well…I wouldn’t put in those terms. No one thinks salvation is earned. But God does ask certain things of us, in order to be his covenant people.
Paul: Isn’t that the same thing, though? You’re putting the focus on our action as the locus of how we become the covenant people of God.
Peter: Surely we have some part to play, Paul. Isn’t it both God and us, together, with us responding to his grace?
Paul: Of course we respond to his grace! But it isn’t grace if our response is what gets us in the door! Some of the fanatics out there are saying that circumcision is a necessary work to have true faith. But works are not the essence of faith!
James: Come now! Faith without works is dead!
Peter: Hey, I like that line, James. Punchy. You should hold on to that, maybe write it down.
James: If we let them slide on the circumcision thing, Paul, how do we know they’re serious? What’s the sign of the covenant?
Luke: Baptism could do it. That’s something that Jesus told us to do, and we usually do it right at the beginning of a person’s faith-journey. How about having that as the symbol for entering the covenant?
Paul: Just so long as it’s not a work that earns salvation!
James: But we need to decide on some of the rules for baptism, too.
John: Rules! My goodness. I thought Jesus just wanted us all to love each other!
James: Sappy and beautiful, John, as usual, but completely beside the point this time.
Peter: He’s right. I was thinking the other day, what if I wanted to baptize a little baby? The mom might not like me plunging her little one all the way under. What if I just dumped some water over his head?
Luke: Dumping water on a baby? You wouldn’t want to do quite that, especially if it’s a newborn. The kid would survive, of course, but it wouldn’t be a happy occasion. Maybe sprinkling.
James: Hold on, here! We’ve never done these things before!
Barnabas: Come on, James. A little change is good.
James: Change is good only if what you were doing before was bad. We always baptized by dunking people in running water. And I’m not sure about this baby thing, either.
Paul: Really? Oh, heck, I’ve been baptizing whole families together—men, women, babies, sure, throw a few slaves in there too for good measure. But I have to say, I always favored dunking. I’m not sure about sprinkling. Dunking is rather more like the death and resurrection of Christ, don’t you think?
Thomas: I doubt very much that the Lord cares about the minute details of how we do it. If he cared, he would have told us.
Barnabas: You’re probably right, Thomas. But if we don’t get a policy hammered out now, just think—somewhere down the road there might be some idiot groups of Christians so divided by this that they might even start killing each other!
James: Don’t be facetious, Barnabas. No one would be stupid enough to let that happen.
Barnabas: But what about that “faith versus works” thing you guys were talking about? I can see that blowing up on us at some point if we don’t get it hammered out here.
Thomas: I doubt that the semantics of the thing is that combustible. It’s not like we Christians are a bunch of Roman imperialists arrayed against German barbarians, or anything like that. It sounds to me like you’re just saying the same thing in different ways.
John: To some people, it will sound like different things being said in different ways. People are still people, Christian or not. And people are not the brightest things around. Right, Peter?
Peter: Hey, here’s another random thing I was thinking about: you know Mary, Jesus’ mom? Well, it occurred to me the other day—she’s pretty great, don’t you think? Maybe we should do a little bit more to honor her—you know, statues, prayers, things like that. What do you think?...Come on, no one has any thoughts on that? James, she’s your mom too. Or stepmom, maybe, I don’t know… What do you think?
James: Well, of course, I love my mother…
Matthew: She was just here a while ago. We could run and find her and ask if she wants statues and prayers.
Peter: Yeah, OK, I see you smirking, Matthew. Just go ahead and write your book, and I’m sure you won’t even do more than mention her in it. I just think she’s terrific, that’s all. And God thinks she’s terrific, too, by the way.
James: Maybe we had better move on to something a little less touchy…
Peter: While I’m at it, here’s another thing I was thinking about. You know how Jesus changed my name to “rock”? And how he said that that “rock” was what he would build his church on? And how he gave me the keys of the kingdom of heaven?
John: I think you may have mentioned it before.
Peter: I was thinking that if that’s true, maybe it means that I can never be wrong.
Thomas: I doubt that’s exactly what Jesus meant. Are you sure that his naming you “rock” wasn’t perhaps a hint at, say, a trace of stubborn obtuseness?
Peter: It’s worth thinking about, though. If I’m never wrong, then you guys should really listen to me.
John: Yesterday we were in the marketplace, and you told me that it was going to rain in the evening. It didn’t rain. You were wrong.
Peter: Yes, well, maybe the infallibility only works when I’m sitting down.
John: We were sitting down last night when you told me that the rain would definitely come this morning.
Peter: I’m a fisherman, not a diviner! Obviously the infallibility only applies when I’m sitting in my special chair and talking about church stuff.
John: I see.
James: So…any other new business on the agenda?
Thomas: I have something, but I doubt it will be of great importance. I was celebrating the Lord’s love-feast with a few brothers last week, and it struck me that everyone there seemed to have a different idea about what was going on. What do we actually believe about what’s going on with the bread and wine?
John: Personally, I thought the foot-washing part of Jesus’ last evening with us was just as significant as the bread and wine. But no one seems to want to do foot-washing anymore.
Peter: No one likes washing feet, John. But food! That’s another matter entirely. Hmm…since I’m sitting in my special church chair, let me see what my verdict will be. I think that because Jesus said, “This is my body,” then that’s what he meant.
Thomas: So it really is Jesus’ body—flesh and bone and sinew?
Thomas: It tastes like bread.
Peter: That’s part of the mystery!
Thomas: I suppose it would have to be. Permit me to point out, though, that when Jesus himself said that, the bread in his hand wasn’t his body. His body was right there, in front of us. Don’t you suppose it may have simply been a symbol?
Paul: But Thomas, he did say, “This is my body.” What does “is” mean to you?
Thomas: Any language, even verbs of being, can be used as symbolic metaphors. He also said, “I am the door.” Was he actually a door?
John: Well, metaphorically.
Thomas: My point exactly.
Peter: Sorry, Thomas, I’ve already given my assessment. And remember, I’m infallible when sitting in my chair and talking about churchy things.
Paul: I think I may agree with him there.
Thomas: What, that he’s infallible?
Paul: No, I meant the bread and wine thing. Doesn’t it seem more spiritually meaningful if we are actually taking in the literal presence of Christ, given to us in a holy sacrament?
Thomas: And then what? We digest the presence of Christ? And after that…?
James: OK, this conversation is taking a distinct turn for the worse. Luke, better not make a note of this part. Let’s move on.
Thomas: Well, OK. The question isn’t settled in my mind. But, as I say, I doubt that these details are of such import that later Christians would do any harm to one another over them.
James: I think we’re straying a bit from what we’re here to do. How about we just lay this down as a ground-rule: We Christians will only do what the Bible tells us to do.
Paul: What exactly constitutes the Bible, though? Pharisees and Sadducees have different parameters, to say nothing of the Samaritans. I know Peter there is awfully fond of some of the later Greek books, but I myself like to stick to the good old Hebrew canon.
Peter: What? Who doesn’t love the Maccabees? Come on now!
Paul: And James, your brother Jude gives credence to any wild thing that crosses his eyes—Satan fighting with Michael about the body of Moses, and all that. What exactly constitutes the Bible, if the Bible is our one rule?
Thomas: I should point out that if all we’re talking about is the old Jewish books, then we’re not holding ourselves to anything Jesus said or did.
James: OK, we’ll include the books that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are pulling together, whenever they get them finished.
Luke: Well, I’m also thinking of writing one that covers what we’re doing here, too. Should that make it in?
James: Sure, why not?
Paul: Let me put a few of my letters in, too, then.
James: Well…I guess so…but only if I get to write a letter, too. It wouldn’t hurt to balance you out a little, Paul. And for heaven’s sake, please don’t put that line about wanting to see people emasculate themselves in your letters! It’s tasteless.
Paul: But so true.
John: Well, while we’re at it, I’ve been thinking about writing a really wild book about the end of the world. I’ll make it spectacularly beautiful in parts, but also opaque and confusing in other parts, just to mix things up a little. What do you think?
Thomas: Wait, wait, wait! Hold on! You’re all saying that the Bible is our measuring-stick, but that the Bible will include all of our opinions anyway! Why not just do what we think is right, and make our decisions part of the measuring-stick, along with the Bible? We’ll call it “tradition”.
Peter: I like it!
James: But who knows what the people coming after us will add to that tradition? It seems safer to stick with the Bible only, since we know the Holy Spirit inspired the old stuff already, and we know the Spirit’s also working through us.
John: I still think maybe our bottom line should just be Jesus’ command to love one another… I’ll see to it that that makes it in the Bible, if that’s the way we’re doing it.
Barnabas: One would think that if we really had the Holy Spirit working in us, we would be able to agree on a few things…
James: Yes, we are kind of going nowhere, aren’t we?
Peter: Hey, here’s another question: What’s the relationship of Jesus to God the Father? Shouldn’t we work that out in painfully exact terminology?
Barnabas: Hey, yeah, that’ll be important! And what about the Holy Spirit: do you think he proceeds from God the Father only, or from both the Father and Jesus?
Peter: Both, definitely.
James: Really? I would have gone the other way.
Peter: Please refer all dissension to my infallibility.
Thomas: Oh, let’s just get this thing over with! I doubt any harm will come from tabling these questions for a few years, or even a few hundred years if it comes to that! Like John keeps saying—if we Christians just remember Christ’s command to love one another, we’ll be able to ride through the storms of disagreement, right?
James: OK…so…it sounds like we all want to end the meeting. How about we just make a motion that the new Gentile folks don’t have to chop anything off, and leave the rest of it for another day?
Paul: So moved!
James: And a second?
James: Moved and seconded. All in favor, say “Amen!”