There arose a great debate among the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem. They were overjoyed with the growing number of Gentile converts. Yet some were not as happy. They took the opportunity to lobby for Gentile circumcision. To Jews, circumcision was a law that has to be kept. You see, for the Jews it is like baptism: it is a symbolic act of commitment to keep the Law of Moses as the Israelites did in the Old Testament. They believed that the Gentiles cannot be saved unless they be circumcised. The newly-baptized Christians can only participate in God’s blessing unless they did what Abraham had done. The Jewish Christians thought that anyone who wanted to be saved must be saved like they were.
But God had led Peter to witness the conversion of Cornelius’ household which made him realize that it was God who baptized by the Spirit. Cornelius’ household had been saved by faith and not by the law they practiced. And so Peter made a remarkable statement: “We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they (Gentiles) are.” So the decision of the Jerusalem Council was unanimous: the Gentiles did not need to be circumcised.
Peter then proceeded to tell everyone that the Jews must be saved the same way Gentiles were saved by faith, apart from law-keeping. What united them with Christ was their faith in Him, not the little laws that they kept.
Therefore, the disciples reflected on what is essential and necessary and what were not. They believed that circumcision was not necessary for salvation; but faith in Christ was.
At present, there are indeed ‘little laws’ that we hold stubbornly. Most of them are superstitious beliefs: we should not sweep the floor at wakes; we should not laugh on Good Friday because ‘God is dead’; we should give sticky dishes on New Year’s for a tight-knit family. At mass, we are troubled by the length of a reader’s skirt, or whether we should hold hands or not. Oftentimes we get to wonder whether Catholicism is about these petty law-keeping than what is the only thing necessary. And what’s worse is that we impose or require them of others believing that the younger generation who question these traditions will not be saved — because they are not like us.
We are therefore challenged to assess the little rules that we keep. St. Ignatius has a good principle: tantum quantum. Keep the tradition if it leads you to God; if it doesn’t, then it is time to let it go. We have to refocus on what is essential and necessary: being united to the One True Vine.
Thus, if a new method will lead you to God, this is the time to adapt it.