“Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.”
Today in our first reading from Acts we hear the story of the first great controversy in the church. Luke describes it as “no little dissension and debate” so it was a knock-down, drag-out fight.
The debated question is a core issue not only of identity but of salvation: “Unless you are circumcised…you cannot be saved.” The early church was still struggling with its identity, was it a Jewish sect or something different? The Torah explicitly prescribed circumcision for all males. So, if Gentiles came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, did they need to be become Jewish, to be circumcised, in order to be saved? Some Jewish Christians from the “party of the Pharisees who had become believers” argued: “It is necessary to circumcise them and direct them to observe the Mosaic law.”
The conclusion that the early church reached after a bitter debate was that salvation was through faith in Jesus Christ and therefore circumcision was not necessary. While this conclusion may seem obvious today and the arguments somewhat quaint or esoteric this “dissension and debate” almost tore the early church apart. Ultimately pushed and prodded by the holy Spirit the church learned it had to leave things in God’s hands.
In different ways Christians throughout the centuries have struggled with similar questions of salvation, who can be saved and how? Sometimes the answers they have given are very restrictive, e.g., “outside the church there is no salvation,” “unless you are born again, you cannot be saved,” “an unbaptized baby goes to limbo not heaven.” Ultimately prodded and pushed by the holy Spirit the church has come to realize that all these restrictive notions of salvation are wrong and even arrogant. Who are we to tell God whom He can save or how? As Pope Benedict wrote as he did away with the theory of limbo: “People find it increasingly difficult to accept that God is just and merciful if He excludes infants, who have no personal sins, from eternal happiness, whether they are Christian or non-Christian”.