My June Column – Full Text

Trouble With The Sanhedrin

Last month I was looking at the account of Pentecost and how the apostles lost their fear and by preaching the good news they made many conversions. The apostles were seen as men who spoke with authority and seemed to possess a strange power. Their message was one of repentance. They told the Jews that they had rejected the Messiah and if they wanted to be saved they must repent and turn to the risen Christ.

These early converts remained Jews. They went to the Temple every day and met in their houses afterwards to celebrate the breaking of bread. They shared everything they had with each other so that nobody should go without. It is a source of great wonder to me that people could live like that. What stops us from living in the way they did? Perhaps, like the rich young man who wished to follow Jesus, we have too much. Who could sell all he possesses today and give it all to the poor?

Two thousand years ago people had very little. Mostly they only had one set of clothes. That was normal. In many of the poorest areas of the world it is still normal. In Scotland it is not normal and people are expected to change clothes regularly. Many people give away their old clothes to charity shops when they buy new ones, so I suppose the intent is still there.

They went to the Temple as a group and we learn that one day Peter found a lame man begging at the ‘Beautiful Gate’. Peter cured the man and sent him off walking, then proceeded into the Temple to preach. While they were preaching the Temple priests with the Captain of the Temple and the Sadducees approached them. They were angry that the apostles were preaching resurrection from the dead and arrested them.

The apostles were held overnight and brought before the Sanhedrin in the morning. When they were interrogated they proudly declared that the miracles they performed were done in Jesus name and by the power of God. The authorities were taken aback and concerned that the people had been convinced by the miracle and thought the apostles were working with God’s power.

I must admit I have some sympathy for the Jewish authorities. None of this conformed to what they had been taught to believe. As the religious leaders they felt responsible for upholding the Jewish teaching. What were they to do? The apostles had done nothing wrong and seemed to have worked a miracle witnessed by many people. They didn’t claim any power for themselves but attributed everything to God and the risen Christ.

In the end they let them go with a warning not to continue to preach about Jesus. The apostles declined to give up preaching and the Jews warned them again. When they returned to the community they were welcomed with great joy. The Christian community prayed with them. This, however was only the beginning. Soon they were arrested again and put in jail. That night an angel opened the gates and led them out. He told them to go back to the temple and preach.

Next morning the High priest and his supporters arrived and opened the jail to fetch them. They were astounded to find that, although the gates were locked the apostles were gone. They were even more astounded to hear that the apostles were preaching at the temple. When they were re-arrested the apostles showed no contrition but accused the Sanhedrin of putting Jesus to Death.

The Sanhedrin wanted to do the same with the apostles but one member, Gamaliel, pointed out that this sort of thing had happened in the past and had faded away. He suggested that the apostles be dismissed. If they were false prophets it would all go away, but if they were truly moved by God then nothing could be done anyway. Who wants to be fighting against God? His advice was adopted, the apostles flogged and released. They continued to preach in the Temple happy to have suffered for God.

How hard it must have been for the Jewish authorities to see things from a different perspective. They couldn’t easily go along with the apostles because their teaching seemed to undermine their teaching and, probably more importantly, their authority. If the apostles were right then they would lose their status and power in Jewish society. We live in a society where we can have any religious beliefs we choose without being jailed. Nobody is forcing us to accept their teaching or forcing us to deny our beliefs. Why is it then, that we are not having the impact that the apostles had?

Catholics in Scotland have the advantage of religious education in our schools. Why do so many of us demonstrate such poor understanding of the Church’s teaching? The apostles were poor, uneducated men, yet they seem to have understood Jesus’ good news far better than we do. Perhaps we had our religious teaching as children and could only understand as children. Now as adults in an adult world we might find that education doesn’t help us to understand at an adult level.

How many of us think we know it all about our religion? It’s a simple thing, get to Mass on Sundays, don’t commit mortal sin, get to confession, occasionally, and keep out of trouble. We don’t agree with some of the Church’s rules although we don’t really know what they are. How different is that from the apostles? They were poorly educated, if at all. They learned the Good News by listening to Jesus and following what he did. They learned as adults.

Sometimes we hear of a conflict between science and religion. In the past I’ve pointed out the similarities between the two. There is one great difference between some Christians and good scientists. Some of us think we know it all and the best scientists know they don’t. They keep searching for a better understanding of things while some of us are happy to sit back and not think too hard about God. We know He is there (or is She there?) and that’s fine.

That’s a bit like the Sanhedrin. They knew what they believed and didn’t fancy having to make any changes. Unfortunately the Good News is all about changes. We are all called to change. We have to change the world and we start by changing ourselves. When we go to Mass on Sunday do we come out a changed person? If Jesus was standing up there I’m sure we would all come out changed. Yet we meet Jesus in the Eucharist. Why do we not come out walking on air? Personally, I think the fault lies with me. I know I’m meeting Jesus but it’s too much for my puny brain to cope with.

My only hope is in prayer. I know I can talk to Jesus in the Eucharist and be heard. I don’t hear a voice in my head making any reply but I know I’m being heard and no prayer goes unanswered. It’s up to me to ask for help in changing. With Jesus’ help I can change me and, who knows, if it is God’s will, change a little bit of the world to. So can you.


Joseph McGrath

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