You're a Christian community leader. Thank you!
Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 10.
No Tidy Categories
Some little-noticed details in Sunday’s readings suggest some things about our communities today.
In the first reading, Luke (author of Acts) reports that the earliest Christians were from at least two groups of Jews. One group spoke Greek. (Hellas is the Greek word for Greece, so Hellenists in this case are Greek-speakers. They enjoyed a Greek-language Bible and synagogue services in their language.) The other group, called Hebrews here, spoke Aramaic; they prayed and studied in the Hebrew language in their separate synagogues. From each group, some came to believe in Jesus. And Luke admits that, once within the Christian community, they didn’t treat each other equally. So the leaders collaborate with the members to create a solution: they acknowledge the complaints and the need for more personnel, they set high but appropriate recruiting standards, and they OK the people’s nominees; they may even be said to ordain them--more about that later.
So seven men are to handle the food distribution in the community while the apostles return to full-time prayer and ministry of the word. The word spreads, the nascent church grows and even attracts certain Jewish temple priests, who risk a lot to make the switch.
But in the very next verse one of the food-distributors is suddenly a wonder-worker and champion debater against resistant Jews. He’s Stephen, and you know the rest of his story. And two chapters later, Philip is preaching in Samaria with great success, then redirected to the Gaza road, where he meets, evangelizes and baptizes an Ethiopian. Those activities are way outside the job descriptions given in Acts 6: 1-7.
As community leaders, what might you make of this?
Our experience as church-community members has, for decades now, included many shake-ups of job categories. These changes find welcome from some, stiff resistance from others. The author of Acts would say welcome them and test them by gospel standards (which were new standards then). Do not be afraid.
Service at the core of the church
For what it may be worth today, here’s my reflection from the time of the first modern ordination of a permanent deacon, in the late 1970’s, with a nod to Acts 6. The apostles ratified the choice of these community servants by praying over them and laying hands on them. The church could have met its needs without such ritual. The apostles' choice to solemnize it this way suggests something very important about service in the church. They seem to be saying that the role of community servant is worthy of what would become known as ordination. That is, service is so important in the life of the church, that we cannot be the church without mutual service. There are religions that zealously guard their pure doctrine, their ritual, and their moral codes, but are without this orientation toward service. For us, it cannot be so. Service constitutes the church, as do word and sacrament. Anyone exercising any of these ministries should be evaluated on all three.
The stone imagery in the 2nd reading
Our ancestors in the faith had been slaves in Egypt, wanderers in Sinai, finally proud and happy possessors of Jerusalem and worshippers in its Temple on Mount Zion. But then they were exiles in Babylon. That heartbreak made them compose Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
The exile ended and many went home. But some chose to stay and others moved abroad, becoming members of a widespread Diaspora (“dispersion”). To all of them, a stone dwelling, or a stone Temple, meant a very desirable but seldom enjoyed permanent home.
for the memory of Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
Our captors mocked us, “Sing for us a song of Zion.”
But how can we sing of God in an alien land?
For new Christians struggling with a new way of being religious, Peter speaks of Christ as a living stone, precious in the sight of God. And the Christians are themselves living stones forming a new spiritual house for God and themselves. Christ and the community become for them the long-sought home. “Stone” is now a metaphor.
But practically speaking, many of us have fallen in love with the stones -- and the terrazzo, marble, bricks, mortar and asphalt -- of the church-community grounds familiar to us. Given today’s economics and demographics, and, frankly, today’s church politics, that kind of loyalty will likely disappoint. Don’t set yourself up to have to sing Psalm 137. Being living stones is a better, if harder, solution, and a more Scriptural one. Don’t stop loving your church. Just keep it in perspective.
Introduction to this Message Series
I'm Greg Warnusz, of Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church, Saint Louis, Missouri, USA, since 2005; author of Lector's Notes at https://lectorprep.org
since 1999; and web steward for FOSIL
since about 2010.
This, the 9th message in a weekly series, aims to help you apply the Bible readings you'll hear in church (or would hear if your church weren't locked down) to the life of the parish (or other Christian community) that you hold dear.
These are not devotionals (which are everywhere). I'm offering what I learned in the seminary, this intellectually honest way to read the Bible:
- Learn what the writer of the Bible passage was trying to help his or her ancient community cope with (my specialty).
- Ask how your own community today is dealing with something like that (your specialty).
- Suggest the connections, craft a biblical approach to your community's mission.
- Remember Bible passages were composed for whole communities, not just for individuals.
- Then the rest is up to you (readers / listeners), your communities, and the Holy Spirit.
Step 1), above, is the hardest. I offer this because I'm grateful for the seminary education I received and the continuing education I enjoy. Step 2) is my passion because my beloved parish community faces serious demographic challenges and will soon face ecclesiastical ones.
This is a new endeavor, likely to improve with age. Next week's may be shorter. It takes 3 years for Catholic and most Protestant churches to complete their Sunday surveys of the whole bible. Stick with me. Thank you.
Picture credit: De Morgan, Evelyn, 1855-1919. By the Waters of Babylon, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57161 [retrieved May 6, 2020]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:By_the_Waters_of_Babylon_(1882-1883).jpg.
More about the artist is at this Wikipedia page.