MAY 14TH, 2017: FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
As the number of disciples continued to grow,
the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews
because their widows
were being neglected in the daily distribution.
So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said,
"It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table.
Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men,
filled with the Spirit and wisdom,
whom we shall appoint to this task,
whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer
and to the ministry of the word."
The proposal was acceptable to the whole community,
so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit,
also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas,
and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism.
They presented these men to the apostles
who prayed and laid hands on them.
The word of God continued to spread,
and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly;
even a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith.
Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings
but chosen and precious in the sight of God,
and, like living stones,
let yourselves be built into a spiritual house
to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices
acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
For it says in Scripture:
Behold, I am laying a stone in Zion,
a cornerstone, chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in it shall not be put to shame.
Therefore, its value is for you who have faith, but for those without faith:
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone, and
A stone that will make people stumble,
and a rock that will make them fall.
They stumble by disobeying the word, as is their destiny.
You are "a chosen race, a royal priesthood,
a holy nation, a people of his own,
so that you may announce the praises" of him
who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
Jesus said to his disciples:
"Do not let your hearts be troubled.
You have faith in God; have faith also in me.
In my Father's house there are many dwelling places.
If there were not,
would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?
And if I go and prepare a place for you,
I will come back again and take you to myself,
so that where I am you also may be.
Where I am going you know the way."
Thomas said to him,
"Master, we do not know where you are going;
how can we know the way?"
Jesus said to him, I am the way and the truth and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me.
If you know me, then you will also know my Father.
From now on you do know him and have seen him."
Philip said to him,
"Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us."
Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you for so long a time
and you still do not know me, Philip?
Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.
How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?
Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?
The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own.
The Father who dwells in me is doing his works.
Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me,
or else, believe because of the works themselves.
Amen, amen, I say to you,
whoever believes in me will do the works that I do,
and will do greater ones than these,
because I am going to the Father."
Serious students of Luke/Acts realize how exceptional today’s first reading is. Usually, in depicting the early Christian community, Luke assures us that everything is going along hunkydory. Jesus’ first followers are living an ideal existence: constantly loving one another, always sharing their belonging and property with the needy, and continually growing in number. That’s why today’s “bump in the road” demands some explanation.
It’s logical that communities made up of different cultural groups, each with their own languages, will eventually develop snags in their relationships. In this case, Greek speaking Hellenists are having problems with Aramaic speaking Hebrews. The issue revolves around the daily distribution of food to the community’s widows.
The Twelve’s way of resolving the conflict is actually more important for today’s church than the solution itself. “Select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task . . . .” The seven chosen men are then listed. Except for providing a pronunciation obstacle for lectors, the names don’t mean a lot to us. We might recognize Stephen and Philip, who will appear later in Acts, but the other five are easily forgotten.
I guarantee none of the seven would have been forgotten in the Jerusalem community. Each man is a Hellenist! If Greek speaking Christians are having a problem, then Greek speaking Christians are expected to solve their problem. Christian problems are solved from within, not from outside the community.
Growing up in a pre-Vatican II church, I presumed our revered pastor would have the answer to any parish crisis. I certainly wasn’t alone in that belief. Remember the old story of the pastor who calls a parish meeting to discuss a pressing issue facing the parishioners? After announcing, “We have a problem,” he’s immediately challenged by a parishioner who reminds him, “The only way we could be having a problem, Father, is if you’ve got a mouse in your pocket.”
The recent establishment of parish councils has given the “laity” some say in what happens in their faith community. But some priests (and bishops) are quick to remind the various council members that they’re purely “advisory.” The pastor (and bishop) still retain veto power over any of their suggestions. A far cry from the high esteem Luke, the author of I Peter and John’s Jesus hold the Christian community.
“You are a chosen race,” the writer of I Peter reminds his newly baptized catechumens, “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his (God’s) own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into this wonderful light.” How do one or two individuals wield veto power over such a prestigious group?
John’s Jesus carries respect for the community even further. “”Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these . . . .” The risen Jesus trusts all of us not just to carry on his/her ministry, but to go beyond what the historical Jesus was able to do between 6 BCE and 30 CE.
Ignoring Jesus’ teachings, we eventually divided Christians into clergy and laity. One group became superior, the other subservient. One group called the shots, the other took the blows. We 21st century Catholics are witnesses of this; still suffering moral consequences 50 years after the church’s hierarchical decision on birth control and today being forced to deal with ever-dwindling Eucharistic celebrations due to the artificial shortage of male, celibate priests.
The early followers of Jesus believed he left them a way to deal with such problems. But unless we dare to be committed to that way, our problems will certainly remain and increase.