In his latest book, The Social Mission of the U. S. Catholic Church, Fr. Charles Curran makes an interesting observation: "The Catholic approach to theology is characterized by "both-and" approaches rather than "either-or" approaches." Fortunately, this is frequently the way our sacred authors deal with the issues in which they're involved. Problems arise when we make an either-or out of a both-and. This is especially the case when we look at the structure of the church.
We old-timers remember when, before Vatican II, we pictured the church as a pyramid: the pope and hierarchy on top, the laity on the bottom. The council participants removed the vertical dimensions of that image, stressing that all members are simply the "people of God." For the first time in centuries we were encouraged to look and act horizontally. Today's three readings certainly support such a horizontal image.
Notice in our Acts passage how the Twelve solve the food distribution problem in the early Jerusalem church. Greek speaking widows are experiencing difficulties with Aramaic speaking food distributors. So the Twelve appoint seven new distributors. Those familiar with ancient cultures will immediately surface one common denominator of the seven: they're all Greek!
The Twelve's action implies that problems were solved in the early church not by imposing a solution "from above," but by letting those who had the problem solve the problem.
The faith in the importance of everyone in the community would later be reinforced by the author 1 Peter. His words still ring in our ears 19 centuries later: "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." What a terrific resume to present to the world!
But as uplifting as these words are, John's Jesus provides us with an even more confidence-building image. During his Last Supper discourse, Jesus amazes all the men and women around the table with the promise, "Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater than these, because I am going to the Father."
Growing up Catholic, I frequently was reminded that each priest was "another Christ." John would have agreed with that appraisal. But he also would have corrected such a limited application of the title. According to his theology, a priest becomes another Christ not at his ordination, but at his baptism. The priest, along with all other Christians, are other Christs. Each of us, by our baptism, is committed and expected to carry on the ministry of the first Christ. (I've mentioned in a past commentary that the normal outward sign of our willingness to continue his ministry is our receiving from the cup during the Eucharist.)
The belief that all are other Christs is a constant theme in the Christian Scriptures. The uniqueness of this pericope is Jesus' promise that we other Christs will do "greater" things than even he accomplished.
Writing more than 60 years after the historical Jesus' death and resurrection, John seems to be reflecting on the fact that followers of Jesus have, by that time, taken his ministry far beyond the confines of first century CE Palestine. The risen Jesus, in the person and ministry of his disciples, have encountered people and situations which the historical Jesus never encountered. We today are not only carrying on his ministry, we've expanded it into greater areas than it had reached at the time of the Last Supper.
The hierarchy alone could never accomplish such a feat. We couldn't be other Christs if we weren't committed to the both-and of our faith.