Father Donald Senior, CP

May 10: Fifth Sunday of Easter

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

A very human church

Acts 6:1-7; Ps 33:1-2, 4-5, 18-19; 1 Pt 2:4-9; Jn 14:1-12

During this Easter season, we have been hearing exuberant accounts about the life of the early church in Jerusalem. Having witnessed the presence of the risen Christ and fired by the Spirit, the apostles draw thousands into the community through their preaching and have the power to heal. One example is the story of the paralyzed man at the temple gate called Beautiful, who at the words of Peter begins to leap like a stag. 

The power of God releases the apostles and they begin preaching again without fear, even when persecuted and thrown into prison. No wonder we also find the beautiful summaries of the joyful life of these first Christians sharing all things in common, no one in need, joyful meals in their homes and going each day to pray in the temple. 

In these early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke describes a life that is almost heaven on earth — the ideal of what a Christian community can be.

It’s almost heaven on earth, but not quite. As we hear in the first reading for this Sunday, these first Christians, no doubt filled with Easter joy, were also human beings. Luke’s account concedes that like all human beings — even saintly ones — the stresses of everyday life begin to be felt. 

In this incident, the Greek-speaking Jewish Christians, called the Hellenists, complain that in the community’s distribution of food to those in need, the vulnerable widows of their ethnic group were receiving less than the widows of the Hebrew-speaking Jewish Christian group. (At the time, many Jews and Jewish Christians were raised in the so-called diaspora — that is, Greek-speaking cities of the Mediterranean world — and some, no doubt, took up residence in Jerusalem.) To fix the problem, the apostles set up a group of “deacons” (i.e., those who “serve”) to be responsible for an equitable distribution of goods to those in need.

Later in Acts we will hear of other problems: Ananias and Sapphira holding back from contributing their share to the community and lying about it; wariness of the Jerusalem leaders that Peter has gone too far in baptizing the gentile Cornelius; Paul angrily breaking up with Barnabas and John Mark at the beginning of their second missionary journey. 

Most of the time, Luke wants to emphasize the positive and dynamic missionary life of the early church, but even for Luke some tensions raise their heads. Paul’s own letters, on the other hand, speak frankly of many controversies and conflicts that flare up in the communities he serves, some of them with Paul himself as the target.

Then there is the frustration that Jesus himself experienced with his band of disciples, as he complains in the Gospel selection from John: “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip?” They were often dull-witted (“they did not understand his words”), cantankerous (“send these crowds off to buy something for themselves”) and, sadly, even capable of betraying, abandoning and denying the one they loved.

The church, then and now, is an amazing blend of divine inspiration and human frailty. The second reading today is from the beautiful First Letter of Peter.

The author writes to a group of Christian communities in the northern region of Asia Minor, which is present-day Turkey. There are indications in the letter that these are frail communities, possibly even groups of migrants under some suspicion and threat by the surrounding majority population. 

Yet the author does not hesitate to describe these very human communities in breathtaking terms. They are “chosen” and “precious in the sight of God.” They are God’s own dwelling place, a living temple, “able to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God.” 

They are a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own.” God’s intense love for these Christians has “called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

Our church has been battered with scandals, suffers decreasing membership and now, in this time of pandemic, our churches stand silent. But as our Scriptures testify, Christ’s love for his church — his first disciples and us now — remains undimmed even as we realize our frailty.



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