Father Leslie Hoppe, OFM

May 7: Fifth Sunday of Easter

May 4, 2023

Maintaining unity

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

Early in the book of Acts, Luke paints an idealistic portrait of the first Christians, describing them as having “one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32). Still, he is too good of a historian to whitewash the reality of life in the early Christian community.

Luke reports the Ananias and Sapphira affair (Acts 5:1-11). The couple lied to Peter about the proceeds from a sale of their property. More serious was the dispute about the admission of Gentiles into the Christians community (Acts 15:1-35). Today’s first reading tells of a quarrel among the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem.

The Jewish community of Jerusalem was composed of Aramaic-speaking Jews and Greek-speaking Jews. The Aramaic speakers were born and raised in Galilee or Judea, while the Greek speakers came from the diaspora. Aramaic is a language related to but different from Hebrew. The latter was reserved for worship and the reading of the Scriptures. Greek was the common language of the wider Roman world. Converts to Christianity came from both segments of Jerusalem’s population.

The Acts text calls the Greek-speaking Jewish Christians “Hellenists” and the Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians “Hebrews.” The Hellenists complained that the widows from their community were not receiving a fair share of the support that the community gave to widows. 

In antiquity, widows — especially those from the lower class — were in a precarious economic position. They no longer belonged to their family of origin and, with their husband’s death, they no longer belonged to his family. They could expect support from neither family.

Though some women were economically independent (see Lk 8:1-3), most were not. When their husbands died, they depended on the charity of others to survive.

The Twelve Apostles did not wish to involve themselves in the dispute between the Hebrews and the Hellenists. They suggested that the community itself solve the problem by choosing respected individuals to ensure an equitable distribution of funds intended to support widows.

The community chose seven men. All had Greek names, so it is likely that the seven were Hellenists. They would have made certain that the widows from Greek-speaking Jewish Christians were taken care of.

The apostles prayed for the seven and confirmed their appointment. At a later time, it became customary to refer to the seven as “deacons”; however, the biblical text does not give them this title, nor does the word “deacon” ever appear in the book of Acts. In fact, the only individual called a deacon in the New Testament is a woman — Phoebe, one of Paul’s collaborators (Rom 16:1).

Luke is honest enough to describe some of the tensions among the first Christians. At the same time, he shows that the community found a way to deal with them without destroying the church’s unity.

Unfortunately, later generations of Christians failed to do the same. In 1054, a break between the churches of the East and West took place. In the 16th century, the unity of the Western church dissolved into the Catholic Church and various Protestant churches. Though the tensions and rivalries between Christian churches have diminished as result of the ecumenical movement, the divisions among the churches remain.

It is an understatement to say that there are serious divisions with the Catholic Church today. There are disputes about the Second Vatican Council, church discipline, the role and status of women, the liturgy, divorce and remarriage, priestly celibacy, participation in the sacramental life of the church, the role of the laity — to name just a few. How do we deal with these issues in a way that responds to the challenge they give but without undermining the unity of the church?

One approach is to begin discussion by identifying common ground on which all Catholics can agree and then moving carefully into matters of disagreement. Another approach is to employ the slogan that has been ascribed to St. Augustine and more recently to the Lutheran theologian Rupert Meldenius: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things charity.” 

The proper attribution is not significant. Finding a way to deal with disputes that have already disrupted the church’s unity is of utmost importance. The first Christians had their problems, but they found a way to deal with them that avoided a full-blown rupture of the church’s unity of faith. Christians today need to find a way to do the same.

The longer we put off such efforts the more difficult it will be to move beyond them.


  • scripture