During the Easter Season every year, a strange thing happens with the Liturgy of the Word at each Mass: the first reading of scripture is no longer from the Old Testament (the Hebrew Scriptures) but is instead, like the second reading, from the New Testament (the Christian Scriptures); in particular we read from the Acts of the Apostles at all Masses – daily and on Sunday. So why the radical departure? And, why now – during the Easter Season? Why is that even important? The answer is as critical to how we view our faith today as it was to those believers who began to follow this Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, some two thousand years ago.
The Acts of the Apostles is an incredible book. It tells the story of how the followers of Jesus Christ became the Church that we are a part of today and in order to understand it better we have to first know a few things:
- Acts begins with the Ascension of Jesus and the promise of the Holy Spirit and continues through the missionary activities of the Apostles building the Church and ends with Paul making a case for the Christian Church to the Roman Empire to be equal to that of Judaism.
- Acts is in short a sort of historical biography of the creation of the Church – a Church that struggled with it’s identity: was it a continuation of the Jewish faith, a variation or something entirely new. Some may argue but I believe the answer to be “Yes, all of the above.” That is why, still today, we call ourselves Judeo-Christians.
- Jesus was a Jew. The Apostles were Jews. Most of those who followed Jesus, until Acts begins it’s story, were Jews. Act’s chapter two tells us they went every day to the Temple and there they devoted themselves to the teaching of the twelve and the breaking of the bread. But it is also here we have Peter preaching and having Gentiles stepping forward to follow Christ and were added as “adopted brothers and sisters” to the Chosen People – the Jews – and the Church begins to grow like wildfire.
- Up until this point the focus was on Jesus as the Living Word of God – present from the dawn of Christian till the end of time; present in both the Old and New Testament. Now the focus changes as Jesus returns to the Father to His Presence continuing not only in His Word but in His Church.
The Act’s of the Apostles, and in particular this first reading we hear today from Chapter 15, is fundamental to the foundation of faith we enjoy even today because it describes the very first COUNCIL of the Church – the Council of Jerusalem. This first COUNCIL of the twenty-one we have had altogether shows us not only an important step in the historical development of the Church’s growth but more importantly shows us the absolute and critical importance of the authority of the Church to determine the role and rule of faith in the lives of all believers. With the words, “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and us…” the die was cast to show all believers that the Church is not simply an institution or organization of human construct and administration but a divinely ordered extension of Jesus Christ himself. The gift of the Holy Spirit and the authority of the Apostles was the way Jesus meant for His mission and ministry to continue after His Ascension. That purpose is no different now that it was then.
I just read a study that more and more people today find the Church irrelevant in their lives. Even with those who say their faith is important to them there is a growing religious malaise when it comes to the so-called “institutional Church.” This has given rise to the “I don’t need religion just Jesus” theology. Let me say this as clearly as I can – this understanding is as much a heresy as any that has ever come along. We are all too quick today to dismiss the Church, the Pope, the Bishops and place them in the same category as any big government, big institution or big business and we forget about this power of the Holy Spirit and the authority given the Apostles and their successors from Jesus. Make sure you hear me correctly, if the power of the Holy Spirit and the authority given the Apostles and their successors from Jesus doesn’t make a difference than nothing in our faith does: Jesus is then not present in the Eucharist. The Sacraments then do not impart the graces we need to live lives hopeful of holiness. And we then have no chance of God’s mercy or forgiveness. Despite the dichotomies, paradoxes and parallels in the Gospel in this instance, it’s either all true or none of it is.
“It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and us…” Those words are never used lightly and for believers they should be like music to our ears as in a world filled with confusion, misinformation and downright wickedness of every sort, they tell us we have not been abandoned, or left to our own devices; any more than those who actually walked and talked with Jesus. Jesus is present in the Word AND in the Church –and make no mistake about – both carry His power and His authority. This is the message of the Acts of the Apostles and why during the Easter Season reading from Acts is as radical….and as important, as it gets.
+ Dcn. Tom
3 April 2016