In the first reading for the second Sunday of Easter, (in the C cycle) we read from Acts 5:12-17. And as I heard this reading effectively proclaimed at the liturgies this weekend, it occurred to me that there is a portrait of the Church here. But even more, it is a challenge for us, to be the sort of Church that is described!
For, in many biblical descriptions of the early Church, there is an affirmation of what we in effect are. We see the ministry of St. Peter, of the first apostles: bishops, priests, deacons, and the lay faithful. We see sacraments being celebrated and the basic structure of the liturgy set forth. And in these sorts of passages our Catholic faith is strongly affirmed. We see the Church in seminal form, already with her basic form in place, her basic structures, all of which are recognizable to us.
But in this brief passage from Acts 5 we also see a more challenging portrait for the Church. This is because this brief passage speaks and points deeper than structures. It points toward the fundamental mission of the Church, a mission in which she courageously proclaims the truth, is evangelical, summoning many new followers to Christ, and brings hope and healing, and drives out demons.
Here is where all the structure hits the road, and is meant to bear fruit for the kingdom of God. And thus in this brief passage are many challenges for us as a Church. For all our structure, and all our organization, do we accomplish these basic works of God? That is the challenge of a reading like this. Let us look at this brief passage in four stage and ask some probing questions. Here is the full text, and then the commentary:
Many signs and wonders were done among the people
at the hands of the apostles.
They were all together in Solomon’s portico.
None of the others dared to join them, but the people esteemed them.
Yet more than ever, believers in the Lord,
great numbers of men and women, were added to them.
Thus they even carried the sick out into the streets
and laid them on cots and mats
so that when Peter came by,
at least his shadow might fall on one or another of them.
A large number of people from the towns
in the vicinity of Jerusalem also gathered,
bringing the sick and those disturbed by unclean spirits,
and they were all cured. (Acts 5:12-16)
I. Courageous clergy – The text says, They were all together in Solomon’s portico. None of the others dared to join them, but the people esteemed them.
Note that in this passage, we see a remarkable thing, clergy, in this case the first bishops, the apostles, and they are out and about among the people of God! They are making a bold and public proclamation of Jesus Christ. They are willing to get into the danger zone. They are not just speaking among friends, and whispering quietly at close Church gatherings. They are out in the Temple, the very stronghold of some of their strongest opponents. They are risking their lives to announce Jesus Christ. They are risking arrest and detainment.
Note that here they are not hidden in some rectory, not detained in some parish council meeting, but out in the public square. And that are not in any safe corner of the public square, but in one of the more dangerous areas. They are engaging the issue, they are announcing Jesus Christ in some of the places where people and powerful leaders have most fiercely resisted and threatened them.
Here are courageous clergy. They will not gainsay (deny or qualify) the truth, they will not compromise. Their own safety is secondary. They want only this, to announce Jesus Christ, and him crucified; to announce that he is Savior and Lord, and that all must come to faith in him in order to be saved.
Within a few brief verses, these apostles will be arrested for their bold proclamations (Acts 5:17ff). And yet, they will praise God that they were deemed worthy to suffer for the sake of the name (Acts 5:41). They will also experience rescue by God, and that no weapon waged against them will prosper.
Are we, the clergy, like this today? It is so easy for us to hunker down our in our rectories, to hide in staff meetings, and to focus almost wholly on internal matters. Too easily, and too often, we have ceded the public square, be it the local park, or the culture in general. We have ceded these to our opponents, and the devil himself.
We fearfully hide, and many of us do not even wear clerical attire in public. If we speak boldly at all, it is only in the church. And, as many laity sadly note, even in there, we are shy and retiring, avoiding controversy and speaking only abstractions in generalities.
Rare indeed is the priest who boldly proclaims Jesus Christ, who are not ashamed of his doctrine in this present evil age. There is hope, yes, hop in the many younger clergy, who themselves having been fed up for years with vague generalities from the pulpit, and a “do no harm” mentality among the clergy, are now emerging to more boldly preach Christ. We can only hope that this movement will grow and that the clergy will once again be found in both their pulpits, and in the public square firmly and prophetically announcing Jesus Christ to a world gone mad.
Note to that the text says “they were altogether in Solomon’s portico” but the Greek word here is far more descriptive, and more specific than to simply imply they were all physically together in one place. The Greek word is ὁμοθυμαδόν (homothumadon) meaning, “to have the same passion…to be of one accord…to have the same desire.” from homou meaning, “the same,” and thumos meaning “passion, or desire.” In other words, these apostles were of one accord, one desire, one mind. They agreed on priorities and were focused on the one desire, on the one thing necessary.
Here too, we can only pray that our leaders, the Pope, bishops, priests and deacons and lay leaders in the Church, will all begin to focus on the one thing necessary, will be of one mind, one heart, one desire. Yet too often, we, like the laity, are so easily divided into camps, fighting and bickering among ourselves about which way is best, squabbling over legitimate diversity, and thus failing to find deeper unity on the essentials.
Divided, we present an uncertain trumpet; and who will follow an uncertain trumpet? But, there is some hope that, in recent years, younger clergy are less divided among themselves. Dissent is less of a problem today among the clergy then twenty years ago, and certainly thirty years ago. Most younger priest have deep love for the Church, her teachings, and our holy Pontiff, the Pope. The Lord is restoring the lost unity among the clergy, and making us more of one mind. But the devil is still at work, trying to divide us.
Oh that we would see the kind of unity described here wherein the Apostles were agreed among one another, and preached coherently, and with unity Jesus Christ, crucified and yet raised from the dead.
And us we see, in these opening lines, clergy who are courageous, out among the faithful, and among enemies, boldly preaching, and unified in the essentials. Here is a vision for the Church that is both challenging, and sadly lacking today. And yet, there are signs of hope. The Holy Spirit is not abandoned His Church. After years of strife and division, one can see reform and improvement underway. It will become more essential, for it is clear that persecution is descending rapidly upon the Church.
Increasingly, clergy, and all Catholics, must be willing to accept that they must stand and Solomon’s portico, not an easy place to preach the gospel, and preach it anyway. We must be willing to preach the gospel, in season and out of season (2 Tim 4:2).
II. Engaged in Evangelizing–the text goes on to say, Yet, more than ever, great numbers of men and women, believers in the Lord, were added to them.
The essential work of the Church, “Job 1,” is the Great Commission: Go therefore unto all the nations, teach them all that I commanded you, and baptize them, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19). Here then, is a Church focused on this essential mission, that of adding great numbers to those who know and love the Lord Jesus, and are called according to his purpose.
Oh that every pastor, and every parish, would understand that they have obligations to bring every man woman and child with in their parish boundaries to know the Lord Jesus, and to worship him in spirit and in truth. Too many parishes have an “enclave mentality” rather than an “evangelistic mentality.”
The evangelization plan of most parishes amounts to little more than opening the doors and hoping people come. This is not enough. It is not enough to relegate evangelization to some small committee. Evangelization is the work of the clergy, and all the people of God together and consistently working it. Every parish must be summoning every denizen of its parish boundaries to know Jesus, to love him, to worship and obey him, and to experience his healing power in Word, Sacrament and in the Sacred Liturgy.
Too many of our parishes are mere buildings in a neighborhood, fortresses of rock, expanses of parking lot. Meanwhile, thousands within the parish boundary know nothing of Jesus, or what they know of him is erroneous. Are the clergy of the parish along with their people out in the neighborhood, engaging their neighbors, and being the presence to them? Or, are they simply in the rectory, in the Parish Hall, having sodality meetings, parish council meetings, debates about what color to paint the women’s restroom, and whether the right group is sponsoring the spaghetti dinner this year?
Fellowship is fine. But evangelization is Job 1. Too often, in parishes, we maximize the minimum, and minimize the maximum. We are too inwardly focused to be outwardly focused. And many souls are loss because of our loss of engagement in the primary work of evangelization.
If America has become a darkened culture, and it has, it happened on our watch. Go ahead and blame this or that factor, but the primary reason is us. It is not enough to blame bishops, is not enough to blame pastors, it is all of us, priests and people who let this happen.
This passage from Acts makes it clear that the early Church was growing and adding great numbers of men and women. But the point is not numbers, per se, the point is souls being brought to Jesus Christ for healing.
Does your parish have a vigorous sense of its obligation to every man woman and child in its parish boundaries? If so, are you knocking on doors, or in the public square inviting people to Mass, calling them to Jesus? Or are you just ringing the bell hoping they come? Is your parish engaged in the public square, are you out in the local market? Is your parish out in the public areas? Or are you just a piece of real estate with an access road into a large parking lot with the building at one end?
The early Church was engaged in Job 1, calling people to Jesus. What of your parish? And what will you do, if necessary, to get the parish more focused on Job 1. It is not enough to complain about your pastor, what will you do?
III. Hope and healing. The text says, Thus, they even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, so that when Peter came by, at least his shadow might fall on one or another of them.
And here too, we see described the essential work of the Church, which is to bring hope and healing to the multitudes. Sadly, today, we have allowed the Church to be defined more in terms of what we are against, than what we are for, and what we offer. It is true, we must stand foursquare against many things in our culture today, to include abortion, fornication, promiscuity, homosexual acts, Same-sex unions, embryonic stem cell research, capital punishment, and so forth. But we cannot simply be defined in terms of what we are against. We must effectively proclaim what we are for.
And what we are for, fundamentally, is a health and healing of the human person, both individually and collectively. Vast numbers, today, are among the walking wounded. They are devastated by the effects of sin, of strife, and a very painful situations. Some have physical ailments, other, spiritual ailments. Some have been victims of abuse, abuse that has often come from broken and dysfunctional families so common today. Others suffer financially.
In the midst of all this, do those who suffer see, and experience the Church as a place to find healing, support, and encouragement? Sadly, although it is unfair, we have too easily allowed the Church to be defined, as a place not of healing, but as a place of harsh criticism and judgment only. It is a true fact, that we must speak the truth in love, in the increasing darkness that is our culture. But it is also true, that we must provide forgiveness, mercy, healing, and hope to those weighed down by the burdens of this modern, confused and sinful age.
Sadly today, many set up a false dichotomy. In effect, they assert that if there any rules at all, if there is any mention of sin at all, it is not a place of healing or of love. But this is a false dichotomy. For, properly understood, law and love are not opposed, but are facets of the same reality. Because God loves us, he commands us. His love and his law are one and the same.
We have a lot of work to do today, as the Church, to re-propose the Gospel to a cynical rebellious age. But even though this work is hard, we are not excused from doing it. We must be known as communities of healing, where sinners can find a home, hear the truth, but hear it in love.
For too long now, we have allowed our opponents to demonize us. But as our culture continues to melt down, as our families are in the shredder, as the effects of sin loom ever larger, we must continue to articulate a better way, the way of Jesus. Is it hard? Sure! But it was not easy for the first Apostles, and yet they did it anyway.
We see in this gospel, the amazement of many at the healing that was found even in the mere shadow of Simon Peter. The sick and the suffering were amazed at the power of Jesus, in his early Church, to bring forth healing.
Do people see our churches, our parishes this way? How many parishes even had healing masses? While it is true that suffering and the cross are part of the Christian walk, do we even aske God for healing today? Do we even lay hands on the sick and ask for healing? Yes, we do have the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, but do we celebrate it merely as a ritual? Do we actually, and boldly request healing from God? Do we even expect it? Do the sick and the suffering, the addicted and the tormented, know that they can come to a Catholic parish and have clergy and people lay hands on them and pray over them? Are parishes places where people know that people will walk with them in their journey of repentance, and give them encouragement?
Or are we just going through the motions, a series of parish meetings, reading the minutes of the last meeting, and figuring out how to raise funds for the next trip some casino, or for some parish carnival? How are we known and perceived in the community? re we a clubhouse, or a lighthouse? Are we just some big meeting hall, or are we a meaningful hospital with ministry and healing for people with real suffering and sorrow?
It is very clear from this passage is the earliest Christian Catholic community was powerfully experienced as a place of healing. Even the mere shadow of Simon Peter was sought for its healing power.
A word about this “shadow.” The Church is called not only to directly engage individuals, but also to indirectly engage them. Because we are human beings, we do not always have the resources or the capacity to engage everyone at a deeply personal level. But even here, the shadow of the Church is meant to fall on the community, and bring healing. Perhaps it is the ringing of the church bells, perhaps it is the clergy and religious sisters who move about the community in visible attire. Perhaps it is processions of the faithful in May, or Corpus Christi processions. Perhaps it is the beauty of religious art, and Church buildings Perhaps it is simply the memorable stories of the Scriptures as beautifully retold in art and poetry.
Whatever it is, the Church is meant to engage the culture, both implicitly and explicitly. It is clear, that the synthesis between faith and culture, in our current times has broken down. Holy days have been replaced by holidays etc. And as the world becomes increasingly secular, all the more reason, for us to publicly celebrate our faith to make our presence in the culture or widely known.
Even if every parish has not yet had the capacity to engage every man woman and child in the parish boundaries, its presence through arts, architecture, and cultural influence can and must be felt. The shadow of the Church, bringing healing and a saving summons, must fall on everyone, even if not directly, at least indirectly.
Sadly, in recent times, Catholics have been all too willing to abandon their faith, their culture, their distinctiveness, such that the shadow of Catholicism no longer brings a moment of coolness in the heat of our cultural stupor. Too many church buildings look nothing like a church. Catholics hide their faith, no longer wearing signs of the faith, having their houses adorned with Christian symbols and so forth. We have sought to fit in, to blend in and to be almost invisible.
Once again, the shadow: the healing shadow, the cooling shadow of the Church, and of faith, must be felt in our culture.
IV. Delivering from Demons–the text concludes by saying, A large number of people from the towns in the vicinity of Jerusalem also gathered, bringing the sick, and those disturbed by unclean spirits, and they were all cured.
We have already discussed the importance of the Church as a place of healing. Here, the church is also described as a place of deliverance. It will be noted that the text describes that many were troubled and disturbed by unclean spirits, by demons.
One of the great tragedies of the modern church, since the 1970s, has been our retreat from the spiritual work of deliverance. It is indeed a shocking malfeasance by many in the clergy, who have surrendered to their work, one of their most essential works, and relegated it to the secular order.
For, it often happens that people arrive at our rectories, and they are tormented by demons, they are troubled. Perhaps they hear voices, perhaps they experience a dark presence, perhaps they are tormented by depression and anxiety. And while it is true that there are psychological dimensions to this, we cannot, and should not, simply conclude that such people only need psychotherapy. Perhaps, in fact likely, they do. But they also need deliverance.
The Scriptures are clear, demons, and satanic influence, are realities of life faced by human beings. Demons are active and operative. And, while it is wrong for us simply to reject the help that psychotherapy and medical intervention can play, we, as God’s ministers must be willing to play our role: to pray for deliverance over the people of God from the demons who torment them.
The faithful too, must be engaged in deliverance ministry. The Scriptures do not present the deliverance from demons as merely a work of the clergy. The Lord gave authority to drive out demons not just to the 12 but also to the 72, (cf also Mk 16:17-18, inter al).
A chief and central work of the Church is to deliver people from the power of Satan, to transfer them from the kingdom of darkness unto the Kingdom of Light, to shepherd God’s people out of bondage and into freedom. When people come to us, tormented by demonic incursions we can, and ought to pray for them. Parishes should be places where people can find clergy and others trained in deliverance ministry to lay hands on them and pray for their deliverance.
Deliverance ministry also involves walking with people for a lengthy period, helping them to name the demons that afflict them, to renounce any agreement with those demons, to repent and to receive deliverance and the power of Jesus name. Any good deliverance ministry will also interact with good psychotherapy, good medical intervention, and insist on the regular celebration of the Sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion for those who need deliverance.
Yes, our parishes must be known as places of deliverance. Places, where trained clergy and lay faithful know how to walk with, lay hands, and deliver the faithful from demonic incursions, torments, and afflictions. In rare cases, where there is full possession, exorcism must be employed by trained clergy appointed by the Bishop.
Deliverance ministry can and must become regular features of parish life once again. Sadly, too many priests and parishes have gotten “out of the business” of delivering souls. They have become content merely to issue references to the local psychotherapists, or psychiatrist or social workers. It is simply not enough. Priests and parishes have to reengage the chief work of the Church of delivering souls from bondage and bringing them to Jesus Christ the author and perfecter of our freedom.
Such a powerful and challenging portrait of the early Church. As Catholics we have the glory of reflecting quite clearly the structure and form of the early Church. But sadly, structure alone is not enough. We must also be infused with and and come alive again with the gifts described in a passage like this.
Share this reflection from Acts with your Pastor. But do not make it all depend on him. Pray for him, and also take your own rightful role in the parish and the wider community for effective change and powerful ministry. God deserves it, and his wounded people need it.