Four Aspects of the Early Church

The first reading in today’s Mass (Tuesday of the 5th week of Easter) is very Catholic, and it’s too informative to just pass by. It presents the early Church as rather highly organized and possessed of some of the structures we know today in full form. Granted, some of these structures are in seminal form, but they are there.

We will also notice some qualities of the original kerygma that are at variance with what some modern thinkers declare should be the methodology of the Church. The soft Christianity of those who replace the cross with a pillow and who insist upon inclusion and affirmation to the exclusion of all else is strangely absent in this early setting.

Let’s examine the reading (Acts 14:21-27) and see there the true path of priests, teachers, and leaders in the Church. Four steps can be prescribed for our consideration, by noting that they went forth announcing, admonishing, appointing, and accounting.

I. AnnouncingAfter Paul and Barnabas had proclaimed the good news to that city and made a considerable number of disciples …

Notice that happiness is linked to the harvest of disciples. By proclaiming the good news, they yield a great harvest. As Catholics, we are not sent out merely to proclaim a list of duties; we are sent to proclaim the Gospel. The Gospel is this: God so loved the world that He sent His Son, who by dying and rising from the dead purchased for us a whole new life, free from sin and the obsessions of this world. He is victorious over all the death-directed drives of this world. Simply put, he has triumphed over these forces and enabled us to walk in newness of life.

So, we are sent to announce a new life, a life free from the bondage of sin, rebellion, sensuality, greed, lust, domination, and revenge. We are sent to announce a life of joy, confidence, purity, chastity, generosity, and devotion to the truth rooted in love.

Yes, here is a joyful announcement rooted in the cry, Anastasis (Resurrection)! New Life! The old order of sin is gone and a new life of freedom from sin is here!

Did everyone accept this as “good” news? No. Some, indeed many, were offended and sought to convict Christians as “disturbers of the peace.” Many people don’t like to have their sin and bondage called out. They prefer bondage, sin, and darkness to light, holiness, and freedom.

As Catholics, we announce what is intrinsically good news. We ought to start sounding like it by proclaiming it with joy! We must proclaim it without the bitterness and anger that are indicative of those who are more interested in winning an argument than in joyfully announcing something wonderful, freeing, and true.

II. Admonishing… they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch. They strengthened the spirits of the disciples and exhorted them to persevere in the faith, saying, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”

Preaching/teaching is a process. You don’t just preach or teach once and then move on; you return and reiterate. Paul and Barnabas are retracing their steps back through towns they have already evangelized. They do not just come, have a tent revival, and move on. They return and, as we shall see, they establish the Church.

Notice what they do:

  1. Encourage – They strengthen the spirits of the disciples.
  2. Exhort – They exhort them to persevere in the faith.
  3. Explain – They explain by saying, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”

Let’s focus especially on the explanation. Paul and Barnabas teach that if you’re not willing to endure the cross, no crown will come your way. If you can’t stand a little disappointment, if you can’t stand being talked about, if you think you should always be up and never down, then I’ve come to remind you that there’s no crown without a cross.

Yes, beware of “cross-less” Christianity. We do have good news to proclaim but there is also the truth that we get to the resurrection and the glory through the cross. There is a test in every testimony, a trial in every triumph. There are demands of discipleship, requirements for renewal, laws of love, and sufferings set forth for saints.

Good preaching combines the hardship and the happiness in one message. It is a joy to follow in the footsteps of our Lord, who endured hostility, hardship, and the horrors of the cross but still triumphed and showed that the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. Yes, He caught the wise in their craftiness and showed that the thoughts of the wise in this word are futile (cf 1 Cor 3:20). He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them (paradoxically) by the cross (cf Col 2:15).

Thus, St. Paul and Barnabas announce the cross, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles (cf 1 Cor 1:23). Many people today insist want the Church to soft-pedal the cross, to use honey instead of vinegar. No can do! We must joyfully announce and uphold the paradox of the cross. We must be willing to be a sign of contradiction to this world, which sees the way forward as only pleasure and the indulgence of sinful drives, which exalts freedom without truth or obedience, and which calls good what God calls sinful.

And so we announce the cross not merely as suffering, but as life, power, and love. By the power of the cross, it is possible to live without sin, to overcome rebellion, pride, lust, and greed; it is possible to learn to forgive and to live the truth in love.

The world will hate us for this, but such hardships, such crosses, are necessary preludes to the hallelujah of Heaven. The Church can do no less than to point to the cross. The center of our faith is a cross, not a pillow, and the cross is our only hope (Ave Crux spes unica nostra (Hail, O Cross, our only hope)). Yes, the Church announces the cross and admonishes a world obsessed with pleasure and with passing, fake happiness.

III. AppointingThey appointed presbyters for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith. Then they traveled through Pisidia and reached Pamphylia. After proclaiming the word at Perga they went down to Attalia.

Thus we see the ordination of priest leaders in every place. “Priest” is just an English mispronunciation of the word “presbyter.” Paul and Barnabas did not simply go about vaguely preaching and then moving on. They established local churches with a structure of authority. The whole Pauline corpus of writings indicates the need to continue oversight of these local churches and to stay in touch with the priest leaders established to lead these local parishes.

Later, St. Paul spoke of the need for this structure in other places, when he wrote to Titus: This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint presbyters in every town as I directed you (Titus 1:5).

This appointment was done through the laying on of hands and is called ordination today. It was a way of establishing order and office in the Church, in order to make sure that the work continued and that the Church was governed by order. This is why we call the sacrament involved here the “Sacrament of Holy Orders.”

Note, too, that a critical task for leaders in the Church is to develop and train new leaders. Too many parishes today depend on individual charismatic and gifted leaders, whose inevitable departure leaves a void rather than an ongoing ministry or organization. This should not happen. Good leaders train new leaders.

IV. AccountingFrom there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work they had now accomplished. And when they arrived, they called the church together and reported what God had done with them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.

Note that Paul and Barnabas are now returning to render an account for what they have done. Accountability is part of a healthy Church. Every priest should render an account to his bishop, and every bishop to his metropolitan and to the Pope. Today’s ad limina visits of bishops to the Pope is the way this is done. Further, priests are accountable to their bishop through various mechanisms such as yearly reports and other meetings.

A further background to this text is that Paul and Barnabas are returning to Antioch because it was from there that they were sent forth by the local bishops and priests on this missionary task.

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:2).

Thus, St. Paul was not the lone ranger that some think him to be. He was sent and was accountable.

But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days (Gal 1:15-18).

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up by revelation; and I laid before them (but privately before those who were of repute) the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, lest somehow I should be running or had run in vain (Gal 2:1).

The preacher and teacher must be accountable: For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So each of us shall give account of himself to God (Rom 14:10-12).

And thus we see some paths for priests, preachers, teachers, and leaders. We must announce the Gospel as good news, with joy and confidence. We must admonish a world obsessed with pleasures to embrace the cross as our only hope. We must continue to develop, train, and appoint leaders to follow after us; and we must be accountable to one another.

Here is a nice, quick portrait of some healthy traits for the Church!

3 Replies to “Four Aspects of the Early Church”

  1. Great article. My experience has shown me that leadership can not always be seen. Our eyes can play tricks on us. Only God knows His preachers and teachers. The day of separation will reveal all. Amen.

  2. If “priest” is a shortened form of the Latin “presbyterus”, then is “priest” an inadequate translation for the Latin “sacerdos” or the Greek “hiereus”?

    1. Interesting question. My own limited studies on this is that Hebrews (which uses the term Hiereus most) draws from a Jewish cultic sense of the word, and there was some desire to move to something less merely cultic and more broad. Thus today priests have a cultic role to be sure in the administration of the sacraments but also a role to provide order through headship over a community. Any way, I have not yet found a solid book on this matter, not that they are not out there. Ray Brown wrote a thoughtful essay where he makes a similar distinction btween the apostles (who were on the move) and bishops (episkopoi) who stayed put and oversaw a Church. Same office, but different focus. But as for Brown, I am not a big follower generally and I am not sure how solid he is, too much Hist. Crit Method for my taste.

Comments are closed.