As this Easter Season is nearing a close, we do well to ponder the picture of the early Church described in the Acts of the Apostles. The kind of persecution and suffering they endured in those days should serve to remind us of the sacrifices we are often unwilling to make.
Yet these early descriptions are also an affirmation of what we in effect (at least structurally) are. In these descriptions 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. In these passages our Catholic faith is strongly affirmed. We see the Church in seminal form, already with her basic form and structures in place, all of which are recognizable to us.
Perhaps, though, we should examine the more challenging part of these descriptions, beyond the structure to the sacrifice. In Acts 5, there is a challenging portrait for the Church. This brief passage goes deeper than structures. It points toward the fundamental mission of the Church, a mission in which she courageously proclaims the truth, summons new followers to Christ, brings hope and healing, and drives out demons.
This is where all the structure “meets the road” and bears fruit for the kingdom of God. Thus, in this brief passage are many challenges for us as a Church. With all our structure and all our organization, do we accomplish these basic works of God? That is the challenge of such a reading.
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)
Let’s examine this passage in four stages:
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 something remarkable: clergy—in this case the first bishops, the apostles—are out and about among the people of God! They are making a bold and public proclamation of Jesus Christ. They are not just speaking among friends or whispering quietly at closed Church gatherings. They are out in the Temple, the very stronghold of some of their most formidable opponents, risking arrest, detainment, and even their lives to announce Jesus Christ.
These are courageous clergy! They will not deny the truth; they will not compromise. Their own safety is secondary to them. They want only to announce Jesus Christ and Him crucified, to announce that He is Lord and Savior and that all must come to faith in Him in order to be saved.
Soon these apostles will be arrested for their bold proclamations (Acts 5:17ff). Yet despite this 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 see that no weapon waged against them will prevail.
The text says, “they were altogether in Solomon’s portico,” but the Greek word used is far more descriptive and specific than simply implying that they were all physically together in one place. The Greek word is ὁμοθυμαδόν (homothumadon) and means “to have the same passion, to be of one accord, to have the same desire.” It comes from homou, meaning “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.
Divided, we present an uncertain trumpet; and who will follow an uncertain trumpet? Oh, that we would see the kind of unity described here, wherein the apostles were in such agreement with one another. They preached coherently and with unity, Jesus Christ, crucified yet raised from the dead.
In these opening lines, we see clergy who are courageous, out among both the faithful and their enemies, boldly preaching, and unified in the essentials. This is a vision for the Church that is challenging and too often lacking today.
Pray for greater unity rooted in doctrinal truth and for clergy who are 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 one, if you will—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 in Acts we see a Church focused on this essential mission: 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 an obligation to bring every man, woman, and child within 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 evangelical one.
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 sufficient to relegate evangelization to some small committee. Evangelization is the constant work of the clergy and all the people of God together. Every parish must be summoning every person within its boundaries to know Jesus, to love Him, to worship Him, to obey him, and to experience His healing power in Word, Sacrament, and in the Sacred Liturgy.
Too many of our parishes are merely buildings in a neighborhood, fortresses of rock, expanses of parking lot. Meanwhile, thousands within their boundaries either know nothing of Jesus or what they know is erroneous. Are the clergy and people out engaging their neighbors and being the presence to them? Or are they simply ensconced in the rectory or in the parish hall, having parish council meetings and debates about which group should sponsor this year’s spaghetti dinner?
Fellowship is fine, but evangelization must be first and foremost. Too often in our parishes we maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. We are too inwardly focused to be outwardly focused. Many souls are lost because we are not engaging in the primary work of evangelization.
If America has become a darkened culture—and it has—it happened on our watch. You can blame this on various factors, but we are the primary reason. We can’t just blame bishops or pastors. All of us allowed this to happen.
The early Church was engaged in “job one”: calling people to Jesus. What about your parish? What will you do to get the parish more focused on evangelization? Don’t just 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.
Here is described the essential work of the Church, which is to bring hope and healing to the multitudes. We must stand four-square against many things in our culture today: abortion, fornication, promiscuity, homosexual acts, same-sex unions, and embryonic stem cell research. We cannot, however, allow ourselves to be defined simply by what we are against. We must effectively proclaim what we are for.
What we are for, fundamentally, is the health and healing of the human person, both individually and collectively. Today, vast numbers are among the walking wounded. They are devastated by the effects of sin, strife, and painful situations. Some have physical ailments, others, spiritual ones. Some have been victims of abuse, often coming from broken and dysfunctional families that are so common today. Still others suffer financially.
Do those who are suffering see and experience the Church as a place to find healing, support, and encouragement? Many people today assert that if there any rules at all, if there is any mention of sin at all, then it is not a place of healing or of love. This is a false dichotomy, for law and love are not opposed, but rather facets of the same reality. Because God loves us, He commands us. His love and His law are one and the same.
As a Church, we have a lot of work to do. We must re-propose the gospel to a cynical, rebellious age. Even though this work is hard, we are not excused from doing it. We must be known as communities of healing, places where sinners can find a home and hear the truth in love.
For too long now, we have allowed our opponents to demonize us. As our culture continues to melt down, as our families are destroyed, 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, either, and yet they did it anyway.
In this passage from Acts we see 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 Jesus’ power, in His early Church, to bring forth healing.
Do we boldly request healing from God? Do we even expect it? Do the sick, the suffering, the addicted, and the tormented know that they can come to a Catholic parish and have clergy and lay people pray over them? Are parishes places where they know that people will walk with them in their journey of repentance and give them encouragement?
Or are we just going through the motions? Are we busy with parish meetings, figuring out how to raise funds for the next trip, or organizing the annual parish carnival? How are we known and perceived in the community? Are we a clubhouse or a lighthouse? Are we just some big meeting hall or are we a hospital, with ministry and healing for people with real suffering and sorrow?
A word about Peter’s “shadow” – The Church is called to engage individuals, both directly and indirectly. Because we are human beings, we do not always have the resources or the ability 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 this shadow is the ringing of the church bells. Perhaps it is the sight of clergy and religious sisters moving about the community in their religious attire. Perhaps it is processions of the faithful in May or on Corpus Christi. Perhaps it is the beauty of religious art and church buildings. Perhaps it is the memorable stories of the Bible, beautifully retold in poetry.
However she does it, the Church is meant to engage the culture, both implicitly and explicitly. It is clear today that the relationship between faith and culture has broken down. Holy days have been replaced by holidays. As the world becomes increasingly secular, it is even more important for us to celebrate our faith publicly, to make our presence in the culture widely known.
In recent times, Catholics have been all too willing to abandon their faith, their culture, their distinctiveness. The shadow of Catholicism no longer brings a moment of coolness in the heat of our cultural firestorm. Too many Catholics hide their faith. No longer do they wear signs of the faith or adorn their homes with Christian symbols. We have sought to fit in, to blend in, and have as a result become almost invisible.
The healing, 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.
In this portion of the text, the Church is described as a place of deliverance for many who were troubled by unclean spirits, by demons.
One of the great mistakes of the Church in the 1970s was our retreat from the spiritual work of deliverance. It is nothing short of malfeasance on the part of many in the clergy, who have surrendered one of their most essential works and relegated it to the secular order.
It often happens that people arrive at our rectories troubled, tormented by demons. Perhaps they hear voices or experience a dark presence. Perhaps they are tormented by depression and anxiety. While there are psychological dimensions, we cannot and should not simply conclude that psychotherapy is all that is needed. People may need such help, but they also need deliverance.
The Scriptures are clear that demons and satanic influence are realities we face. Demons are active and operative in our world. While it is wrong for us to reject the help that psychotherapy and medical intervention can provide, as God’s ministers we must be willing to play our role: praying for their deliverance from the demons who torment them.
The faithful must also be engaged in deliverance ministry. Scripture does 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). Major exorcism is reserved to the clergy, but deliverance prayers are something we should all pray for one another.
A 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 interact with psychotherapy and medical intervention but will also insist on the regular celebration of the Sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion.
Deliverance ministry can and must become a regular feature of parish life once again. Priests and parishes must reengage in this work of the Church, of delivering souls from bondage and bringing them to Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our freedom.
This passage is 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 structure alone is not enough. We must also be infused with and come alive again with the gifts described.
Share this reflection with your pastor, but do not make it all depend on him. Pray for him, but also take your own rightful role in the parish and in the wider community for effective change and powerful ministry. God deserves it, and his wounded people need it.