A Brief Directive for Church Leaders

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

One can detect 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 many today, who remove the cross and replace it 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 the true path of priests, teachers, and leaders in the Church. Four steps are prescribed for our consideration based on this reading. We note 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 the happiness is linked to the harvest. Proclaiming the Good News, they yield a great harvest. We are not, as Catholics, sent out to proclaim a mere list of duties. We are sent to proclaim the gospel: that God has loved the world and sent His Son, who by dying and rising from the dead has purchased for us a whole new life, free from sin and the rebellious obsessions of this world. He is victorious over all the death-directed drives of this present evil age. Simply put, He has triumphed over these forces and enabled us to walk in newness of life.

God save us from brands of the faith in which rules and the recitation of obligations are all that is heard by sour-faced saints, dead disciples, fussy pharisees, bored believers, and frozen chosen! Save us from Pharisaical philosophies who are obsessed with particulars that are not even commanded by God, who sneer at things they consider lower than their own preferences.

No, we are sent to announce a new life, set 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, 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. Some people don’t like to have their sin and bondage called out as such. They prefer darkness to light, holiness, and freedom.

As Catholics, we announce what is intrinsically good news and we ought to start sounding like it by proclaiming it with joy! There should be no bitterness or anger, which would be more indicative of one trying to win an argument rather than 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 and teaching are processes. You don’t just do it once and then move on; you return and reiterate. Note that they retrace their steps back through towns that they have already evangelized. They do not just come, have a tent revival, and then move on. They return, and as we shall see, they establish the Church.

Notice what they do:

        • Encourage – They strengthen the spirits of the disciples
        • Exhort – They exhort them to persevere in the faith
        • Explain – They say, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”

Let’s focus especially on the last the point. In effect, they announce and teach, “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 sometimes, if you think you should always be up and never down, I’ve come to remind you: no cross, no crown.”

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 hardship and 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 yet triumphed and showed that the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. Yes, He has caught the wise in their craftiness and shown that the thoughts of the wise of this world 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).

Saints Paul and Barnabas announce the cross, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (cf 1 Cor 1:23). Many today insist that the Church soft-pedal the cross, that we use “honey, not vinegar.” No can do. We joyfully announce and uphold the paradox of the cross and must be willing to be a sign of contradiction to this world, which sees only pleasure and the indulgence of sinful drives as the way forward, that exalts freedom without truth or obedience, and calls good what God calls sinful.

Too many so-called Christian denominations have adopted the pillow as their image and a “give the people what they want” mentality. It is 180 degrees out of phase with the cross.

The Catholic Church does not exist to reflect the views of her members but to reflect the views of her founder and head, Jesus Christ. Jesus announced the cross without ambiguity, saying, as he went out to die, Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to me (John 12:31-32).

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 and to overcome rebellion, pride, lust, and greed. It is possible by the power of the cross 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!). 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 “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 a 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 to make sure the work continued and that the Church was governed by order. This why we call the sacrament involved here the “Sacrament of Holy Orders.”

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

IV. Accounting From 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 Saints 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, 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.” 3 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 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).

Here 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 (and Church members affected by this mentality) to embrace the cross as our only hope. We must continue to develop, train, and appoint leaders to follow after us. Finally, we must be accountable to one another.

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

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Brief Directive for Church Leaders

Five Lessons on Faith From Peter’s Time in Jail

On today’s Feast of Saints Peter and Paul it behooves us to look in detail at the first reading from today’s Mass and see in it a kind of roadmap to growing in faith. Peter’s story and experience were not just for him; they were for us as well. Let’s see what we can learn as we focus on five facts of faith from the story of St. Peter in today’s first reading.

I. The Persecution of Faith Persecution is the normal state of affairs for a Christian. Not every Christian suffers equally, but Jesus spoke often about the need to be willing to endure persecution for His sake. He said, A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also (Jn 15:20). He added, If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you (Jn 15:19). He said elsewhere, In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33). He also warned, Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets (Lk 6:26).

Therefore, persecution should be expected. If it is wholly absent, we may have some soul-searching to do as to whether we are witnessing to the Faith authentically.

We should not be surprised to see how the early Church was persecuted. This passage describes the persecution, driven by Herod, that breaks out in Jerusalem. During this persecution, James (of “Peter, James, and John” fame) is killed. Peter is also rounded up and slated for death. Sitting in prison, he awaits his fate.

Note the strange excessiveness of the persecution. Peter is secured with double chains and is forced to sleep between two soldiers. Outside there are even more guards keeping watch. Wow! Here’s a persecution that is strangely excessive and obviously rooted in fear!

As we look at persecution today, we notice something similar. There seems to be a very special hatred reserved for Christians, especially Catholics. In the public school system, it is permissible to speak about almost anything: homosexuality, how to use condoms, and even certain religions such as Islam. But if the name of Jesus is mentioned, or Scripture is even obliquely referenced, lawsuits are threatened, and television cameras appear! What drives this strange fear and hatred for Christ? Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Zoroastrians, and even Methodists and Episcopalians do not face such hostility!

While this animosity is somewhat mysterious, it does speak to us of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and particularly of the Church He founded the Catholic Church. Satan surely inspires special hatred for Jesus and His Church. In a certain sense, we can take it as a compliment. Perhaps it is driven by the fact that, deep down, they know that what Jesus and His Church teaches is the truth.

The prince of this world hates Jesus and has always inspired his followers to do so as well, whether they follow him consciously or unconsciously. Yes, persecution is a natural, expected ordeal for a Christian.

II. The Prayer of Faith In the midst of this, we note that the Church is described as praying fervently to God. The Greek word translated here as fervent is ἐκτενῶς (ektenos), which means “fully stretched.” The word evokes the image of a taught rope. Here is prayer that is stretched out, that is costly, that involves more than a brief moment. Here is praying that is persevering. This sort of prayer involves more than an honorable mention in the Prayers of the Faithful at Mass. Here is the sort of prayer that involves long hours. Time and effort are invested. This is the sort of prayer that nags God until the solution is at hand.

There is an expression in the African-American community, “by and by.” It refers to the need to be patient and persevering in prayer while waiting for God to answer in His own time. It is up to us to keep praying, to pray without ceasing, to resist discouragement and just keep on praying.

III. The Prescription of Faith In the midst of this fervent prayer of the Church, a hidden process begins. An angel is dispatched from Heaven, enters the jail, and comes to Peter. His instructions to Peter amount to a kind a prescription for a life of faith. We note it in five stages:

Rise! The angel says, “Get up”. Here is a call to rise from death, to rise from despairing and doubt, to stand up! Every Christian must die to sin and rise to new life, must die to slavery and despair and rise as a free and active agent, ready to walk with God.

Restrain The angel then tells him to put on his cincture (belt). The belt is traditionally a sign of chastity and of continence (restraint). The Christian life cannot be riddled with unchasteness or with other excesses of this world such as greed and gluttony. These hinder the journey; they weigh us down.

Ready Peter is also told to put on his sandals. This symbolizes readiness to make a journey. When I was young, my mother would often signal me by saying, “Put on your shoes and get ready to go.” Christians must be ready to make the journey, with their feet shod with the gospel of peace, with their shoes on. They must be ready to set out on the great pilgrimage with Jesus to Heaven: up over the hill of Calvary and into glory. Put your shoes on and get ready to go!

Righteous Peter is then told to put on his cloak. In Scripture, the cloak or robe often symbolizes righteousness. For example, the Book of Revelation says that it was given to the bride to be clothed in fine linen. The text goes on to say that the linen robe is the righteousness of the saints (Rev 19:8). There is also the parable of the wedding guests, one of whom was not properly clothed and was therefore thrown out (Mat 22:11). At a baptism, the priest points to the white garment worn by the infant and tells everyone to see in this white garment the outward sign of the baby’s Christian dignity. He says that the infant is to bring this garment unstained to the great judgment seat of Christ. Thus, the instruction of the angel reminds us that every Christian is to be clothed in righteousness and is to be careful to keep this robe, given by God, unsoiled by the things of this world.

Run! – Finally, there is the command of the angel, “Follow me.” In other words, run the race of faith. Toward the end of his life, St. Paul said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7). Jesus told His disciples, simply, “Follow me.”

IV. The Procession of Faith Following this there comes a series of instructions from the angel to Peter (and also to us). These instructions amount to a type of direction to make the procession of faith. We see three things:

Not easy The text says that they passed the first guard, then a second, and finally came to an iron gate. Similarly, in our journey there are obstacles and dangers. We must recall that we live in paradise lost. Life is not easy; there are hurdles and perils. We are not called to avoid them; we are called the face them with courage. God allows these in our life in order to test us, to see if we will follow Peter’s example and move past the one guard, then the second, and then the apparently locked gate (which God opens for us). Life is not easy, but God’s grace conquers the challenge, if we only trust Him.

Narrow The text describes a narrow alley through which Peter and the angel pass. Jesus spoke of the way that leads to salvation as a narrow way (e.g., Mat 7:14). Why is this so? Because the narrow way is the cross! Most are not interested in this difficult path, the path that is steep and narrow. Most look for the broad highway through the valley, the easy way. The world still insists that we live in paradise (which Adam rejected) and that life should be easy. It is a lie; the path now is over the hill of Calvary. It is a narrow and steep path, but it is the only true way to glory. Avoid preachers who never mention sin, who never speak of repentance, who never talk about struggles and difficulties. Avoid them. The tuning fork, the A440 of the gospel is the cross. There are glories and joys in this life to be sure, but the fundamental path to Heaven and glory is through the cross. It cannot be avoided. Walk the narrow way, the way of the cross. Do not listen to the “prosperity preachers” who exaggerate one truth and exclude all others.

Need an angel As soon as Peter emerges from the prison into the openness of freedom, the angel disappears, but until this point, he needed an angel! So do we. Though demons are roaming and patrolling this earth, so are God’s angels. We all have an angel assigned to us and many other angels are along the way to help us. Never forget this. We do not journey alone. For every demon, there are two angels (Rev 9:15). Stop fearing demons and call on God’s angels, trusting in His grace.

V. The Product of Faith There comes finally the product of faith through which Peter is able to confidently assert, Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me (Acts 12:11).

Do you know this? Or is it only true because others have said so? Do you experience God’s saving glory? Have you experienced Him rescue you? How? Do you have a testimony? The normal Christian life is to know and experience that our God can and does rescue us from this hell-bound, sin-soaked world. We have a God who can make a way out of no way, and can, as St. Paul says, Rescue us from this present evil age (Gal 1:4). Do you know this? Have you experienced this? Then tell someone! It is the product of faith!