As the title acknowledges, most scholars consider Mark’s Gospel to be that of Simon Peter. Tradition says that Mark was Peter’s secretary or scribe, and the recollections he recorded are really those of Peter.
One of the things that make Mark’s Gospel unique is its sense of immediacy. Part of this is due to his frequent use of the word “immediately” (eutheos in Greek)—more than forty times in what is the shortest of the four Gospels. Here are just a few examples:
And immediately the Spirit drove [Jesus] into the wilderness (Mk 1:12).
And when He had gone a little further, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the ship mending their nets, and immediately He called them (Mk 1:19-20).
And they went into Capernaum; and immediately on the sabbath day He entered into the synagogue and taught (Mark 1:21).
Another aspect of the Gospel of Mark contributing to its vibrancy and sense of immediacy is Mark’s tendency to render things in the present tense. Here is how Michael Pakaluk describes it:
Mark varies his verb tenses in apparently unpredictable ways. Sometimes he uses the present tense, sometimes the imperfect, sometimes the “aorist.” Most translations solve the problem by throwing everything into the past tense. And yet this removes the vividness that Mark’s frequent use of the historic present conveys. But when one approaches the text as originally a spoken narrative, one can generally retain Mark’s tense changes …. Someone speaking from memory … will change tenses to keep the hearer’s attention, but mainly because, as he is speaking “from memory,” he finds it easy to revert to the viewpoint of what it was like to be there (Introduction 24-25).
That is one of the things that make this new translation so interesting and refreshing. It puts the reader right into the scene, watching the action unfold. Consider Pakaluk’s translation of the beginning of Mark Chapter 3:
He entered the synagogue again. A man with a withered hand was there. They were watching him intently, to see if he would heal the man on the Sabbath, so they could accuse him. So Jesus tells the man with the withered hand, “Stand up in the middle.” He says to them, “Is it allowable, on the Sabbath, to do good or to do evil? To save a life or to put to death?“ They were silent. He looks around at them with anger, pained that their hearts are like stone, and he says to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” The man stretched it out. His hand was restored to normal. The Pharisees walk out, and immediately started to scheme against him, with the Herodians, to find some way to destroy him (Mark 3:1-6).
Notice the calm shifting between the past tense and the “historic present.” It is as if we are there in the room witnessing the events while our interpreter and storyteller, Mark, adds commentary for us.
Pakaluk’s skillful translation makes the text new and vibrant for me. It is like listening as Mark (who records Peter’s preaching) speaks directly to me. Engendering such a feeling is important because the Gospels are not meant to be like “spectator sports.” We are not just watching the lives of others unfold; this is our life, too. We are in the Gospel narrative: we are Peter; we are Mary Magdalene. These are not just distant events being recalled from memory; they are made present to us and become our story, too.
Another aspect that makes Mark’s Gospel so interesting and narrative-like is his use of the Greek work “kai.” Pakaluk describes it in this way:
In Greek, sentences in a continuous narrative must be joined, each with the one before, through a “connecting particle,” such as “hence,” “now,” “therefore,” “but,” and so on. Writers of ancient Greek typically vary these connectors for subtlety and argument. But Mark is famous for largely limiting himself to one such connective—the simplest one, at that—“and” (kai). The majority of the sentences begin with “and.” Translators usually deal with the problem by just leaving the word out. But Mark’s usage makes more sense if we think of how we speak when we tell a story: “So I left my driveway. And I turned around the block. And I saw a man with a pig. And I thought it was strange. So I stopped to ask him about it. And he said…” And so on (Introduction 24).
In this new translation of Mark, Pakaluk retains a lot more of the “and” (kai) connectors, varying its translation just a bit for variety: “and,” “so” “once again,” and so forth. This retention of “kai” also adds to the narrative or storytelling quality of the text.
I am very grateful for this fresh translation of the Gospel of Mark and hope you find it as helpful as I do. Along with the new translation, Pakaluk provides solid commentary that includes the consideration of many different interpretations of the text. If you (or perhaps your Bible study group) are looking for an interesting and informative book, consider this one.
This Sunday’s Gospel is remarkable in that although the apostles have seen the resurrected Jesus several times, they seem to be retreating into the past. Jesus must summon them—if you’ll pardon the expression—back to the future.
They were going to return to fishing, but the Lord calls them away and points them to the future, in which they go out to all the nations and summon them to saving faith.
This Gospel shows Jesus summoning the apostles back to their crucial call, one focused not in the past but in the future. Indeed, fellow believers, if this had not gone the right way, our faith might well have been in jeopardy. We are the future that Jesus sought to preserve. Our coming to the faith depended on Jesus successfully summoning Peter and the other apostles back to the future.
Let’s look at today’s Gospel in four stages.
I. Regrettable Reversal – At that time, Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. He revealed himself in this way. Together were Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We also will come with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Peter had no business going back to fishing. The Lord had clearly called him away from fishing (e.g., And he said to them, follow me and I will make you fishers of men. Immediately, they left their nets and followed him (Mat 4:19)).
In today’s Gospel we see Peter going back to commercial fishing. This is not recreational fishing; the commercial nets are out. It is astonishing that after having encountered Jesus risen from the dead on at least two occasions he’s going back to fishing!
We often think that if only we were to witness a miracle our faith would be strong, but there is little evidence for this. Many who see signs and wonders ponder whether what they have seen can be topped. Their fascination is engaged but not their faith. Ultimately, faith produces miracles; miracles do not produce faith.
Peter’s return to fishing is not only regrettable, it is scandalous, for in so doing it leads others say to him, “We will also go with you.” When we backslide we often bring others with us. Looking at it more positively, when we grow in holiness we also bring others with us. Sadly, Peter has regressed and others follow him. As we shall see, though, the Lord will not abandon His Church.
While we may wonder at St. Peter’s relapse, we should recognize that we too easily do the same. We praise Jesus with the same mouth that sometimes curses and gossips. We claim that we belong to Christ and are one body with Him, that we are a temple of the Holy Spirit, and yet with that same body comes forth fornication and other sexual impurity. We say that God is love, yet from us too easily comes anger, hatred, and a lack of love for the poor and troubled.
We too easily run back to the things from which we have been called away. The Lord points us forward, but we run backward.
Just as He did with the apostles in this Gospel, the Lord must stand on the shore of our baptismal waters and call us out of the past and back to the future, one of holiness and perfection. Too easily we run from this. Yes, the Lord is faithful and stands on the shore calling us back. Would that we could say, in the words of an old gospel song, “Goodbye world, I stay no longer with you, goodbye pleasures of sin, I stayed along with you! I’ve made up my mind to go God’s way the rest of my life”! Another gospel song from the 1940s says, “No more, no more! I’ll never turn back no more! I’m going to keep on crossing till I reach the other shore. Rains may come, floods may roar, storms may race, and winds may blow, but I’ll never turn back, no more!”
Would that this were the case! The Lord keeps calling us, calling from the shore, out across the waves of our discontent.
II. Redeeming Reminder – When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” They answered him, “No.” So he said to them, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.” So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish. So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, for they were not far from shore, only about a hundred yards, dragging the net with the fish.
The Lord stands on the shore and does again for them what he had done some three years earlier, when He called them from fishing to evangelizing. He does not excoriate them; He does not call them fools or some other epithet. He calls out to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” Rather than rebuking them, He asks them to assess the situation, to consider whether their course of action has yielded anything; they admit that they’ve caught nothing.
Strangely, this whole incident seems familiar. The Lord tells them that if they cast the net over the other side of the boat, they will find something. Suddenly the nets are full! Oh, how this spoke to their hearts; it was just what happened three years ago! Scripture says,
And when he had ceased speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking, they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him (Luke 5:4ff).
In today’s Gospel, John draws the obvious conclusion: “It is the Lord!” The Lord has given them a redeeming reminder. He does not rebuke them; he only reminds them. In effect, He says, “Come out of the past. Remember the future to which I have summoned you, a future of going forth to the nations and announcing the gospel for all to hear. Your life is not about fish; it is about humanity!”
What reminders has the Lord put in your life? How has He stood on the shore and called to you with some reminder? Perhaps it was a tattered old Bible or maybe a hymn that you heard. Perhaps it was your grandmother’s rosary beads stored away in a dresser drawer. Perhaps it was a funeral or a wedding.
In moments like these, the Lord stands on the shore of life and calls to you. He reminds you of your call and asks you to consider whether your present course is doing anything for you whatsoever; often it has not. Perhaps there is fleeting wealth or momentary popularity, but otherwise there is little else to show for it.
The Lord calls us back to the future, a future (and a present) oriented toward Heaven. Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, seek the things that are above, rather than the earth below (Colossians 3:1).
In the words of a popular hymn, “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me. See on the portals he’s waiting and watching, watching for you and for me; Come home, come home! Ye who are weary come home! Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling oh sinner come home!”
Here, then, is a redeeming reminder that Jesus is calling, softly and tenderly: “Come out of the past. Come away from commercial fishing. Look to the future, the future of saving souls!”
III. Reorienting Repast– When they climbed out on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you just caught.” So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish. Even though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come, have breakfast.” And none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they realized it was the Lord. Jesus came over and took the bread and gave it to them, and in like manner the fish. This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to his disciples after being raised from the dead. When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He then said to Simon Peter a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” Jesus said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that Jesus had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”
Notice three basic elements through which the Lord reorients them. To reorient (re (again) + oriens (East)) literally means to turn someone back to the East, back toward the rising of the sun (Son), back toward the light and away from the darkness.
The fish are hauled in; their number is plentiful. The specific number, 153, has significance more for humanity than for fish. While much has been written on the significance of this number, the most likely explanation seems to be that this was the number of known nations at the time. Hence, that exactly 153 fish are caught seems to be the Lord’s way of saying that it’s not the fish but all humanity, all the nations. God can use even our backsliding, our sins, to call us away from them. Yes, He can use our sins as a teachable moment.
As Peter comes ashore, he sees a fire. Though the text is silent on this, surely it must have unnerved him, for here was a charcoal fire, the same sort of fire that was in the courtyard of Caiaphas the high priest, where Peter had denied the Lord (Jn 18:18). Unnerved by the recognition of what he had done—or rather failed to do—Peter felt unworthy. Yes, this fire reminded him of his denial of the Lord.
Yet even Peter’s repentance is somewhat egocentric. It would seem that he wonders, “How could I have done this, I, who promised the Lord to be with Him even if all should rage against Him!” In moment of cowardice, he had denied the Lord. Oh yes, this fire, this charcoal fire, is bothersome indeed! The Lord stands next to the fire and looks at Peter much as He had in the courtyard of Caiaphas when, after Peter had denied Him for the third time, He turned and looked at Peter (Lk 22:61). How this fire bothers Peter!
Now comes a tender and powerful conversation. To us who read the text in English, the conversation focuses on the fact that the Lord asks Peter the same question three times: “Do you love me?” In Greek, there are subtleties that do not come through in the English translation.
In the English translation, the Lord asks Peter simply, “Do you love me?” Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, I love you.” The Greek text, however, is both more subtle and more specific. In Greek, the Lord asks, Σίμων Ἰωάννου, ἀγαπᾷς με πλέον τούτων? (Simon Joannou agapas me pleon touton? – Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?) Jesus has asked about “agape” love. However, Peter replies, κύριε, σὺ οἶδας ὅτι φιλῶ σε. (Kyrie, su oidas oti philo se. – Lord, you know that I have brotherly love for you.)
The Lord asked for agape love, the highest love, wherein we love God above all things and all people, including ourselves. Peter does not answer with agape love. Rather, he replies that he loves the Lord in a brotherly (philo) way. This is far short of what the Lord asked. (I realize that there are debates about the Greek used in this passage, but I am convinced that the use of the two different words is significant. I have written further on this topic here: Agape vs Philo in John 21.)
In spite of Peter’s response of imperfect love, the Lord still has something important for him to do: Feed my lambs.
A second time, the same dialogue sets up. Again, the Lord asks for unconditional, ultimate love (agape), but Peter can only return a lesser love, a brotherly love (philo), a sort of affection. Again, the Lord does not reject Peter. He accepts Peter’s response and tells him, Tend my sheep.
On the third occasion, Jesus asks Peter, Σίμων Ἰωάννου, φιλεῖς με; (Simon, son of John, do you have brotherly affection (phileis) for me? This third question strikes Peter to the heart and causes him to exclaim that he (only) has brotherly love. Yet again, the Lord does not reject him, but rather assigns him a task: Feed my lambs.
This is one of the most poignant, beautiful, and honest moments in Scripture. The Lord looks with love to a disciple and asks him for the highest love; that disciple honestly answers that he has only imperfect love to offer. Perhaps for the first time in his life, Peter is being absolutely honest. There is no more posing, no more bragging—only an honest answer, born out of sober appreciation of his human lapses. There is nothing more beautiful than honest prayer, for honesty is a prelude to healing. Jesus accepts what Peter is able to offer and (as we shall see) promises him that his heart will expand so that one day he will love the Lord totally, unconditionally, above all things and all people.
What about you? Are you honest with the Lord? Have you experienced His love in spite of your sin? Do you know that if you are honest with Him, He can use you even in your weakness?
IV. Required Remedy – “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”
In this whole conversation, the Lord’s purpose is not to stalk or badger Peter. Rather, it is to lead him toward a necessary remedy, to point him back to the future, one filled with evangelical fervor and sacrificial love. Peter is weak now, but the Lord will give him strength. Within ten days after Jesus’ ascension, the Holy Spirit will come and Peter will be quickened, strengthened in the faith.
Even then, the work the Lord needs to do is not finished, for He speaks of the day when Peter will finally have the grace to accept martyrdom. It will be a day when someone will tie him fast and lead him where he would rather not go—but Peter will go, and he will die for Christ.
In the end, Peter will be able to say, without any simulation or exaggeration, “I love you, Lord, totally, with agape love. I love you above all things, above all people, and above even my own life.”
For now, Peter is not ready, but the Lord will lead him by stages and get him ready.
How will Peter get there? How will we get there? The Lord simply says, Follow me.
So, fellow disciples, the Lord is leading you to a deeper love, an unconditional love, a love above all other loves. Only the Lord can do this. He did it for Peter—a hard case, actually—and He can do it for you.
For now, though, He is standing on the shore and calling us to a richer future:
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!
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.
The Gospel today sets forth the biblical basis for the Office of Peter, the Office of the Papacy, for Peter’s successors are the Popes. The word “pope” is simply an English version (via Anglo-Saxon and Germanic tongues) of the word “papa.” The Pope is affectionately called “Papa” in Italian and Spanish as an affectionate indication that he is the father of the family, the Church.
Let’s look at the basic establishment of the Office of Peter in three steps.
I. The Inquiry that Illustrates – The text says, Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
In asking these questions, Jesus is not merely being curious about what people think of Him. He seems, rather, to be using these questions as a vehicle through which to teach the apostles (and us) about how the truth is adequately revealed and guaranteed.
Jesus’ first two questions reveal the inadequacy of two common methods:
1. The Poll – Jesus asks who the crowds say that He is. In modern times, we love to take polls; many put a lot of weight on the results. Many people—Catholics among them—like to point out that x% of Catholics think this or that about certain moral teachings, doctrines, or disciplines. Their position is that if more than 50% of Catholics believe something then it must be true; and therefore the Church should change her teaching.
As today’s Gospel makes clear, taking a poll doesn’t necessarily yield the truth. In fact, in this case all of the assertions of the crowd were wrong. Jesus is not John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets redivivus. So, running the Church by poll-taking does not seem be a model that works.
2. The Panel – Jesus now turns to a panel of experts, a “blue ribbon committee,” if you will. He asks the twelve, “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus is met with silence. Perhaps they were looking around like nervous students in a classroom, not wanting to answer lest they appear foolish. The politics on the panel leads not to truth, but to a kind of self-serving, politically correct silence.
Peter finally speaks up, but as Jesus will point out, he does not do so because he is a member of the panel, but for another reason entirely.
Hence the blue ribbon panel, the committee of experts, is not adequate in setting forth the religious truth of who Jesus is.
Through this line of questioning, Jesus instructs through inquiry. Polls and panels are not adequate in yielding the firm truth as to His identity. All we have are opinions, or politically correct silence. Having set forth this inadequacy, the Gospel now presses forth to describe the plan of God in adequately setting forth the truths of faith.
II. The Individual that is Inspired – The text says, Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”
We are taught here not merely that Peter spoke, but also how he came to know the truth. Jesus is very clear to teach us that Peter spoke rightly not because he was the smartest (he probably wasn’t), or because someone else told him (Jesus is clear that flesh and blood did not reveal this to him), or because he guessed and just happened to get the right answer. Jesus teaches that Peter came to know the truth and speak it because God the Father revealed it to him. God the Father inspired Peter. There is a kind of anointing at work here.
God’s methodology, when it comes to adequately revealing and guaranteeing the truths of the faith, is to anoint Peter.
It is not polls or panels that God uses; it is Peter.
While truths may emerge in the wider Church reflecting what is revealed, it is only Peter and his successors who can definitively set forth views whose truth is adequately guaranteed. Thus, the other apostles are not bypassed by God, but He anoints Peter to unite them and give solemn declaration to what they have seen and heard.
The Catechism says this of Peter and his successors, the popes:
When Christ instituted the Twelve, he constituted [them] in the form of a college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter, chosen from among them …. The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the “rock” of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock. The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of apostles united to its head. This pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles belongs to the Church’s very foundation and is continued by the bishops under the primacy of the Pope.
The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful. For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.
The college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, as its head. As such, this college has supreme and full authority over the universal Church; but this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff. The college of bishops exercises power over the universal Church in a solemn manner in an ecumenical council. But there never is an ecumenical council which is not confirmed or at least recognized as such by Peter’s successor (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 880-884 selected).
All of these truths point back to the moment described in today’s Gospel, when we see how God Himself chooses to operate.
Note, too, the dimension of faith we are called to have. We are to assent to the pope’s teaching and leadership not merely because we think he is smarter, or because he might have the power, riches, or other worldly means to impress us or compel our assent. No, we assent to the pope’s teaching because, by faith, we believe he is inspired by God. It is not flesh and blood in which we put our trust; it is God Himself. We believe that God has acted on our behalf by anointing someone to affirm the truth and adequately guarantee that truth to be revealed by Him.
III. The Installation that is Initiated – The text says, And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Jesus does not merely praise Simon for a moment of charismatic insight. He goes further, declaring that He will build His very Church upon Simon, whom He names Peter (rock). Jesus does not merely mean this is a personal gift or recognition that will die with Peter. In giving him the keys, He is establishing an office. He is not merely giving Peter a personal promotion. This will be God’s way of strengthening and uniting the Church. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus says more of this:
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, all that he might sift you all like wheat, but I have prayed for thee, Peter, that thy faith may not fail; and when thou hast turned again, strengthen thy brethren (Luke 22:31).
This makes clear once again that God’s plan for the Church is to strengthen one man, Peter (and his successors in the future), so that in turn the whole Church may be strengthened and united. Thus the Lord Jesus establishes not only Peter, but also his office. This is God’s vision and plan for His Church.
Many have objected to this teaching. There is no time here to provide a complete response to every objection, but frankly most of them amount to a kind of wishful thinking by those who want this text to mean something other than what it plainly does. Nothing could be clearer than the fact that Jesus is establishing Peter and an office, which will serve as a foundation for the unity and strength of His Church.
It is also true that we are living in times that have tested many Catholics who have traditionally been the biggest supporters of the papacy. For many, our current pope has been a source of controversy rather than unity. And yet the office endures; it remains our duty to pray for and respect him, and to seek to maintain unity. Concerns for some of his statements should be expressed with charity and manifest good will. Although St. Paul saw fit to express his dismay over some of St. Peter’s prudential decisions (see Gal 2:11), we should remember that St. Paul was a bishop and apostle. Thus Catholics who have concerns today would do well to work with bishops to express their concerns, whether their own bishop or one they know they can approach.
Truth be told, “If no one is pope, everyone is pope.” Without a visible head, there is no principle on earth for unity in the Church. The Protestant experiment tried to replace the pope with Scripture, giving it sole authority. Yet Protestants cannot agree on what Scripture says and have no earthly way to resolve their conflicts. While they say that authority resides in Scripture alone, in claiming the anointing of the Holy Spirit and thus the ability to properly interpret Scripture, they really place the locus of authority within themselves, in effect becoming the very pope they denounce.
I have read that some objectors think Catholics arrogant in asserting that we have a pope whom we trust to be anointed by God to teach us without error on faith and morals. But which is more arrogant, to claim that there is a pope or to in fact act like one myself?
In the end, the Protestant experiment is a failed one. Estimates place the number of Protestant denominations as high as 30,000. I think that this figure is exaggerated, but not by much. They all claim the Scriptures as their source of truth but differ on many essential matters: the necessity of baptism, “once saved, always saved,” sexual morality, and authority. When they cannot resolve things they simply subdivide.
Jesus has installed an individual in this role to manifest his office of rock and head: Peter and his successors.
In the early hours of the resurrection appearances on the first Easter Sunday news began to be circulated that Jesus was alive and had been seen. These reports were, at first disbelieved or at least doubted by the apostles. Various reports from both women and men were dismissed by the apostles. But suddenly in the evening of that first Easter Sunday there is a change, and a declaration by the apostles that the Lord “has truly risen!” What effected this change? We will see in a moment. But first note the early reports of the resurrection and how they were largely disregarded:
The women who go to the tomb first discover it empty (Mat 28:6; Mk 16:6; Luke 24:5; John 20:2). The Gospel of John, which is most specific indicates that Magdalene went straightway to Peter and John and speaks anxiously, not of resurrection but of a stolen body. Peter and John hurry to the tomb to investigate. But meanwhile the other women have had a vision of an angels who declare that Jesus had risen and that they should inform the apostles. They depart to do so. Here is first evidence though the risen Lord had yet to appear.
John sees and believes – Peter and John arrive at the tomb after the women had departed. They saw only the empty tomb but it was clearly not grave robbers for the expensive grave linens were lying outstretched. Peter’s reaction is unrecorded but the text said, John saw (the grave clothes outstretched) “and believed” (Jn 20:8). Exactly what he believed is not clear. Did he believe what Mary had said? Or does the text mean he came to believe in that moment that Jesus had risen? It is not clear but let us suppose that he has come to believe that Jesus has risen. Does this mean that the Church now officially believes that Christ has risen because one of the apostles (one of the first bishops) believes it? It would seem not. That will have to wait for later in the day. Peter and John depart the tomb.
Mary Magdalene had followed Peter and John back to the tomb and, after they leave, Jesus appears to her. Here is the first appearance of the risen Christ. Does this now mean that the Church officially believes that Jesus is risen? It would seem not. That will have to wait until later in the day. For scripture testifies that Jesus appeared elsewhere to the other women who had gone to the tomb but that when Mary Magdalene and the other women report that they had seen Jesus risen, the apostles would not believe it (Mk 16:11; Luke 24:11) Hence, though we have appearances we cannot yet say that there is any official declaration by the Church that Christ is truly risen.
Jesus appears also to two disciples (not apostles) who are journeying to Emmaus that late afternoon. At the conclusion of that appearance they run to tell the apostles who, once again, do not believe it (Mark 16:13). So now we have had at least three appearances but no official acceptance by the Church’s leaders (the apostles) that there is any truth to these sightings.
So when does the resurrection become the official declaration of the early Church? Up till now the stories had been rejected by the apostles as either fanciful or untrue. Even the possible belief of one of the 12 (John) was not enough to cause an official declaration from the early Church. So, what causes this to change? It would seem that, after the early evening report by the disciples returning from Emmaus, Peter slipped away, perhaps for a walk, or some other purpose, and according to both Paul (1 Cor 15:5) and Luke (Lk 24:34) the risen Lord appeared to Peter privately and prior to the other apostles. Peter then reports this to the others, and the resurrection moves from being doubted, to being the official declaration of the community, the Church. The official declaration is worded thus:
The Lord has truly risen indeed, he has appeared to Simon!” (Luke 24:34)
The resurrection is now officially declared. Notice, the world “truly” (some texts say “indeed”). It is now an officially attested fact that Jesus has risen. Neither Magdalene, nor the women in general, nor the disciples from Emmaus, nor even John, could make this declaration for the Church. It took the college of apostles in union with Peter to do this. Hence the dogma of the resurrection becomes so on very Catholic terms: The first bishops (the apostles) in union or in Council with the first Pope (Peter) make this solemn declaration of the faith.
When I wrote a similar article some years back, some argued in opposition that the Church “did not exist” at this point since Pentecost “is the birthday of the Church.” I do not accept that “the Church did not exist at this time” (For I think she did exist, but had simply not been commissioned to go forth to the nations as yet, that would wait for Pentecost. Further even if one will piously hold Pentecost as the birthday of the Church, our existence precedes our birth by at least nine months, and the Church’s existence surely also precedes her “birth”). But let us side-step the whole debate by holding saying that this exercise of the Church’s teaching authority in this event is proleptic. That is to say, what would fully be the case later, is here seen operative in an anachronistic, yet real manner (For example, Mother Mary is saved by Jesus and preserved from sin not apart from Christ’s saving act, but in a proleptic way, in anticipation of his saving grace). Thus, the apostles and their office which were fully operative after Pentecost, are here active as the result of a prevenient grace, an anticipation of the future reality of the Church to teach authoritatively out of her basic structure and the charism given to Peter and the Apostles more fully or widely at some later time. But again, I stand by my point that the Church did exist at this time and that we do not have a proleptic but in fact a proper action of the magisterium at this very point.
But did the women and the laymen’s declaration mean nothing? In fact it does. And the Lord upbraids the apostles later for being so reluctant to accept the testimony of the others (Mk 16:14). He calls them “hard of heart” for this reluctance. But he does not undermine their authority to make the official declaration, for in the very next verse he commissions the apostles to go forth and preach and teach in his name. Surely the Lord was not pleased after he had promised many times to rise from the dead that they were so slow to listen to the voices of the first witnesses. Should they not have concluded it was the third day and that the Lord had promised to rise and connected the dots? Did he have to personally appear before they would believe?
Alas, it would seem so. Jesus’ first bishops were not perfect men, far from it. But they were the leaders he had chosen, knowing their weakness. So too for today, the Church’s leaders are not perfect and may take far too long at times to make decisions or give clearer teachings or impose necessary discipline. But, in the end it is they who are nonetheless commissioned to teach officially.
This whole event also teaches us that the bishops and even the Pope are not always the first to hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church. The more frequent pattern is that the Lord begins reforms and sends apparitions, not to the leaders, but among the faithful. Reform movements and messages are often received there first, and only later does the Church, through her anointed and appointed leaders, affirm or uphold certain things as worthy of belief, and set aside others as problematic.
Finally it should be noted that one of the apostles, Thomas, was absent. Even after the official declaration of the Church went forth he still refused to believe (Jn 20:25). Here too the Lord is merciful to him but in the end is clear that Thomas has fallen short. And Thomas has fallen short in a more egregious manner, for he has refused the collective and solemn declaration of the Church, not merely disbelieved the testimony of one or a few disciples. Jesus goes on to declare blessed those who accept the solemn testimony of the Church though they have not seen him with earthly eyes (Jn 20:29). That’s us!
In the first reading at Today’s Mass we have recounted for us the Council of Jerusalem which scholars generally date to around the Year 50 AD. It was a pivotal moment in the history of the Church since it would set forth an identity for the Church that was independent from the culture of Judaism per se, and it would open wide the door of inculturation to the Gentiles. This surely had significant impact upon evangelization in the early Church.
Catholic Ecclesiology is Evident here: in that we have reflected here a very Catholic model of the Church in terms of how a matter of significant pastoral practice and doctrine is properly dealt with. In effect what we see here is the same model the Catholic Church has continued to use right to our own time. What is evident here, and in all subsequent Ecumenical Councils, is a gathering of the Bishops presided over by the Pope which considers a matter and may even debate it. If necessary, the Pope resolves debates where consensus cannot be reached. Once a decision is reached, a letter is issued to whole Church and the decision is considered binding.
All these elements are seen here, though somewhat in seminal form. Let’s consider this First Council of the Church in Jerusalem of 50 AD, beginning first with the remote preparation –
1. Bring in the Gentiles! – The Lord, just before he ascended gave the Apostles the great commission: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). Hence, the Gentiles are now to be summoned and included in the ranks of discipleship and of the Church.
2. But it looks like the Church was mighty slow in beginning any outreach to the Gentiles. It is true that on the day of Pentecost people from every nation heard the Sermon of Peter and 3000 converted. By they were all Jews (Acts 2). In fact, it seems the Church did little, at first, to leave Jerusalem and go anywhere, let alone to the nations.
3. Perhaps as a swift quick in the pants the Lord allowed a persecution to break out in Jerusalem after the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7). This caused the gospel to begin a northward trek into Samaria at least. Samaritans however are not usually considered Gentiles, since they were a groups that had intermarried with Jews in the 8th Century BC. There is also the Baptism of an Ethiopian Official but he too was a Jew.
4. Fifteen Years?! The time line of Acts is a bit speculative. However if we study it carefully and compare it to some of what Paul says (esp. in Galatians) it would seem that we are dealing with close to 12 or 15 years before the baptism of the first Gentile! If this is true then it is a disgrace. There were, of course, strong racial animosities between Jew and Gentile that may explain the slow response to Jesus’ commission. It explains, but does not excuse it.
5. Time for another kick in the pants. This time the Lord went to Peter who was praying on a rooftop in Joppa, and, by means of a vision, taught him that he was not to call unclean what God had called clean. The Lord then sent to Peter an entourage from Cornelius, a high Roman military official who was seeking baptism. He, of course was a Gentile. The entourage requests that Peter go with them to meet Cornelius at Cesarea. At first he is reluctant. But then recalling the vision (kick in the pants) that God had given him, he decides to go. In Cesarea he does something unthinkable. He, a Jew, enters the house of a Gentile. Peter has learned his lesson and been guided by God, as the first Pope, to do what is right and just. After a conversation with Cornelius, and the whole household, and signs from the Holy Spirit, Peter has them baptized. Praise the Lord! It was about time. (All of this is detailed in Acts 10)
6. It is a fact that many were not happy with what Peter had done, and they confront him on it. Peter explains his vision, and also the manifestation of the Holy Spirit and insists that this is how it is going to be. While it is a true that these early Christians felt freer to question Peter than we would the Pope today, it is also a fact that what Peter has done is binding even if some of them don’t like it. What Peter has done will stand. Once Peter has definitively answered them, they reluctantly assent and declare somewhat cynically: “God has granted life giving repentance even to the Gentiles!” (Acts 11:19)
7. Trouble Brewing – So, the mission to the Gentiles is finally open. But that does not mean trouble is over. As Paul, Barnabas and others begin to bring in large numbers of Gentile converts, some among the Jewish Christians begin to object that they were not like Jews, and began to insist that they must be circumcised and follow the whole Jewish Law; not just the moral precepts but also the cultural norms, kosher diet, purification rites etc. That is where we picked up the story in yesterday’s Mass.
8. The Council of Jerusalem – Luke is a master of understatement and says “Because there arose no little dissension and debate….” (Acts 15:2) it was decided to ask the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem to gather and consider the matter. So the apostles and some presbyters (priests) with them meet and, of course, Peter is there, as is James who was especially prominent in Jerusalem among the apostles, and would later become bishop there. Once again Luke rather humorously understates the matter by saying, “After much debate, Peter arose” (Acts 15:7).
In effect Peter arises to settle the matter since, (it would seem), that the apostles themselves were divided. Had not Peter received this charge from the Lord? The Lord had prophesied: Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded to sift you all like wheat but I have prayed for you Peter, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers (Luke 22:31-32). Now Peter fulfills this text, as he will again, and every Pope after him. Peter clearly dismisses any notion that the Gentiles should be made to take up the whole burden of Jewish customs. Paul and Barnabas rise to support this. Then James (who it seems may have felt otherwise) rises to assent to the decision and asks that a letter be sent forth to all the Churches explaining the decision. He also asks for and obtains a few concessions.
So there it is, the First Council. And that Council, like all the Church-wide Councils that would follow, was a gathering of the bishops, in the presence of Peter who works to unite them. A decision is then made, and a decree, binding on the whole Church, is sent out. Very Catholic actually. We have kept this Biblical model ever since. Our Protestant brethren have departed from it for they have no Pope to settle things when they dispute. They have split endlessly into tens of thousands of denominations and factions. When no one is pope every one is pope.
A final thought. Notice how the decree to the Churches is worded: It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us (Acts 15:28). In the end, we trust the Holy Spirit to guide the Church in matters of faith and morals. We trust that decrees and doctrines that issue forth from Councils of the Bishops with the Pope are inspired by and authored by the Holy Spirit Himself. And there it is right in Scripture, the affirmation that when the Church speaks solemnly in this way it is not just some bishops and the Pope as men, it is the Holy Spirit who speaks with them.
The Nicene Creed fittingly noted four marks of the True Church: one, holy, catholic and apostolic. These marks identify four essential qualities and characteristics the Church has and they distinguish the True Church from any false claimants. Now we, of course cannot add authoritatively to this venerable list. Nevertheless permit me a couple of “prayerful additions” to the four marks of the Church. These cannot join the official list but I humbly submit these “marks” for your consideration to serve in a similar way to distinguish the True Church from false claimants and to give insight into the Church’s truest identity.
The 5th Mark of the Church: Hated. Jesus consistently taught us to expect the hatred of the world if we were true disciples.
If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 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. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. (John 15:18-20).
Or Again: All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub,how much more the members of his household! (Matt 10:22-24)
Or yet again, Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets. (Luke 6:26)
One of the more painful aspects of Church life, yet also one of the aspects of which I am most “proud” is that we are hated especially by the world. It is true that some of the Evangelicals are ridiculed but few can deny that a very special and intense hatred for the Catholic Church and is widely on display. It’s never OK in our society (nor should it be) to scorn Jews or Muslims and to mock or attack their faith traditions. Most of the other Christian denominations (except the Evangelicals) also escape much hatred. But the Catholic Church, ah the Catholic Church, now it seems open season on her. We are scorned, badly portrayed in movies, our history is misrepresented, our sins (and we do have them) are exaggerated, our teachings called bigoted, backward, unrealistic, and out of date. And no matter how ugly, bigoted and inaccurate the world’s hatred is, very few if any express any outrage at how were are treated and misrepresented. Try any of this on the Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, et al. and the outrage and claims of bigotry are echoed by the media (and well they should be). Meanwhile Dan Brownet al. get to go on and on about “evil” priests and bishops, a crucifix can be submerged in urine or the Blessed Mother smeared with dung and this is praised as “art” and funded by government grants.
I am not complaining (though these things are wrong). I am actually quite hopeful that this means we are doing something right. We are a sign of contradiction to the world and we are hated for it. We speak the truth to a world gone mad and we hold on to that “old time religion.” That we are hated puts us in good company with Jesus and the prophets and martyrs who stood with him. If we are really doing what we should be doing, the Church ought to experience significant hatred from the world. So hatred by the world is an essential mark of the Church if you ask me. We do not look to be hated. Neither do we look for conflict. But in preaching Christ crucified, in preaching the whole counsel of God and not some watered down version of it we surely do find hatred and conflict comes to us. Some people and denominations try to fit in with the world. They accept its ways and comprise the clear teaching of Christ. But the True Church speaks the whole truth of God in love and does not cave to the world’s demands. The true Church, by Christ’s promise, is hated by the world and those allied and wedded to it. But no need to fear…the sixth “mark” is here!
The Sixth Mark of the Church – Perduring – To perdure means to permanently endure. Here too Christ firmly established this principle and promise to the true Church:
And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it(Matt 16:18).
There are no governments or nations that have lasted 2000 years. Very little else in this world can claim such antiquity and even if it does can it claim to have remained essentially unchanged in its dogma or teaching? The Catholic Church is one, even after 2000 years. An unbroken line of Popes back to Peter and an unbroken line of succession for all the Bishops back to the Apostles through the laying on of hands. Not bad. Now consider that this is a miracle! If the Church were depending on human beings to exist and stay unified how long do think she would have lasted? Probably about twenty minutes, max. Our history is not without some pretty questionable moments, in terms of the human elements of the Church. That the gates of hell would never prevail against the Church certainly suggests they would try again and again. But here we are, a miracle. Still standing after all these years. Christ is true to his promise to remain with us all days unto the consummation of the world. We, the human elements of the Church may not live teachings of Christ perfectly, but the Church has never failed to teach what Christ taught even (as now) when the world hated us for it. At times we are tepid and struggle to find our voice, but Christ still speaks and ministers even in our weakness. Yes the Catholic Church is a miracle, the Work of Jesus Christ. And thus the sixth Mark of the Church is that she perdures. By God’s grace we exhibit this sixth mark. Nations have come and gone, empires risen and fallen, eras opened and closed, but through it all we perdure.
So there it is, I believe in one, holy, catholic, apostolic, (and if you don’t mind me saying), hated and perduring Church.
Here’s a very interesting hip hop song by the rapper Akalyte on these two additional “marks” of the Church.