During this Easter season, I have found much food for thought and encouragement from the New Testament readings that tell the stories of the early churches — how they organized themselves, the joys they shared, the gifts they had and how they used them, the problems they faced and the ways in which they responded to them.
I think of Paul’s trip to Ephesus where he discovered that the people had received the baptism of John the Baptist but “had not so much as heard of the Holy Spirit.” Paul instructed them and initiated them fully into the company of believers. He appointed leaders of the community and later kept in touch with them by letter in which he continued to instruct them and encourage them in the faith. It is a wonderful story of the exercise of the apostolic office and of the growth in faith to which all communities and individuals are called. Another element of the story is Paul’s acknowledgement that their faith and hope in the Lord is a continuing source of encouragement to him.
Another theme from the Acts of the Apostles relates to the community at its best. The Apostles preached the Good News with great power. Those to whom they preached were hungry for the Good News and embraced it with ardor. Their acceptance of Christ overflowed into their daily activity in such fashion that they were of one mind and one spirit. No one among them had too much and no one was in need. We know that this was not always the case, but it reminds us of the noble things of which we are capable.
There were problems and challenges, of course. For example, there was tension between the Greek-speaking Jews and the native Jews. The former group thought that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. The problem was brought to the attention of the leaders. They dealt with the issue by consulting the community and identifying prudent, respected members who were to assist the elders by caring for those in need, thus leaving the elders free for prayer and the proclamation of the Gospel. They laid hands on them and invoked the Holy Spirit, and so we had our first deacons.
Another huge question they faced was what was required of Gentiles who wanted to join the company of the disciples. Did they first have to become Jews? There was hot debate about the issue, but the answer was no, they did not. They had only to refrain from eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols and not to be in unlawful marriages. Once again, in the resolution they gathered to consider the issue and invoked the Holy Spirit as their guide.
There are many other stories of such activities in the post-Easter readings. They remind us that the church has always been a dynamic entity. On the one hand, they were called, as we are, to be faithful to all that Christ had taught them. On the other they knew, as we do, that Christ did not leave them a manual containing detailed instructions about how to handle every problem that they would ever face. Rather, they and we would be asked to place ourselves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to offer our best wisdom to one another and the leaders of the community and to make our decision based on what most honored the Lord and served the common good.
On this Pentecost Feast we rejoice in the life of the church animated by the same Spirit who enlivened and encouraged those first communities. We thank God for all of the ways in which we experience the Lord in and through the community of believers, especially when we gather for the Sunday Eucharist.
We also remember the courage of those earliest of our mothers and fathers in faith who faced and grew through problems that, I think, were much more difficult than the ones that we face today.
We have the gift of the same Holy Spirit who was their advocate. Of whom, of what should we be afraid?
Peace to all.