Brief synopsis of the readings: As we continue our journey through Easter, we also continue our journey through the Acts of the Apostles. The beginning of the sixth chapter describes a conflict between the Hellenists and the Hebrews: The Hellenists complained that their widows were being neglected. The Twelve met and agreed to appoint seven others who were accepted by the community. The apostles prayed and laid hands on them, and this led to even more disciples to accept the faith. In John’s Gospel, Jesus taught his disciples that his Father’s house has many dwellings. He told them that he will go and prepare a place for them and then return and take them. Thomas asked him how they can find the way to him; Jesus responded by telling him that he (Jesus) is “the way, the truth, and the life” and no one can come to the Father except through him. When Phillip asks him to show them the Father, Jesus tells him: “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”
I’ve been reading passages from the Bible for most of my life, but I have to confess that even now I’ll read a passage and find something that jumps out at me. And, in a moment of honesty, I’ll confess that the first several chapters of the Acts of the Apostles tend to blur my vision. Acts was written by the same writer as the Gospel of Luke and the first several chapters sound fairly self-congratulatory. As Jesus’ disciples began to recognize the new direction of their faith they sounded almost smug. I have a hard time imagining their level of cooperation, particularly given the conflict I’ve experienced in church work. I’ve seen screaming, tears, and threats over which Act of Contrition to teach to 2nd graders, and don’t even get me started on the choice of hymnals. Good, king, generous people often become lunatics in church disputes because they feel their values are being violated.
Given this I have no trouble understanding our first reading. Jesus’ first followers were Jews like him, but not long after his resurrection his followers began to expand outside of the Jewish community. Jesus and his followers were Hebrews in that they spoke Aramaic and wrote in Hebrew. But many in the area were not Jews; they spoke and wrote in Greek and were considered Hellenists. They were the first non Jews who accepted Jesus and became what we now call Christians.
And they rightly complained that they were not being treated well. We’ve read in the last few weeks how the followers of Jesus gathered and shared what they had. This was not sustainable and as the community gathered each week it became clear that some were wealthy and some were poor. And in the patriarchal world where they lived, widows faced poverty in greater numbers. They were no longer under the care of their fathers and they lost the support of their husbands. They were lost.
And I give credit to the Hellenists who complained to the Hebrews. They pointed out to them that their widows were being neglected. Caring for widows, orphans, and resident aliens (ie, those who had no protection) is a core value for Jews going back to Moses. And to their credit, the Twelve recognized this.
Earlier I spoke about reading Scripture and finding passages I had not seen before. Here I find one of them: “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table.” From this they appointed seven whose names we know: Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas. The apostles prayed and laid hands on them.
Since they were ordained to care for the widows among them we often think of them as the first deacons. In his landmark book Priesthood: A History of the Ordained Ministry in the Roman Catholic Church, Fr. Kenan Osborne, OFM, claims the link between these readings and the modern diaconate is tenuous. His point is well made but when we look at the ministry of deacons today we can’t avoid the reality that they continue the ministry of the seven chosen in this reading while the Twelve continued their ministry of proclaiming the word of God.
The “word of God” in this context is not merely advice or a path to happiness: it is bound up with the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ, and this gives us an understanding of today’s Gospel. When Jesus speaks of being “in the Father and the Father is in me” he is speaking of his very body that is given to us in the Eucharist. This makes Christianity unique among religions. Virtually all other religions speak of what we should do and how we should treat each other. But none hold that their supreme deity came to earth and shares his body with us. Only Christianity links commandments (caring for the Hellenist widows) with the means to eternal life (Eucharist).
And this gives us an understanding between reason and revelation. Philosophers from shortly after Jesus, even to our day, talk about the difference between a priori and a posteriori. There are things we can deduce from logic, including the existence of God. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) spoke of the “First Mover.” But there are other things that we cannot logically find. The existence of a Redeemer who came to earth needed to come to us as a revealed truth from God.
And while John’s Gospel can sometimes be hard to read, we can find a central truth here: Belief in Jesus doesn’t come from doing the right thing, it gives us the understanding that makes doing the right thing inevitable. The Twelve in our first reading recognized (with prompting) the need to care for the Hellenistic widows. And instead of dropping one job for another, they recognized that it was the word of God and the Eucharist that compelled them to feed the neglected. And so they branched out their ministry.
And so do we. Central to the role of deacons today has them feeding the poor, visiting the sick, and caring for those left behind. And that ministry spreads to all of us. And so when we’re receiving the Eucharist at mass, at home, or in the hospital, it would do us well to think about those who are left out.