Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Acts of the Apostles: The Universal Mission of the Church

Rembrandt_169 (1)Following the martyrdom of Stephen a severe persecution of the Church broke out in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1). Far from slowing down the growth of the Church, this persecution sends Philip and others to preach in the outer regions of Judea and even Samaria.

As Tertullian famously wrote, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” (Apologeticus, 50). We see in these events the fulfillment of outline suggested by Acts 1:8, “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” A special work of the Spirit is needed to convince the Apostles Peter and John that the Holy Spirit had been received by the Samaritans as well (Acts 8:17). After this an angel prompts Phillip to preach to an Ethiopian court official who joyfully receives the proclamation about Jesus and is immediately baptized by Philip (8:39). Philip continues preaching until he reaches Caesarea. The mission of taking the Gospel to the “ends of the earth” is fulfilled by the conversion of Saul which occurs next in the narrative. The Jewish Rabbi Saul becomes Paul an apostle to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:7-8).

Paul’s journey begins on the road to Damascus which Luke narrates in Acts 9. Prior to his conversion, Saul is a pious Pharisee. He was probably from the School of Shammai which believed that Israel must be free of the Gentile yoke. Later in Acts Paul recounts; “I am a Jew, born at Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as you all are this day” (Acts 22:3). As a zealous Pharisee, he had gone “to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1-2).

The Rabbi Saul most likely felt very righteous as he traveled to Damascus, so when he experienced “a light from heaven [that] flashed about him” (Acts 9:3) he probably expected to hear a heavenly cheer. He expected to hear something like, “well done my good and faithful servant.” Saul may have been thinking of the stories from other rabbinic mystics who had experienced visions of the Merkabah or throne of God descending from heaven just as the prophet Ezekiel seen in the Old Testament. Instead what he heard shocked him. He fell to the ground and began to dialogue with a heavenly voice. The voice cried out, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul replied with some confusion, “Who are you, Lord?” The heavenly voice replied, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do” (Acts 9:5-6).

We need to think about this, the heavenly voice said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting…” We need to ask, did the Rabbi Saul ever literally persecute Jesus? Had he even met Jesus? As far as we can tell the answer is “No.” He had persecuted Christians or the followers of the Way as they are called in this passage. Here for the first time he learns the central truth about communion in Christ. To persecute the Church is to persecute Jesus. Jesus and the Church are one. After this life changing encounter, Saul the Rabbi becomes Paul the Apostle of Christ Jesus, by the will of God (1 Corinthians 1:1).

From this experience the Apostle Paul gains one of his most characteristic ways of describing all of the faithful as “in Christ Jesus.” The expression “in Christ” or “in Christ Jesus” occurs 164 times in Paul’s writings. Furthermore, if you investigate this theme, to be “in Christ” is to be “in the Spirit” and this is frequently connected to baptism. For example in Galatians Paul, notes,

“But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:26-27).

There is a parallelism between verse 26 “you are all sons of God” and verse 27 “as many of you as were baptized.” It is through baptism that we are brought into communion with Christ. The Greek word translated “put on” can also mean “clothe.” Richard Longnecker notes that when used figuratively this term means “to take on the characteristics, virtues and/or intensions of the one referred to, and so to become like that person.”[i] The communion or oneness pictured here involves becoming like Christ and perhaps in a deeper sense to actually become Christ. At a basic level this clearly implies being a disciple of Jesus, trying to faithfully imitate his teachings and way of life.

Tolle1St. Augustine comments on the deeper significance of our oneness or communion with Christ in his commentary on Psalm 26. He notes that the practice of anointing in the Old Testament was normally reserved for either the king or the priest. But Christ now holds both offices as both Priest and King in virtue of his anointing or literally being the Messiah or Anointed one. Speaking of Christ, St. Augustine observes, “But not only was our Head anointed; but his body was too, we ourselves. . . . From this it is obvious that we are the body of Christ, being all anointed. In him all of us belong to Christ, but we are Christ too, because in some sense the whole Christ is Head and body” (Exposition 2 of Psalm 26). St. Augustine has perfectly captured the emphasis St. Paul is leading us to. We not only become like Christ in Baptism but we actually become a New Creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) which is joined to the New Adam—Christ Jesus (Romans 5:14).

The fathers of Second Vatican council highlight the central feature of our common baptismal vocation in the chapter on the universal call to holiness (LG 39-42). Each and every Christian by virtue of their baptism is called to be Christ and so to be a saint.

© Scott McKellar published in the Catholic Key newspaper March 30, 2012.

[i] Richard Longnecker, Galatians: Word Biblical Commentary 41 (Dallas: Thomas Nelson, 1990) p. 156

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Acts of the Apostles: The Martyrdom of Stephen

Stoning of Stephen detail

Acts chapter 7 contains the longest speech in Acts followed by Stephen’s martyrdom as the first or proto-martyr of the Church. Stephen is falsely accused of blasphemy by some fellow Jews (Acts 6:8-15) and this prompts a speech before the Sanhedrin. In the beginning of his narrative Stephen highlights God’s own actions and initiative (7:3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.) leading up to his appearance to Abraham and founding of the covenant of circumcision. Abraham is the father of Isaac, who is the father of Jacob. The twelve sons of Jacob (with some adjustments) become the Twelve Tribes of Israel who are aided by Joseph and later delivered from the Egyptians by Moses in the Exodus. Both Joseph and Moses become a ‘type’ of Christ who was yet to come. The Israelites worshiped God in the desert in the ‘tent of testimony’ and under the rule of King Solomon built a Temple. In Christ we will worship in Spirit and truth tasting the heavenly reality. Stephen concludes his speech noting that in spite of God’s many blessings, many of his fellow Jews had become stiff-necked and are constantly opposing the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51). Then filled with the Holy Spirit Stephen sees a vision of Jesus “standing at the right hand of God” in Heaven (7:56). As Stephen is martyred he imitates Christ saying “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (7:60).

The importance of this retelling of the history of God’s saving work among his people is seen by the amount of space Luke gives it in the Book of Acts. Stephen proclaims God’s words and deeds and then himself becomes a spirit-filled imitation of Christ.

Stephen’s speech shows us something about God’s own method of teaching. As the writer of Hebrew’s tells us,

“In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe” (Hebrews 1:1-2)

God has desired to slowly reveal himself to us by interacting with first a person, then a family, a tribe and nation and so to ultimately reveal himself fully to all peoples through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. St John Chrysostom calls this a wonderful “condescension” of the Eternal Wisdom.[i] God has condescended, or “stooped-down” and adapted his speech to our needs so that we can come to know Him. The Catechism notes;

The divine plan of Revelation is realized simultaneously "by deeds and words which are intrinsically bound up with each other" and shed light on each another. It involves a specific divine pedagogy: God communicates himself to man gradually. He prepares him to welcome by stages the supernatural Revelation that is to culminate in the person and mission of the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. (CCC 53)

This “divine pedagogy” which the Catechism mentions is a central theme of Church’s General Directory for Catechesis. The Greek word ‘paidagogos,’ which we translate as ‘pedagogue’ originally did not refer to the teacher but the guardian who lead the child to and from class[ii] In this context, ‘pedagogy’ is not simply ‘the method and practice of teaching.’ God’s own Divine pedagogy is both the source and model of our communication of both knowledge and wisdom about Him but also most importantly a work of grace which transforms us into his likeness. Dr. Petroc Willey has noted that the fathers of the church described this process using a Christian understanding of the Greek word ‘paideia’ which encompasses (all at the same time) such English terms as ‘civilization, culture, tradition, literature and education.’[iii] In a Christian understanding it involves the education of the whole person and involves the transformation of the “the whole of culture and a complete way of life.”[iv]

The General Directory of Catechesis speaks first of the “pedagogy of God” (GDC 159) which leads to the “pedagogy of Christ” (GDC 140) and then to the “pedagogy of the Church” (GDC 141) before finally the “Divine pedagogy, action of the Holy Spirit in every Person” (GDC 142). As the fathers of Second Vatican Council said, the Church is the “sacrament” of Christ or the “sign and instrument” of the saving presence of Christ in the world (Lumen Gentium 1). The Church through the gifts and activity of the Holy Spirit becomes the continuation of the redeeming work of Christ through her individual members.

One important implication which flows from this teaching is that the entire Catechism is an integrated reality which relates to the ‘Divine pedagogy’ in four parts. The Church continues to pass on the tradition of Christ in the Creed (Part I) and to be the minister of the saving realities of God’s grace in the Sacraments (Part II), to help lead individuals to live an authentic and faithful life in the Spirit (Part III) and to deepen in personal intimacy with God in prayer (Part IV). The Church is a school of faith which leads to ever deeper union with Christ. We evangelize by educating, we educate by evangelizing (GDC 147). Holy Mary, Star of the New Evangelization, pray for us.

© Scott McKellar published in the Catholic Key newspaper March 23, 2012.



[i] St John Chrysostom, In Gen, 3,8 (Hom. 17:1): PG 53:134, ‘Attemperatio’; Gr. synkat√°basis.

[ii] Paul Watson, “Introduction” in The Pedagogy of God: It’s Centrality in Catechesis and Catechist Formation, ed. Caroline Farey, Waltraud Linning, Sr. M. Johannan Paruch, FSGM. (Steubenville: Emmaus Road, 2011), p. 6.

[iii] Petroc Willey, “An Original Pedagogy for Catechesis” in Ibid., 17 following Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideas of Greek Culture.

[iv] Ibid., p 18.