Part 3 – Acts 3:1 – 5:42
This next section of the Acts of the Apostles brings to light the full ramifications of what this new discipleship would entail – what it would be asking of the disciples. For the early Church, faith in Christ was no mere personal, private matter. Instead, even as Christ worked through the Apostles, the disciples found it necessary to accompany these signs with the bold preaching of the kerygma. There was no shying away from the work of God in their midst.
The first episode that we encounter is a simple scene of Peter and John walking through Jerusalem. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon, and they are going to the Temple to pray, like any good Jew in that city. It’s important to remember that the first disciples did not abandon their Jewish faith and practices. Really, the only thing the distinguished them from their other brothers and sisters was their faith in Jesus’ resurrection and the conviction that through this faith we have been saved. Beyond that, their daily practice was more or less unchanged. They still considered themselves to be Jews; in fact, they saw Jesus as fulfilling the Jewish faith.
The exchange with the crippled man is interesting – and probably very familiar to us all. He is there, as usual, begging. Maybe he has a sign, maybe he is asking everyone who passes for some help. Picture the scene: many people bustle by – trying to avoid eye contact or any exchange with the man. Peter and John are just two more guys coming to the Temple. He begs again. But Peter and John are not just two more guys. These two are disciples – men who carry in their hearts the firm conviction that Christ has died and risen again for their sins and the salvation of the world. Their joy is indefatigable.
Because of their faith, they cannot just pass. “Look at us,” Peter says. Rather than avoid eye contact – rather than allow that man to avoid eye contact – Peter gives him the dignity of seeing another man eye to eye. He sees a man on the edge of society, who has been cast aside his entire life (more than forty years, we are told a little later [4:22]). And the man looks back at Peter and sees something too. He sees a man who has known Christ – a man, weak, broken, lost at times, who knows full well how God has loved him and saved him through Christ. This is what Peter offers that man – simply by looking at him.
That’s important for us. When we look at others – especially the poor and marginalized – do we see a human being, just like us? Is that what we are afraid of when we avoid them? Conversely, when they look at you, what do they see? Do they see a disciple of Jesus? That is how we turn a simple encounter into an opportunity to share Jesus. Several years ago a woman, Amy Barrett was being examined for a federal judgeship, and a senator asked about her Catholic faith. She stated that “the dogma lives loudly in you,” referring to what the judge believed, and how that was of concern to the senator. What greater compliment can we as a Christian receive than that!
Not only that, there is power in that saving knowledge. Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, offers something even deeper than silver and gold. Notice what Peter says: “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give to you: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth walk around” (3:6). Peter sees his own relationship with Christ to be something that he has and something that he can share – like the valuable silver or gold.
Also, the word that Luke uses here for the command Peter gives: peripátei, “walk around” (not just “walk”) implies more than just a restored ability to move and walk. Peter is inviting that man into a new, active relationship with the Lord – one that he would be expected to go out and share. The Apostles have experienced this same relationship, which has driven them out to share Christ with all who will listen.
The next scene is important too. Having performed this miracle, Peter and John now have the people’s attention. He is very aware of this, and he takes the opportunity to preach again. He immediately goes back into his “let-me-tell-you-about-Jesus” mode. Everything about Peter at this point is evangelical. He only wants a chance to share Christ, and this is the effect of the power of the Holy Spirit at work in him.
Recall that in Jesus’ life, as He healed people, these miracles were hailed as evidence of “God visiting His people” (cf. Lk 7:16). Luke wants us to understand that these facts did not cease when Christ returned to the Father. The “Acts of the Apostles” are the Acts of the Church, which are the Acts of Christ – all of which remind us that “God has visited His people!” The response to such healing is wonder and amazement – and they give praise to God – again, a sign of the presence of the kingdom among them.
Scripture narratives are filled with stories of miracles: lame people walking, blind men seeing, sick women being made well, even the dead being raised. In our day, we might be tempted to look at these as simply stories – or even try to explain them away using modern scientific, medical explanations. After all, it’s a “story book” that we are reading, right?
But this sort of activity was a common occurrence in the early Church. The healings didn’t just end with Jesus’ return to heaven. Instead, the Acts of the Apostles is full of such stories of God’s miraculous intervention in the lives of His people and of those that He is calling to communion. Resort to prayer was the norm for the first parish, and everyone did it. Here, we see Peter offering what he was certain he had: the power of Jesus at work in him. It will be seen over and over throughout Acts.
It should serve as a reminder to us that God is active in His Church. The Holy Spirit, present at the start of the Church’s missionary activity, is still present in us and our Parishes. We should not dismiss this as “magic,” “superstition,” or false faith. God gives His gifts to whomever He wills, whenever He wills, wherever He wills, for whatever purpose He wills. As baptized members of the Church, recipients of the Holy Spirit, we should expect to see these gifts at work among us.
The gifts that God gives to individuals in the Church are known as charisms. They are ordinary and extraordinary, but they are not uncommon. Those who encourage new disciples in our day and age have named many of these charisms, and they are present among us as well (we might be afraid of them, or simply have no idea what to do with them). They include: encouragement, hospitality, mercy, pastoring, teaching, prophecy, leadership, giving, missionary, healing, intercessory prayer, wisdom, knowledge, writing, celibacy, faith, voluntary poverty, helping, evangelism, administration, service, craftsmanship, and music.
When I list those, I do not intend to point to “talents.” Those are different. Charisms are gifts that may be given only once, at a particular moment, for a particular purpose; and they are given in order to bring about an encounter with God’s power and life. Individual charisms are given to us in order to be given away. There are ways of discerning our own charisms, and in the future, I hope to explore this with you all as a Pastorate. They are known by their fruits. For example, if you have the charism of “teaching,” then people learn – period. If you have a love or talent for teaching that is not necessarily the case!
There is no reason for us to believe that these charisms are not present here; and they are not “special gifts” for the clergy, religious, or “churchy” people. God looks at a community of faith, and He “apportions to each one individually as He wills” (1Cor 12:11). Expect them! Even as that first parish prayed together, “the places where they are gathered together shook; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (4:31).
The other tale we hear in this section of Acts is the relation of how the entire Parish community lived together in harmony – sharing their goods to the mutual benefit of the whole. Those who had wealth and lands sold them all to share with the community of believers, and there were no needy people among them. Yes, that sounds like Communism, but there is one major difference here: this was a community of faith in Jesus Christ, honoring the dignity of the human person. Ask anyone under Stalin if that was the case for them – or any Chinese woman who has been forcibly sterilized.
The case of Ananias and Sapphira arises. This was a wealthy couple who wished to share the blessings of communion, but, we are told, held back something for themselves. Their generosity was not only limited; it was false. The result is dramatic. The two are smitten in Old Testament fashion. It’s actually rather terrifying and disturbing, I think.
In the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome, there are many beautiful works of art. Over most of the side altars are reproductions of paintings in lovely mosaics. As you come out of the sacristy into the vast church, the first altar and image that you will see is what is known as the “Altar of the Lie.” The image over the altar is that of the story of Ananias and Sapphira. It depicts St. Peter in the center, with the disciples around him, and Sapphira collapsing to the floor. Out the door in the background, one can see stretcher-bearers carrying the dead body of Ananias.
These two lied to the Apostles when asked if they had given all they had to the community. Rather than entrusting themselves wholly to God, they held back, and that selfishness was punished dramatically. Now, this could be a very tough stewardship story, but this image is where it is for a different reason than fundraising.
The picture of the early Church that Acts paints is one of unanimity. We are told this about that first Parish:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers. And fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (2:42-47).
This beautiful image of the first Parish reminds the reader that discipleship – and the community that goes along with it – is a complete commitment. There is no room for selfishness, no room for hedging bets, no room for doubting God’s continued goodness to His Church. That is what Sapphira and Ananias denied; that is what killed them.
The lesson of the Altar of the Lie in St. Peter’s is not a monetary one – it is about the nature of real Christian discipleship. The relationship with Jesus is an all-in proposition. It is rooted in the complete gift of self that Jesus made when He suffered and died for us; it is what we celebrate every time we come together for the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of the bread, and the prayers. Our response is supposed to be just as complete.
I am sure that most of you have heard the term “cafeteria Catholicism.” This refers to people of faith picking and choosing which tenets, dogmas, or practices they like in that faith and ignore the rest – like picking at a salad bar or buffet. Such a practice actually ignores this “all-in” attitude that the Church was built upon. Holding something back because you don’t understand it, or lack the trust in God, is at the heart of the sin of Ananaias and Sapphira. The Catholic faith is broad and all-encompassing. No aspect of our lives is immune to it. To be true to our faith, we must defend the sanctity of human life in the womb and as it flees oppression in a war-torn country. We must care about the consciences of pro-life doctors and nurses, and desire health care for all – even those who cannot afford it. We don’t get to choose. St. Augustine famously said, “If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you do not like, it is not the Gospel that you believe but yourself.”
At the end of this episode, we have another significant first in Luke’s writing. We are told that “great fear came upon the whole church” (5:11). This is the first time that Luke uses the word “church” to refer to the community of believers. The Greek word, ekklêsía, connotes a gathered assembly that has been called together. It is how the assembled People of Israel are referred to in the Old Testament. Clearly for Luke, there is a continuity between the Chosen People and this new community of faith. They too have been called and gathered together.
Our word “church” (which comes to us from the same place as the German Kirche) is often evocative of a building – a static place where we worship and our faith is practiced. However, that is not the implication of Acts. Rather, “church” is an active community – called together, assembled, and then sent to share the Good News. It’s more akin to what the “Romance” languages use for Church: in Spanish it’s iglesia, in Italian it’s chiesa, in French it’s eglese – a community gathered and on the go.
So too with the idea of “Mass.” We don’t call it “Mass” because we are a “mass” of people gathered in one place. Rather, “Mass” comes from the Latin mittere, meaning “to send.” The final words of the Latin Mass are Ite, missa est – or literally, “Go, it is sent.” What is sent? Well, “missa” implies a feminine object, and as it so happens, the word ecclesia is a feminine noun. What is sent? The ecclesia – the Church – is sent. You, I – we – who are the Church – are sent!
Read for next time: Acts 6:1 – 8:3
Questions for reflection
Do I see myself as an “ambassador for Christ” to those who enter my day in need? Do I really see them and let them see me?
When I pray, do I truly believe that God answers that prayer? Do I pray expectingresults/miracles?
What are my Charisms? How has God’s supernatural power ever acted in/through me for others?
Am I whole-hearted in my discipleship? Do I give all that I am to God knowing that He has given all He is to me?
When I disagree with the Church, do I do so because of truly reasoned points or because I am not comfortable with this or that doctrine?