The Easter season affords priests the only opportunity to focus on the story of the Church as narrated in the Acts of the Apostles. At least occasionally in this season, preaching from Acts can be instructive for our parishioners. This article will explore some aspects of this homiletic task.
Features of Acts
Several features of Acts offer entry points for preaching from this biblical book during the Year of Faith. The most obvious is that Acts is very much oriented toward evangelization. It is the story of the Church’s expansive growth through the preaching of the apostles under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Thus it offers us a chance to connect with the “new evangelization for the proclamation of the faith” theme that was the topic of the October 2012 synod of bishops.
A second feature is the multiculturalism evident in Acts. As the Gospel spreads throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, we see the apostles and their colleagues preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ in new and diverse settings. This is part of the global orientation of Acts, which is already evident in the Pentecost story (2:1-13), where the extremely diverse crowd hears the apostolic message proclaimed simultaneously in their own languages.
One of the final propositions of the 2012 synod of bishops on the new evangelization speaks of “new areopaghi” (Prop. 50), an allusion to Paul’s speech at the Areopagus in Athens (17:22-32). It is an appropriate symbol of the need to proclaim the Gospel in diverse cultural settings and to be adaptable in doing so.
The concept of faith and its significance provides a third important feature of Acts. It is apparent from the beginning of the book that the goal of all the frenetic energy of evangelization is to bring people to faith in Jesus Christ. He is the central message. His life, His ministry, and especially His death and resurrection are the reason for the Church’s existence. Faith demands an assent to something beyond our rational understanding.
It begins with baptism, is strengthened in the prayer and sacramental life of the Church, especially the Eucharist, and it proclaims the healing, justice and peace that come from the risen Lord. Acts thus can help open avenues to explain many aspects of Christian faith, such as “community” life (2:42-47; 4:32-35), baptism and reconciliation (2:37-41), and God’s desire to see those in need be healed through the ministrations of the apostles (3:1-10). The Church is called to be a vehicle for all these good things that can be accomplished through the Holy Spirit.
Jesus and the Church: Two Stories in One
The attentive preacher will also notice the intentional connection between the Gospel of Luke, which tells the story of Jesus of Nazareth, and the book of Acts, which recounts the birth and growth of the Church. This connections are important because it gives an authentic identity to the Church. The Church does not exist for its own sake. Rather, the Church is a community of faithful disciples charged to carry forth the mission begun by Jesus of Nazareth. The Church’s ministry flows directly from His. A few simple observations reinforce this point.
First, we should notice the prologues of both Luke (1:1-4) and Acts (1:1-5). Luke says explicitly that he sets out to tell the story of Jesus in an organized fashion, based upon eyewitness accounts. He situates Jesus clearly in the midst of human history.
Then, to begin Acts, he recalls his first volume which “dealt with all Jesus did and taught” and moves to the apostles’ awaiting their “baptism with the Holy Spirit” to empower them for their own worldwide mission. These are, one might say, two acts of the same divine drama. God is at work in both. The Holy Spirit is the special energy that binds the two together and impels them forward. But there is more.
Along the way, one notes also similarities between Jesus’ public ministry and that of the apostles. Both parties preach, teach and heal. The difference, of course, is that the content of the apostles’ message is Jesus himself, now experienced and proclaimed as risen Lord and Savior of the world. Their proclamation picks up where Jesus’ left off, with the sacrifice of His own life and His vindication in the resurrection. The “hinge” that holds the two together is the Ascension, which is recounted twice, once at the end of Luke and once at the beginning of Acts.
The Ascension as a “Hinge”
The first account takes place on Easter Sunday and provides a fitting conclusion to the Gospel. Jesus exhorts His disciples to await “the promise of the Father” (the Holy Spirit) and blesses them. They respond by worshipping Him and returning to the Temple to glorify God.
The second account takes place 40 days later (the “40-day” symbolism used in Lent!) and is oriented to Jesus’ departure in order to send the Holy Spirit to give the disciples the impetus to begin their evangelical mission. The Ascension, then, intimately binds the two books together. Jesus’ story and the Church’s story are one long chain of events in the history of salvation. They both proclaim God’s merciful outreach to sinful humanity, foretold by Zechariah and Mary in their respective canticles (Lk 1:46-55,67-79).
Witnessing the Faith
There is a third and more challenging element to this unified story. Just as Jesus had to suffer and die for the sake of His mission, so too, many members of the Church will have to become witnesses (in Greek, martyrs) to their faith by persecution, rejection and, sometimes, even death. Thus Acts shows the apostles suffering for the faith (5:40-41; 8:1; 21:30-31; 22:24; etc.). Even more pointed is the parallelism between the death of Stephen, the first martyr (7:54-60), and Jesus (Lk 23:34, 46). Both forgive their persecutors and willingly hand over their spirits to God.
Such images recall that the story of faith is not one of constant, evolutionary, easy growth. The ancient adage that the “blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church” is true. Suffering and persecution often accompany telling the truth of the Gospel message.
One does not have to look far for confirmation of this today. Christians in many lands are persecuted, both personally and by destruction of church property. Remaining faithful requires courage as well as conviction.
Back to the Future
One way to look at the Acts of the Apostles during the Easter season is to see it as a call to “go back to the future.” That is to say, the Church today needs to relearn lessons that have been part of our history since the beginning. Acts provides that kind of testimony. In the context of the “new evangelization,” I think that challenge is even more serious.
Several presenters at the synod on the new evangelization warned against repeating the errors of the “first” evangelization. If we do not learn from past mistakes, we will repeat them. I believe that Acts provides us at least a few hints to help us avoid this pitfall.
The first lesson is to realize that faith is ultimately a gift from God. Acts shows that all along, even when the apostles seem to be in charge, it is the Holy Spirit who guided (and guides) the community of disciples. Any success at evangelization relies on God’s grace and not simply on our own skills. Naturally, we must cooperate with that grace. But we are not its source.
A second lesson is found in the constant note of “joy” seen throughout Acts. Actually, Luke and Acts taken together comprise an “ode to joy” because it is a major theme in both (see Lk 1:14,44; 24:41,52; Acts 5:41; 13:52; 15:3; etc.). Even in the midst of suffering, the disciples rejoice, give thanks, and praise God.
Joy is an authentic indicator of the presence of God. It is not the hilarity found in frivolous humor but the deep-seated contentment from knowing that we are in the hands of a loving God. In a world filled with incredible suffering and modern horrors, joy is sorely needed, and it should be a hallmark of our evangelical spirit.
A third lesson is perhaps more subtle. The final proposition of the synod on the new evangelization calls Mary, the mother of Jesus, the “star of the new evangelization” (Prop. 58). In the Easter season we need only recall that Acts shows Mary and some other women humbly and silently present in the midst of the community at Pentecost (1:14).
In Lumen Gentium (Chap. 8), Vatican II highlighted Mary as a member of the Church. She is a humble partner, the first disciple in the evangelical community of faith. She who first heard and accepted the Word of God in order that she might bear the Messiah (Lk 1:38) is now also our companion on the journey of faith. We can invoke her guidance in our own mission.
These are only a few of the possibilities for preaching Acts during the Easter season in this Year of Faith. The creative preacher will no doubt find others that speak to our day. TP
Father Witherup, S.S. is Superior General of the Society of Saint Sulpice (Sulpicians) and frequent contributor to The Priest. He recently published Gold Tested in Fire: A New Pentecost for the Catholic Priesthood (Liturgical Press, 2012), and a set of CD’s, Treasure in Earthen Vessels: The Spirituality of Paul the Apostle (Now You Know Media, 2013).