A well-known historian died and found herself standing before St. Peter at the gates of heaven. St. Peter explained to her that she had to make a choice between heaven and hell, but before she made her choice, she had to spend 24 hours in each place, and only then could she announce her decision.
The first stop was hell, and the historian was amazed at what she experienced there. She found herself in a beautiful seminar room with the “Who’s Who” of historians gathered together debating multiple points of history. They all greeted her, kissed her and invited her to be part of everything. After the debates she joined her new friends for the most wonderful dinner she had ever eaten. She was thrilled to feel so welcome. She absolutely enjoyed her 24 hours in hell.
St. Peter then called the woman to heaven where she spent her next 24 hours lounging around on clouds, singing and laughing in the company of the saints. When her trial time in heaven ended, St. Peter said, “Now you must make your choice.” The historian told Peter that heaven was really nice, but in hell she had felt much more welcome. So, based on her experience, she chose hell.
Upon entering hell to begin her eternity she was shocked. She found herself standing in a wasteland, her colleagues were in rags and rude to her. The evening meal came from the Devil’s garbage cans. “I don’t understand,” she told the Devil. “Yesterday everything was wonderful.” The Devil laughed and told her, “Yesterday we were interviewing you. Today you are admitted for membership!”
Sometimes things look wonderful on the outside. We are so impressed with what we see that we desperately want what we are looking at. We often will go to great lengths to gain a membership or to possess a thing only to discover that what had looked so great from the outside was, in reality, very different. We must understand that this was and is the same for the Church.
Normally we are presented with an idyllic picture of the early Church, but today’s reading from the Acts shows that, despite the utopian portrait of the early Church, dissension did exist within the early Christian community. The first Christians, primarily Jews, generally fell into two groups: those who spoke Aramaic and viewed themselves as being pure Jewish, and the Hellenists, Jews who had lived outside of Jerusalem for generations and now spoke Greek rather than Aramaic. The Greek-speaking Jews, or Hellenists, accused the “Hebrews” of being elitist and of intentionally not assisting their needy. This division threatened the early community.
The Apostles had to bring the community to a sense of unity. To do this, they needed help; thus the appointment of the first deacons. But the Scriptures speak to us directly and indirectly through the use of symbol, and numbers have symbolic meaning. Luke, in writing the Acts, gives his readers a lesson through the choice of “seven” deacons. The “Twelve” Apostles represent the twelve tribes of Israel and thus all Israel. “Seven” is the universal number and represents all the nations. This appointment of the “seven” is a reminder of the unity Jesus calls us to whether Jew or Greek.
The first Letter of St. Peter is thought to have been an instruction that was read at baptism. It speaks to us of the special need for and role of each member of the community. It calls us “living stones.” In the time of the Apostles, mortar was rarely used in construction. Stones were cut precisely to their particular place. We must see ourselves as these stones. We each have our place, and we must all strive to fit together perfectly.
Jesus said, “I am the way.” Our churches can look good, but we all know that there are divisions within our communities. Like the early Christians, fingers are pointed, with each side blaming the other for the lapses.
We can be troubled by the imperfections of our Christian community. But Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” He spoke of making room for everyone who would follow Him. This is our task, our hope, our peace and our goal. Many do not see what they want to see in the Church. They see something more to their liking elsewhere. Unfortunately, to us, like to the historian, what is elsewhere might look really good in the beginning — but what a shock to discover that we were attracted only to the packaging. We must see the Church in all its imperfections and then look past them to see that Jesus lives in the midst of them!
FATHER STEINER, born and reared in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville. He currently serves as rector of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Previously, he served in the diocesan high school as teacher, associate principal, and principal. He received his education from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, the Gregorian University in Rome, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.