Acting up with early Christians

I really like the Acts of the Apostles. 

I know, I know, Catholics don’t spend a lot of time talking about the Bible, and even less time saying they like particular books. Most of us are comfortable getting Scripture in little Mass-sized chunks. Talk about any more, and one starts to sound all Protestanty. 

But I like Acts because even as it chronicles the remarkable birth of the Church, it keeps it real. It starts out very idealistically: They devote themselves to prayer. They “had all things in common.” They even eat their meals together “with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people” (2:46-47).  

But within a few chapters of Jesus’ ascension into heaven, human beings start to revert to type. 

First Ananias and Sapphira try to pull a fast one on Peter. 

Soon the Hellenists are complaining because their widows are getting gypped in the daily distribution of the food. 

Simon the Magician pretends to be a follower so he can learn how they do their wondrous acts.

Then the early community gets in a big brouhaha about whether Gentile converts should be circumcised. That gets settled at the Council of Jerusalem, but Paul and his best bud Barnabas have such a fight that they decide each to go his own way. 

One can only imagine what would have happened if they had had a couple of bloggers and 24/7 cable news channels to stir everyone up. 

Like the rest of the New Testament, Acts does not hide or paper over the flaws. These were very human followers, messy and doubting, argumentative and sinful. Yet despite all that, the early Church survived. Indeed it thrived with this most unlikely collection of people. Who turn out to be a lot like us. 

It is one of the conceits of being alive to presume either that ours is the best of times, or that ours is the worst of times. We become arrogant with our power until a Great Recession or a Great War cuts us down to size. And then we get nostalgic for a lost Golden Age when all was right with the world. 

Neither is really true. We aren’t the zenith, and we aren’t the nadir. What we know for sure is that we are responsible for whatever Providence has sent our way. And like the first followers of Christ, all those earnest early adopters, those protomartyrs and first witnesses, we are as likely to get it wrong as to get it right. Our one instruction is to keep trying. 

Today we have stories of betrayal, greed and stupidity. More than a few Catholics feel discouraged or angry, and often rightly so. But reading Acts helps remind us that we Catholics — from child to pope — have always been a work in progress. 

Likewise, all the passionate fights that have fractured our Church for the past half century are not all that out of the ordinary. The Church does move in cycles, and what Pope Benedict XVI is clearly hoping for now is for a movement of reform and renewal such as we have seen at many other times in Church history. “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” Paul is quoted as writing in Acts. Why should we think it would be any different for us? 

History often focuses on the great leader, the great preacher who is the catalyst for a period of renewal, but I think the great leader simply crystallizes or embodies what the Spirit has already set in motion. Renewal begins with each of us. With prayer, with sacrifice, but also with “exultation and sincerity of heart,” each one of us needs to be the leaven of renewal right now. That is perhaps the final lesson we need to take from Acts: We are the community of the faithful, and it has to start with us. 

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.