Posts Tagged ‘Acts of the Apostles’


The Acts of the Apostles:  We’re Part of the Story

On Saturday the last chapter from the Acts of the Apostles supplied the first reading for Mass.  In that text the author of Acts leaves St. Paul in Rome, settling in to what sounds like a comfortable house arrest while he waited for his day in court.

It’s an abrupt ending, and I’ve always found it unsatisfying.  For one thing, it leaves readers completely in the dark about some of the most dramatic scenes in Paul’s life.  I would love to read about his trial before the emperor and his execution.  But no, there’s not a word about any of that.  Nor does the writer grab at the chance to craft a happy or sad ending.  The curtain comes down on Paul almost in mid-sentence, and then that’s that.

After Mass, over lunch in the refectory, my confrere Fr. Hilary shared his own feigned disappointment with the ending.  “Now we’ll never know whether Paul went to Spain!”  True;  and had Paul gone to Spain there would have been enough material for several more chapters.

FD591DA4-60A9-4978-AFBA-1047E2393B89His comment got me to thinking.  We know of course that Paul wanted to go to Spain, but did he actually make the trip?  Someday perhaps somebody will find Paul’s name in a first-century hotel register from Barcelona, but for now we’re free to speculate.

As unsatisfying as the conclusion to Acts might be for some, its silence on Paul was intended to speak volumes.  Acts was never meant to be the definitive biography of Paul, because it meant to set the stage for something else.  The postscript to Acts is really about all those nameless people who finally did take the good news of Jesus to Spain, and then on to places like France and India and finally into our own towns centuries later.  In other words, the Acts of the Apostles as a text is in no way complete until we figure out how we fit into the story.

If Acts ends with a variation on “to be continued”, the writer wants us to realize that we are the people meant to continue the story.  Certainly the Acts of the Apostles provides useful information on the apostles, on Paul, and on those who succeeded them in leadership.  But the story is presented for the benefit of those for whom the message of Jesus was intended;  and as near as I can figure it, that includes me and you too.

DEBC65F1-D12F-4095-9CAD-DC71CFD2354FThat has profound implications for our role in the Church.  Whenever I learn more about the shortcomings of leaders in the Church, it naturally gives me pain, if not a big dose of anguish.  But then I try not to stop there.  That’s when I remind myself that “Church” is not nor has it ever been co-terminus with its ministers and leaders.  The Church includes all the baptized, and all the baptized must do the equivalent of “pick up our mats and walk.”  All of us share in the mission to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, or at least to the end of the street where we live.

At Pentecost Jesus sent the Spirit for our inspiration, our consolation, and to be our constant travel companion.  With that gift comes the call to share in the commission that the Lord gave to his first followers.  Thankfully the work didn’t stop with them, and as a result a bunch of people had the gumption to take the gospel to Spain.

Others went even further afield, and so I’m left to wonder what the Lord expects of me on the feast of Pentecost.  Should I take the Spirit home with me?  To work or to the market?  At the very least I should take the Spirit to heart.  After all, the Lord meant that gift for me, as well as for you.


+The farthest I travelled from home this week was to Minneapolis.  I drove down with one of my colleagues on June 6th, to meet with an alumnus of Saint John’s University and to attend a reception in the evening.  For lunch we stopped at Emily’s, for which I gladly give a plug.  It is a Lebanese cafe that has been a fixture in northeast Minneapolis forever.  Across the street is Saint Boniface Church, which the monks of Saint John’s Abbey staffed for over a century.  A block away is a Ukrainian Catholic Church, and between them is Saint Maron’s Maronite-Rite Church.  Since my colleague had never been to Saint Maron’s, I suggested we go in.  Once in the sanctuary he spied the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible, which a donor had given to the parish.  On the way out we bumped into the caretaker, and I casually asked if Bishop Sharbel happened to be in.  Before I could stop him he called the bishop, and shortly he came out and we had a nice visit.  I attribute all that to the work of the Holy Spirit.

22CEC028-EB08-43E6-8464-06659B5A027A+Following the retreat that I gave in Malvern, PA, last weekend, I returned to catch the last part of our own community retreat at Saint John’s.

+I continue to get interesting comments on the geography post I produced three weeks ago.  In it I wondered how New London, MN, had gotten its name, speculating that it might be named for London UK or even New London, CT.  A friend of mine did the research and reported that New London MN is named for New London WI (who would have thought), which in turn had been named for New London, CT.  (Who would have thought.)

+Summer has finally arrived in Minnesota, and in addition to the weekend lake traffic going by on I-94 we have enjoyed the lush green landscape.  Save for the lilacs, the flowers are not yet in serious bloom, but we do have our first peonies, which is perfect timing.  They are also known as the Pentecost rose.


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IMG_0002_2One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Contentious

In theory the Easter season should be a stretch of unrelieved joy.  After all, we continue to celebrate the victory of Jesus over death and the grave.  It was an extraordinary event — one that makes the decisive difference in the lives of each and every believer.

Be that as it may, in the aftermath of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus not everything was peaches and cream.  Even a superficial reading of The Acts of the Apostles bears this out.  The overriding theme in its pages may be the resurrection of Jesus, but sandwiched between every sermon is news of some sort of conflict or disagreement.  It’s good for us to remember that if the apostles thought everyone was going to stampede to the baptismal font, that simply didn’t happen.  The stoning of the deacon Stephen was only the rudest reminder of what was to come.  Those were the moments when the apostles must have recalled the words of Jesus, who said that he had come to divide father against son and mother against daughter.  Well, those days had come, in spades.

In the aftermath of nearly 2,000 years of experience we can easily lose perspective of the definitive struggles that shaped the early Christian community.  Things that we take for granted today were not nearly so obvious then, even to the apostles.  Should they stop going to temple?  Should they stop keeping a kosher diet?  Should they shun meals with non-believers — and the Romans in particular?  Should they require circumcision for men?  Those were just some of the issues over which they parted company from Jews, who literally were their brothers or sisters.

IMG_0006_2Beyond that, if they weren’t going to do some of these things any longer, then what were they going to do?  After all, as a community of believers they had to believe in something.  They had to rally around core practices and a creed that would set the course for the future, and that future was not always obvious.  Nor did everything get settled within the first month after Jesus ascended. As The Acts of the Apostles reminds us, the early Christians debated and argued and fussed with one another.  And when they were done with one issue, then they moved on to debate and argue and fuss over something new.  What’s more, they were not always polite or nice about these things.

In the Nicene Creed we describe the Church as “one, holy, catholic and apostolic,” but to that we might just as well add “contentious.”  Each generation has had to contend with big issues, and the morality of slavery in the 19th century is an excellent though by no means the final example of this.

IMG_0012_2Why do Christians debate and argue?  Part of it boils down to the fact that Jesus asks his followers to submit every nook and cranny of their lives to him.  Not a single aspect of our lives is off-limits from the reach of Jesus.  There are no areas of our behavior which are exclusively ours to govern; and Jesus never said we could have a three-day weekend to use exclusively as we might wish.

Beyond that, Jesus claimed for God all the grey areas of life.  He noted that God was unimpressed by whole burnt offerings and the sacrifice of goats and birds.  Instead, God was and continues to be interested in a pure heart.  God wants lives of integrity — meaning, God wants it all.  Frankly, I prefer to offer the bulls and doves rather than offer up my integrity.  The latter is way too hard to do and much too intrusive into my life.

IMG_0029_2All this suggests why early Christians debated so many fundamental issues, and why ever since then Christians have invested so much passion in the discussion of God’s reach into our lives.  God wants it all, and so it all matters.

Easter makes the decisive difference in the lives of Christians, and if it does, then every minute of our existence has value.  Small wonder that we should give it serious thought.  People who struggle with faith and how to translate it into action should take comfort from the conflicts narrated in The Acts of the Apostles.  From where does our comfort come?  It was the Spirit who was present in those early discussions, and it is that same Spirit who abides with us as we deal with life.  Struggle, and especially struggle with the Spirit at our side, simply means that we are alive in Christ.


+On April 12th I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.

+On April 13th I taught to our Novice Cassian the final class in a series on monastic history.  Regardless of what he may have learned, it was a great review for me.

+On April 16th The Tallis Scholars sang a concert of chant and ancient music in the Abbey church.  Because I was away that day, it was something that I keenly missed.  I have been a fan of their music for ages.  I presume they take their name from Thomas Tallis, the Tudor-era composer of choral music.

+We were delighted by the recent news that one of our Benedictine Volunteers, Chris Heitzig, has been admitted into the doctoral program in economics at Oxford University.  He graduated from Saint John’s University in 2015 and currently is working at Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ.  I had the chance to visit with Chris in Newark this winter.

+The photos in today’s post illustrate one of my all-time favorite churches: Santa Pressede in Rome.  Built and decorated in the late 8th and early 9th centuries, it has some of the oldest and most magnificent mosaics in Rome

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IMG_0660The Resurrection:  A Life-changer

There’s something a little chaotic about the scene in which the disciples baptized 3,000 people in one fell swoop.  They had preached to these people all morning, and when they had heard enough they literally burst out with the question “what’s next?”  Baptism, on the spot, was what came next.

Because of the rush there was no time to check birth certificates, no time to line up godparents, and no questions about whether everybody was taking a proper Christian name at their baptism.  Nor was there any thought to starting up a lengthy RCIA program.  All those things would come later, in the fulness of time.

This episode from the Acts of the Apostles describes the scene at Pentecost, but we read it at Mass on Tuesday of Easter week.  Since I was slated to preside and preach at the Abbey Mass that day, I prayed for inspiration, and this was what the Spirit sent.  I grant the absurdity of projecting back into this scene practices from later centuries; but I also contend that the Holy Spirit sometimes makes good use of such silliness to make a point.

What the rush to baptize 3,000 people may have lacked in attention to the details of ecclesiastical process, it more than made up for with the sense of urgency and excitement.  Christ is risen, and that was the key difference in the lives of these new believers.  They could not put off acting on that belief until another day.  Rather, news of the risen Lord was a life-changer, and it did not take these 3,000 people several years to figure that out.  The insight seemed to come almost in an instant.

IMG_0659Interestingly enough, this was something that the disciples picked up on fairly quickly, and it’s a point that Saint Luke makes in the Acts of the Apostles.  Most of the disciples had been with Jesus for three years, and they’d heard pretty much all he had to say.  But his death and resurrection seemed to change everything.  Now they had to tease out the implications of his teaching and integrate them into the nooks and crannies of daily life.

Peter, James, John and the others did not cease being Jewish and become Christian overnight.  It was a painful process for them, even if from hindsight it was a spiritual revolution that evolved quickly.  In fact it came with a lot of soul-searching.  After all, their lives had been rooted in the law of Moses, and it was not immediately clear where the teaching of Jesus was going to take them.  In the process some critics dismissed them as crazy subversives, but they defended themselves by saying that this was the work of the Holy Spirit.

I shudder to think what might have happened had Jesus become incarnate in the 21st century.  Had he come to our monastery we definitely would not have crucified him, because we’d bottle him up in committee instead.  We would parse his words and offer amendments both friendly and unfriendly, and we’d likely borrow the words that the Greeks on the Areopagus addressed to Paul:  “Come back and we’ll hear some more about this sometime.”

IMG_0657Of course monks are no different than church congregations and families when we try to integrate the words of Jesus into our lives.  We hear and we read what Jesus has to say.  We mull it over; and to the extent that we domesticate his words we also diminish the impact they can have on our lives.  Small wonder that the teaching of Jesus can at times seem irrelevant to us.  In those instances it comes as no surprise that his teaching neither sustains nor energizes us.

The message of Easter, however, is one of excitement.  It’s not only about the resurrection of Jesus, but it’s about our own resurrection as well.  It’s about our resurrection to a life that suddenly has a meaning and purpose that it might have lacked before.  It’s about opening our eyes to what we can and ought to do with our lives — not just on the Sabbath but on every day.

The 3,000 people “got it” as soon as they heard it.  Perhaps the contrast with their previous lives was so intense that all they could do was to ask what to do next.  Of course we’ll never understand what got those people so stirred up in the first place, unless we let the Spirit in to surprise us.  And it’s true — the Spirit can be disruptive and disturbing.  But is everything we do more important than our own resurrection?


+On March 29th I began the day with a class with our novice, Brother Cassian.  Later I presided at the Abbey Mass, and following that it was my turn to help in serving dinner in the Abbey refectory.

+On March 30th I went to Boston to make a few alumni visits, and while there I met up with our confrere Fr. Michael-Leonard, who is in the middle of his doctoral studies at Boston College.  I also got to spend time with two monks from Glenstal Abbey in Ireland — Brother Colman and Fr. William.  Brother Colman spent the last semester teaching at Saint John’s, and this semester he is a visiting scholar at the Center for Irish Studies at Boston College.

+While in Boston I stayed at the Jesuit residence at Boston College, and there I had the chance to reconnect with one Jesuit with whom I was in school ages ago at Yale.  Quite by accident someone had not spelled my name correctly on the sign on my guest room door, and instead of OSB they had typed SJ after my name.  When the rector apologized for these not inconsequential errors, I told him not to worry.  “I’ve been called worse things than a Jesuit.”  That brought a hearty laugh.

+The images in today’s post are sculptures in the cathedral of Toledo in Spain.  I have put them in reverse order, with the Ascension at the top of the post.  In that image all you see are the feet of Jesus as he ascends into the clouds.

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