The Acts of the Apostles
"Jesus is the joy of living... la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!" is a modern charismatic song that has gladdened thousands of hearts in recent years. It eloquently expresses outwardly what the singer has experienced inwardly, namely, the joy of sonship/daughterhood, of new life in the Spirit, of having encountered Jesus the risen Lord in a powerful and personal way. Going back 2000 years, this same sentiment of gladness arising from a deep spiritual experience is what the Acts of the Apostles is all about! This lovely book of the Bible tells of the Acts of the Holy Spirit, the Acts of Jesus the Risen Lord, the Acts of his Apostles transformed from weak, scared and confused men into courageous, bold and convinced leaders of a new people, the Acts of the Early Christians spreading the Gospel to the ends of the earth!
"Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common... they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people!" (Acts 2:44-47).
This inner joy translated into special strength and courage as they faced misunderstandings, prejudice, and persecutions for the sake of Christ, and it enabled them to persevere and make progress in building up the Body of Christ:
"And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved... The word of God continued to spread; the number of disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith" (2:47; 6:7).
The Holy Spirit Creates A New Entity:
We must not forget that the most important thing that happened with the coming of the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost Sunday was the birth of the Church, and not just "speaking in tongues" or other such noticeable charismatic phenomena! A motley group of individuals, about 120 in number (1:15), were transformed in a moment from a spiritually weak and confused state into a "new creation in Christ", and this bonded them into a tremendously strong and focussed new People of God: "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people" (1Pt.2:9f).
This "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church" that was created that day has continued to grow till today, influencing the world with ever new vitality, and as Jesus himself promised, will continue to do so till the end of the world (Mt.16:18). Once they received the Holy Spirit, these early Christians had such a tremendous sense of belonging that they were motivated to live as one family, even sharing their material possessions with one another:
"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" (2:44f).
Several years later, however, the story sadly seems to have changed. Writing to the Church in Ephesus, Jesus says:
"But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first" (Rev.2:4f).
The context of these words show that Jesus is not accusing them of a bad life, in fact He praises their fidelity to Him as Lord, their fidelity in doctrine, their toil and patient endurance, etc. As far as the vertical dimension of Christian spirituality is concerned, their life is admirable. But it is in the horizontal dimension that they have fallen short. Their love for one another is not expressed so strikingly as at the beginning of the Church.
This is a constant temptation for Christians down the ages, to dichotomise the first great commandment from the second. In a sense, it is easy to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and mind, and strength" (through personal prayer, love for Scripture and the sacraments, attendance at Church services and devotions and parish prayer-meetings, etc), and to stop there! But we do not have that option as Christians. We must also "Love your neighbour as yourself", or to update it, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another even as I have loved you..." (Jn.13:34f).
A hundred other powerful texts can be cited from the New Testament about our love for God needing to be authenticated by our love for one another, and especially for the poor and needy, in expressions of solidarity and compassion.
The Prominence of Peter and Paul:
The main focus in Acts is on St.Peter in the first 15 chapters, and on St. Paul from chapter 9 onwards. Other apostles specifically mentioned are John and James, plus Barnabas (who shares in the work of an apostle), and two of the newly ordained deacons, Stephen and Philip.
Peter is the instrument by which the Spirit opened the way for Gentiles (non-Jews) to receive baptism. This happened in a curious way. He had a vision in which he was asked to eat the kind of meat which the Law of Moses forbade; but when he protested, he was told, "What God has cleansed, you must not call unclean!" (10:15). So later he could declare to Cornelius, the Roman centurion, "Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him" (10:35). While Peter was still teaching, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word, and Peter ordered them to be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ. Thus began the mission to non-Jews!
In the Gospels as well, Peter is portrayed as having been given a special role among the apostles, and the Catholic Church has continued this tradition about the primacy of Peter till today. Other Churches, founded in the Second Millennium, are now slowly coming to accept this tradition too, and to look for ways to implement it, for the sake of Christian Unity. May the Third Millennium see in fact the achievement of full Christian Unity, in the power of the Holy Spirit!
On the other hand, Acts teaches us that while Peter initiated the work of evangelising the Gentiles, it was Paul who became their great apostle. He was commissioned for this (13:2) by the Church in Antioch (where Jesus' disciples were "first called Christians" - 11:26), and thereafter he travelled and laboured ceaselessly to preach the Gospel everywhere. From 47-57AD he made three missionary journeys (13:4-15:35; 15:36-18:22; 18:22-20.3) and then came his journeys to Jerusalem and to Rome (20.6-28:31) where finally he was martyred in 64AD.
Let us look here at just two outstanding events in his life, his conversion experience from Saul the persecutor to Paul the Apostle, and his fearless contribution at the first Council of Jerusalem. The first is narrated three times, in chapters 9, 22, and 26, and it marked him for life, not just leading to his overwhelming and absolute devotion to Jesus and his Gospel, but also to his understanding that Jesus is inseparable from his Body the Church. "He asked, 'Who are you, Lord?' The reply came, 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting'" (9:5). Thereafter, in his teachings, Paul was always concerned "for the common good", that is, for the building up of the Body of Christ.
We too must somehow become aware of our own belonging to the Body of Christ, and not just to the Lord. To call oneself a "non-denominational Christian" seems to be a contradiction in terms, since to belong to Christ is to belong to his Body the Church. St.Paul, and the Fathers of the Church, have taught this so persuasively and passionately, as a sine qua non for mature discipleship.
During this conversion experience also, Paul understood that the Gospel could not be preached without personal sacrifice and suffering: "I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name" (9:16).
In our efforts at discerning God's will for us, we too must keep this context clearly in mind, that the whole of Christian life, and especially our apostolic life, receives life in abundance from our personally participating in the Way of the Cross. "Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted"(2Tm.2:12).
The second event took place in Jerusalem in 49AD where, after Paul and Barnabas had shared about all the signs and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles, the elders solemnly defined that salvation is "through the grace of the Lord Jesus" (15:11) and that circumcision is no longer a requirement. [see also Amazing Grace]
Signs and Wonders:
A major concern of Acts is the Lordship of Jesus. The Crucified One is the Lord, the Anointed One, who in turn anoints his followers with the Holy Spirit, and all this becomes evident through the manifestation of signs and wonders!
"Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you see and hear... Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified" (2:32-36).
Hence, 2:43 tells us, "Many wonders and signs were done through the apostles". 5:12ff repeat, "Now many signs and wonders were done among the people by the hands of the apostles... so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and on pallets, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them!" 6:8 records, "And Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people". 8:6 declares, "And the multitudes with one accord gave heed to what was said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs which he did". 8:13 confirms, "Even Simon (the magician) believed, and after being baptised he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed".
Even at the Council of Jerusalem, "all the assembly kept silence; and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles" (15:12). About Paul, 19:11 records, "And God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them..." Acts ends its story by remembering that after Paul had laid hands on and healed a man, "the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured" (28:9).
The purpose and significance of all these signs and wonders is clear: "it is the Lord, who wishes to confirm the truth of the message! "So Paul and Barnabas remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands" (14:3). Needless to say, the greatest sign and wonder of all was the love that these Christians had for one another, and their joy even in the face of suffering: "Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for the name" (5:41). 13:52 also records, "And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit". The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and thereafter made a real difference, both for their personal lives as disciples and for the task of evangelisation!
To conclude, the Acts of the Apostles is not just a stirring record of our glorious past, but a blueprint for today's Christianity as well. The Holy Spirit continues to be the Lord and Giver of Life, and he wants to be Commander-in-chief of the personal lives of disciples as well as of the corporate efforts of the Church. The mission of Jesus, the Risen Lord, must be carried out by his Body the Church throughout history, for the need of our 6 billion-strong world for Good News and the power to live it (and be transformed by it) is still both very great and very urgent! And so, as Bl.John XXIII asked the whole Church to do, we must keep on praying with renewed fervour and expectation, "Come Holy Spirit, renew your wonders in our day, as by a new Pentecost! And let the story of the Acts of the Apostles continue from generation to generation, Amen!"