We hear lots of lamenting about the times that we are occupying on the planet. We can get hyper-focused on all the disasters, injustices and immoralities which surround us every day. Let’s face it, though, if we are living in the U.S. and even making a minimum salary we have it better than 90% of the rest of the world. This is in no manner meant to diminish those who are struggling with joblessness or are losing a cherished home because of foreclosure. There are some thoughts, though, that might give us a comparative perspective about all the things that are swirling around us and the challenge of living as a “believer” in this world.
Our world today is a far different place than existed when the very first disciples took up the task of carrying on the work that Jesus began. After his death they initially decided that there was no use and that the best thing that they could do was go back to fishing. That sentiment did not last long and a destined to be world-wide movement was born. Did you know that Christianity even had a secret nick-name that followers passed from one to another? The new, earth shattering way of thinking and living was called “The Way” to those who were in the know.
As we read the bible today and take in the stories about the “early days” it is easy to perceive our history as believers in a somewhat tidied up view; Jesus dies, disciples organize, Apostles come on board, Peter went one way, Paul went the other and “voila”, a new world religion! I think that there can be a great danger in settling in to the sanitized version of Christianity; it can rob us of the power that was originally unleashed on the world and is still available to us as believers today. I was reminded of this by a reading that was included in the third week of Easter; “There broke out a severe persecution of the Church in Jerusalem and all were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria, except the Apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made a loud lament over him. Saul meanwhile, was trying to destroy the Church; entering house after house and dragging out men and women, he handed them over for imprisonment. Now those who had been scattered went about preaching the word. Thus Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Christ to them. With one accord, the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip when they heard it and saw the signs he was doing.” (Acts 8:1-7)
As we read passages like the one above it’s all too easy to gloss over the reality of what has been recorded. It’s one thing to have been there and another to simply read the record. We are so over-stimulated and multi-tasked these days that we hardly notice the content of anything in print unless it is really salacious. Then we sit up and pay attention! But take a closer look at this passage which describes the chaos and terror that was happening in the early church. The scene is shortly after Jesus’ death. After the three appearances of the risen Christ the Apostles had not a single doubt about carrying the mission forward. This passage describes what was happening because they made that decision. As far time frame goes, we know that Paul (A.K.A. Saul) met with the leaders at the council of Jerusalem around 49 C.E. The Bible itself tells us that Paul was present at the stoning of Stephen. Stephen died a young man of age 35. So, by deduction we know that the happenings in the passage were going on somewhere before the year 50 C.E. and within 30 to 40 years of Jesus’ death. So this was the new, new church proceeding with a momentum that no one could have ever imagined. I am almost amused by the open stating that a severe persecution “broke out”. It’s almost like someone caught the flu that just happened to be working its way through the population! But more than the surface casualness of the comment it sounds like the writer thought this was not much of a surprise. After all, the apostles had seen this before, Jesus died in the very first incident of a “break out” of persecution. How many times had they gone through this very scenario in the last forty years? This has to be the ultimate model of perseverance, to say the least. The author does not include the slightest mention or hint of fear. After the decision to continue the ministry of The Way the fact that lives of the Apostles were in danger every minute of every day is in sharp contrast to the fact that they all fled in cowardly fashion at Jesus’ arrest and murder.
There are more clues about the nature of these times. After the “break out” the newest disciples took off. The scattered themselves around Judea and Sumaria because they were scared of being persecuted, which most frequently meant “killed”. It is noted, however, that the Apostles, stayed in Jerusalem. They were focused on maintaining the newly established Church there. This was the foundational community of “The Way”. Some others remained to bury Stephen and lament him. They were part of the same nascent community. The departure of many of the followers after the murder of Stephen does nothing to quell the chaos. As a matter of fact it seems, almost to have fueled the fire. At this same time, Saul (soon to be St. Paul) in his zeal is more than busy. With great energy and perseverance he is busy doing house to house searches for believers in order to literally drag them out and throw them into prison for practicing the faith. Sound familiar, can you say Nazis? As a matter of note we also see that the disciples who fled are not deterred either. They get busy preaching the word in whatever spot they landed. So we see tremendous inertia and bravery that transpires in the new movement despite every evil launched against the people who are determined on contributing to its growth. This is simply a time of swirling controversy, fear, violence and perseverance of the believers. It is not as calm and sanitized as a non-emotional read of print on page might suggest.
When we read or think about the beginning of the Church we would do well to have a full realization of what was happening when all of the early saints were trying to make a go of it. We need to have a clear and complete understanding that the faith we enjoy today in our warm and safe churches came from roots that were full of terror, murder, bravery and incredible perseverance. With any amount of luck this should gives a different perspective on; “I’m tired this morning, maybe I won’t go to church.” Our faith and all of its rich traditions was forged in the fire of battle with the forces of evil. That strength and fortitude is not diminished today. In fact, it has only multiplied and matured in the time span of two millennia. What other organization do you know about has endured relentless persecution and attack and grown to be two billion strong worldwide? The attacks go on and so does the Church. When we worship and call ourselves Catholic we publically identify ourselves as part of that phenomenon. Because of that we too, like the body of believers before us have the privilege of tapping into that strength, wisdom, perseverance and courage. “These times” are no tougher than “those times”. The Church is not obsolete as many would purport. As matter of fact the Church and all its resources and traditions is probably the only organization in the history of mankind that is completely and totally more up to date now than when it first began. Tap into our reality, our incredible resource, it’s free for the asking!
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