Throughout the Easter season we read the Acts of the Apostles. Up till now it has been Peter’s preaching at Pentecost. In the weeks to come it will be the spreading of the Gospel to the nations. But this week we get the central theme of Acts: the repetition of Christ’s life in the life of the Apostles.
Christianity, need I say, is Christ-centered. A curious phenomenon of the Catholic Right is a constant assertion that we should be “reverent” and focus on the “transcendent,” which, they frequently assert, “all religions do” – while, meanwhile, you hear precious little reference to what is distinct about Christianity. What is distinct about Christianity is Christ, and the repetition of his life in the life of his Body, the Church.
Instead of “reverent, transcendent liturgy,” let’s have a life and liturgy centered on Christ. That also means Biblical liturgy, where we hear the unique message of Jesus Christ.
This week’s Gospel reading, from John 14, has many famous lines: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” “Show us the Father and we will be satisfied.”
As usual, John overwhelms us. But we can pull some of these strains together.
First, there is location. People say many pagan things about transcendence and immanence, but in the Eucharist, in the other sacraments, and in Scripture, as in the Incarnation, we have a God who draws us to himself.
Here in John 14, Jesus says, “in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places . . . I am going to prepare a place for you.” On the one hand, he says several times, “I am in the Father and the Father in me.” On the other hand, he says his goal is “that where I am you also may be.”
It is not sufficient to say God is transcendent, and it is even less sufficient to say he is immanent. The point is that by his grace, we ascend to the place from which he descended. God became man so that man could be united with God: anything less is not Christianity.
A parallel theme is faith. “You have faith in God, have faith also in me”: that is, “believe in me.” “If you know me, then you will also know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own. . . . Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe because of the works themselves.”
The reason Scripture is important is because it tells us something absolutely new about God. Jesus, who alone is with the Father, has told us about something we could never have imagined. Without belief in his words, trust in what he tells us, we can never know the amazing truth of the Gospel.
We need to hear his voice. That means not just sitting in silence, where we hear our own internal voices, but reading Scripture, the voice of Christ, the Word of God, which speaks from outside of us and tells us something absolutely new.
The third theme is works. “Believe me . . . or else believe because of the works.” “Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do.” Faith bears fruit. If we receive his Word, we learn what it means to receive Him; if we receive Him we are transformed to dwell where He is.
In our reading from Acts, the Twelve Apostles say, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve [diakonia] at table.” On the one hand, the ministry of the Word is higher than the good works of Christians. It is from faith that works come forth – here the works are “the daily service [diakonia] to the widows . . . at table.”
On the other hand, those works are essential. So the deacons, committed to those words, must be “filled with the Spirit and wisdom.” They receive the laying on of hands of the Apostles – waiting at table is a sacrament – and they produce great saints such as Stephen, the first martyr. And thus, through this proper ordering of Word and service, “the word of God continued to spread.”
Our reading from First Peter tells us of the true worship. All of us must “be built into a spiritual house,”
which is “a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices”: through the ministry of the Apostles and priests, all of us are called to be priestly, in liturgy and life.
But to be that priestly house, we must be built on Jesus Christ, whom we know, Peter says, through “faith.” Those who “disobey the word” – literally, those who do not assent to the word – see Christ only as a stumbling block. Only through faith in Christ and his words can we become the holy people we are called to be.
How do you let your mind be transformed by the truth of the Gospel?