In today’s First Reading, we get a glimpse of life in the first “parish” – in Jerusalem, soon after the Resurrection.
Three characteristics stand out, which can help us reflect on our own Christian identity even today.
First, the community of believers is steadily growing. The Church is a living body of believers in Christ, and living things are meant to grow. Growth doesn’t just mean growing in numbers – it also means growing as individuals – growing in faith and relationship (with God and with others).
Second, there is a clear structure of authority in the Church community. The Twelve Apostles are its leaders, as Jesus intended, and they solve the new problem that arises by ordaining the first Deacons (yeah, deacons!). Today as well, every Catholic community is organized with the same hierarchical structure.
- First there is the pope, the successor St Peter, leader of the Twelve Apostles.
- Then there is the local bishop, successor of those Apostles.
- Then there is the pastor of the parish, the bishop’s representative for a specific area.
None of them govern by their own authority. Rather, they receive their authority from Christ, through the sacrament of holy orders. By obeying them, in matters of faith and morals, Christians are obeying Christ himself.
Finally, even at the very beginning of the Church, we see that there are disagreements among believers. The Greek-speaking believers complain about being treated as second-class Christians.
This is the point I would like to focus on today.
Our faith in Christ doesn’t make us perfect right away, just as it didn’t make the first Christians perfect right away. Spiritual growth is a life-long process. The first Christians had to work through conflicts and selfish tendencies; so do we all.
“God Equips the Called”
Growing in Christian maturity, both as individuals and as a community, is hard work, and it lasts our whole life long. God assists us with his grace.
In the First Reading, we hear how seven men where chosen to be the first deacons. The Apostles accepted them, prayed over them and laid hands on them. I think it’s important to note that laying hands on someone was the customary Jewish way of designating a person for a task and invoking upon them a blessing and power to perform the task.
It reminds me of the saying: “God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called.”
That’s a saying I reflect on a lot in my own spiritual development. You see, no one is born into the ministry of priest or deacon, they are called to that ministry. None of 12 Apostles were born into the ministry of apostle and leader in the Church, they were called – and they responded to that call.
Each of is called and are invited to respond to our particular calling. And each of us can rely on God to give us all we need to live the life he has planned for us.
A Gifted People
Each person who is called is given special gifts, talents, and strengths to serve the way God wants us to serve. The challenge is naming those gifts and being willing to accept them and use them in service to others. That takes time, effort, and honest reflection.
In It for the Long Haul
People who study spiritual development will tell us that most adults (estimated at 75%) are still living the same stage of spiritual development they lived as teenagers. It appears that when school stopped, so did spiritual development. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Growing spiritually is like being an artist. God gives artists the gift of artistic talent, but the artist has to take responsibility for developing it, and that is hard, painstaking work. But since the vocation of the artist is to make beautiful things, and since beauty can never be exhausted, true artists never stop this process of development.
For example: Michelangelo (the artist, not the Ninja Turtle!) worked on the Dome of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome nonstop for the last twenty years of his life, from age 68 to 88, when most people are relaxing in retirement. That’s what being a Christian is like. We are called to keep sculpting Christ’s image in our souls our whole life long.
Our lives are living works of art. Becoming a mature Christian is a life-long process, both for us as individuals, and for us as a Christian community. If we persevere in this process, never giving up and never falling into a dull routine, we will gradually but steadily grow in wisdom, courage, joy, and holiness.
But you have to take action. And you have to persevere.
One key ingredient that will help us persevere is the virtue of patience. Patience is not a popular virtue in today’s culture. Today’s culture wants everything right away. We want life to be like a movie, in which world champions are made in only two hours. We want life to be like FedEx, which delivers whatever we want overnight. It’s like that old Queen song we hear in commercials “I want it all … and I want it now!”
But the spiritual life isn’t like that.
Becoming a mature Christian, and becoming a mature Christian community, takes constant effort over time. Or as I like to say, “to be patiently persistent.”
Someone shared this analogy about spiritual patience. Think of it in context to those delicious home-grown tomatoes you’ve planted in recent weeks:
God’s grace is like sunlight and rain, and our souls are like gardens. Patience is the gardener who goes out every day, rain or shine, to pull out the weeds, fertilize the soil, mend the fences, and prune the plants. How foolish that gardener would be to give up on his garden before the harvest season! To expect ripe, full-grown tomatoes just a week after planting! And how foolish we are when we give up on ourselves or on other people, saying that we can’t change, long before the autumn of life!
Jesus never gives up on us, as he will prove once again by giving himself to us in this Mass. When he does, let’s ask him to teach our hearts the precious virtue of patience, patience with ourselves, and patience with others.
Copyright © Daniel R. Donnelly. All Rights Reserved.