Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Final Act Begins


The Sunday after the Ascension, May 16, 2021.

Acts 1:15-17, 20-26

1 John 4:11-16

John 17:11b-19

Some years ago, I read The Last Word, by N.T. Wright, a prominent Protestant biblical scholar and (at that time) the Church of England’s Bishop of Durham. Wright proposed we think of history as if it were a play in five acts. The first act is creation. The second is the fall and sin’s consequences for the human family. The third is the story of God’s Chosen People from Abraham to Jesus. The fourth is the decisive and climactic act is the story of Jesus, the fulfillment of God’s revelation to Israel (after whom, as Vatican II reminded us, we neither need nor expect any further revelation). That then has become the foundation for our current fifth act – the present, the time of the Church, which presupposes all that preceded it, as we tell and retell the world the story of creation, sin, and salvation in Christ, while moving forward toward out final destiny.

Historically speaking, this fifth act – the time of the Church, our time – began when the disciples were all filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Before his ascension, the Risen Lord had told them to remain in Jerusalem to await the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that they were a community of some 120 disciples, united under the leadership of the apostles, praying together during that interval, in that in-between transitional time, which the Church’s calendar traditionally recalls during this annual "novena" of nine days between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday. Saint Augustine described them as "together in one house, praying; because they were now awaiting in faith itself what they were expecting in their prayer and their spiritual desire. They were new wineskins, the new wine was expected from heaven; and it came" [Sermon 267].

Meanwhile, one of the tasks that preoccupied the community during those days was filling the vacancy among the 12 that had been created by the defection of Judas. Just as the nation of Israel had historically traced itself back to the 12 sons of Jacob, likewise the Church going forward would forever after trace itself back to the 12 official witnesses to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Hence, the unique job description Peter proposed: it is necessary that one of the men who accompanied us the whole time the Lord Jesus came and went among us … become with us a witness to his resurrection.

The 12 would in time be succeeded collectively by the Bishops of the Church, who are our link back to the witness of the apostles. Bishops preach the word, celebrate the sacraments, and individually govern particular local Churches while collectively collaborating with Peter’s successor in governing the universal Church, thus linking us all together across space and time - relating each local Church to the universal Church all around the world and the universal to the local in every place, while linking us back in time to that original Jerusalem Church.

It was Peter, as the recognized leader of the 12, who took the initiative in this matter and established the criteria for selection, and that it was the whole community that proposed the candidates. They didn’t propose themselves. As then, so now, it is the Church which finally and authoritatively calls individuals to ministry. Individuals don’t appoint themselves. Guided by God’s grace in their lives, individuals may offer themselves for service to the Church; but their calling needs to be tested and affirmed by the institutional discernment of the wider Church community through its authorized leaders. The whole community, however, retains a certain role in this. Just as it was the whole community that nominated Matthias, so today every local Church community, every parish congregation, needs to be alert to identify each Matthias within it and to encourage each Matthias to respond to both the inner promptings of divine grace and the external promptings of others.

Thus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, the Church has been sent into the world, as Jesus himself was sent into the world by the Father, consecrated to witness to truth in a world searching for hope and meaning.

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