Easter 05, Year A

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Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God (Mt. 5:8)

Says Father Andrew M. Greely: “If it were not for phonies (that is men to whom power and institution meant more than religion) on both sides, the tragic separation of Church and Synagogue might never have happened”.

Such an observation from a recognized expert is worth considering, for sure, even if one may have some serious reservations about it. And I myself do share the view that there will be fewer irreconcilable conflicts among us if religion means more to us than power and institution.

By religion, I mean fundamentally what Jas. 1:27 says it is: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” And this, it seems to me, was definitely the religion of the leaders of the early Christian community.

As the first reading has it, the Twelve would not neglect the word of God so they could serve at table. But neither would they allow that any needy member of the community be left out “in the daily distribution.” While the leaders upheld the importance of their being devoted to prayer and the ministry of preaching, they also made sure the Hellenist widows’ needs, like those of the Hebrew widows, were taken care of.

And there is something admirable, I think, in the way the Twelve promptly and effectively handled and addressed the Hellenists’ concern. The Twelve were not as thin-skinned about the Hellenists’ complaint against the Hebrews as people in authority today might be thin-skinned about criticism (cf. Father Robert P. Maloney, C.M., “Some Helpful Distinctions in Catholic Life” in Seasons in Spirituality). Service of the word and service of those in need being first and foremost in their mind, the Twelve’s decision was neither slowed down nor tainted, it appears, by considerations about power structure in the church or by concerns for the emerging institution. Such considerations and concerns, we know by experience, could easily turn servants into bureaucrats who are hard of hearing and impervious to outside influence (cf. Father Robert P. Maloney, C.M., “An Upside-Down Sign: The Church of Paradox” in the November 22, 1997 issue of America).

Not stained by worldly considerations and concerns, the Twelve did things—if I may use St. Vincent de Paul’s words—without double-dealing or manipulation, their intention being focused solely on God (CR, II, 4). Because they knew they were working for God, the Twelve chose God-related ways for carrying out their work, and saw and judged things from Christ’s point of view and not from a worldly-wise one (CR, II, 5).

So then, the leaders of the early Christian community were pure of heart. Neither duplicitous nor phony, they were able to see clearly the Father in Jesus and, following Jesus as the way, to see him too in the least of his brothers and sisters, in those rejected often by the rest of society but are especially the living stones God uses to build a spiritual house. The Twelve became good listeners as well, treasuring Jesus’ words as the Father’s own and hearing the cries of the poor and the complaints of the members of the community as Jesus’ own cries and complaints. Devoted to prayer and to the ministry of the word, the Twelve presided over a community that was itself so devoted to their teaching and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers, that it was of one heart and mind, and in it no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own since they had everything in common (Acts 2:42; 4:32).

Surely, the Twelve and the community they presided over did not treat religion as a private matter, if for no other reason than that they did not make those who have nothing to feel ashamed nor did they ignore or exploit the poor and the marginalized (cf. 1 Cor. 11:22 and Pope Benedict XVI’s April 16, 2008 at address to the U.S. bishops). To them religion meant more than power and institution. To us too religion should mean above all communion with Jesus, the way and the truth and the life, and with everyone he is in communion with.