Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 10, 2020
Pagan converts in the early church knew that their joining provoked some controversy. Saint Luke's second book for them, the Acts of the Apostles, tells a story of an earlier conflict among Christians of Jewish stock.
Our ancestors in the faith had long been slaves, nomads and exiles, without a permanent home. The author of the First Letter of Peter uses images of stone buildings, drawn from the Hebrew Bible, to encourage early Christian pilgrims.
Some early Christians needed help in making a complete commitment to Jesus. In sympathy for them, John the Evangelist depicts an apostle as not fully understanding who Jesus is. But Jesus also makes demands of his followers that are uncompromising.
The Historical Situation: By the time of Jesus, Judaism was old enough to have numerous divisions. Members of more than one Jewish group became Christians, but, human nature being what it is, maintained some of their old factionalism. "Hellenists" means, in general, people of Greek heritage, language or culture. Here specifically it means Greek-speaking Jews who had become Christians. (The integration of non-Jews into Christianity comes a little later, and will cause an even bigger controversy. Stay tuned!) Neglect of one such group by church authorities of another group is behind the events narrated here.
A Theological Reflection: The apostles ratified the choice of these community servants by praying over them and laying hands on them. The church could have met its needs without such ritual. The apostles' choice to solemnize it this way suggests something very interesting about service in the church. They seem to be saying that the role of community servant is worthy of what would become known as ordination. That is, service is so important in the life of the church, that we cannot be the church if we're without mutual service. There are religions that zealously guard the purity of their doctrine, their ritual, or their moral codes, but are without this orientation toward service. For us, it cannot be so. Service constitutes the church, as do word and sacrament.
Proclaiming It: In reading this, pronounce the names of the servants confidently. It doesn't matter how you accent them; just don't stumble on them verbally and thereby distract the congregation from the story. Note that the larger story of Acts continues, "The word of God continued to spread." Make that an important part of your proclamation, too.
The Historical Situation: Our ancestors in the faith had once been slaves in Egypt, then nomads in Sinai, then settlers for a few generations, then exiles in Babylon. So the notion of a permanent home, one made (at least in part) of stone, held great appeal for them. Thus it's natural for Peter to use the stone metaphor to describe the place of Jesus in the plan of God and in our lives.
Proclaiming It: Peter contrasts those who accept Jesus as their cornerstone with those who stumble on the stone. As is often the case when a New Testament writer quotes the Old Testament, meanings are not immediately clear to us twenty centuries later. To help the congregation get this, study the passage carefully, until YOU get it, until each sense-line makes sense to you and fits into a logical whole in YOUR mind. That's the best favor you can do for those who will hear your proclamation.
Microphotograph of unravelled human DNA, by Ezequiel Miron, University of Oxford, Wellcome Image Awards 2017. Read more here.
This page updated April 19, 2020