One feature of the Paschal season in Byzantine Churches is the reading of the Acts of the Apostles. Every day, beginning with Pascha itself, this story of the early Church is read at the Divine Liturgy. While the text of Acts itself begins with Christ’s ascension, our public reading of it begins as we commemorate His resurrection. While Christ’s followers struggled until Pentecost to grasp the reality of the resurrection and its meaning for mankind, the Church sees Pascha as the source of its life, the fountainhead of its existence to this day.
Divine power in the Church comes from the empty tomb and the blessing of the risen Christ upon His disciples – “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22) – which we also hear read on this Sunday. The paschal liberation in Christ from captivity to death begins to touch individuals and communities as the Church develops in the first century AD.
Acts paints a picture of the first Christian community in Jerusalem, then in Samaria, in Damascus and Antioch and the cities of Asia Minor. Finally Acts affirms that within the lifetime of the apostles a Church had been established in Rome, capital of the empire, the focus of life in the Mediterranean world of that era. The events recorded in this book would occur again and again through the centuries as the Church became established among different peoples and cultures.
Some of these characteristics listed in today’s passage, Acts 5:12-20, are:
Signs and Wonders (vv.12, 14-16) – The Church is first of all characterized as a transforming presence, just as Christ’s own earthly ministry was, according to the Gospels. The sick are healed just by Peter’s passing shadow, and those “tormented by unclean spirits” (v.16) are delivered.
To this day physical healings are regularly reported at saints’ graves or shrines, in connection with their relics or wonder-working icons. The 10th-century shrine of St George near Istanbul is one such place. Remarkable here is that most of those who come by the thousands to this shrine are Muslims. One of the priests at the shrine, Father Ephrem, confided, “During my three years here, we ourselves are witnesses of miracles, such as the healing of paralytics, mutes, and the giving birth to children.”
Just as physical healing was not the chief object of Christ’s ministry, the Church’s focus is chiefly on spiritually healing the whole person. The Church’s therapy may include Confession, spiritual guidance and the Mystery of Holy Unction, given “for healing, for relief from every passion, from defilement of flesh and spirit, and from every illness” (oil blessing prayer).
Proclaiming Christ (v. 12) – Rabbis and scholars would regularly be found gathering at Solomon’s Porch, a colonnade east of the temple. It became the place where the first followers of Jesus would go to share the Gospel, sure of a curious audience.
The town square and the coffee house have in their time been places where Christians have gone to gather and to make their faith known to others. Today cyberspace may be the ultimate Solomon’s Porch. As Pope Benedict XVI recently wrote, “I would like then to invite Christians, confidently and with an informed and responsible creativity, to join the network of relationships which the digital era has made possible… In this field too we are called to proclaim our faith that Christ is God, the Savior of humanity and of history, the one in whom all things find their fulfillment.”
Reluctance of the Religious Establishment (v. 13) – While people from the Jewish rank and file were drawn to the Gospel message, their religious leaders at first held back and then directly opposed this teaching which threatened their power among the people.
The apostles encountered the same reception from the leaders of Israel as had the Lord Jesus, John the Forerunner and other prophets. Politicians – be they political or religious – may be more concerned with keeping “good order” than with seeking the will of God.
A famous expression of this conflict between leaders and the Christ of the Gospel is the “Parable of the Grand Inquisitor” in Feodor Dostoievsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In it an atheist tells his brother, a monk, that Christ would be arrested and condemned to death were He to return today because His teachings would disturb the established way things are done.
Growth (v.14) – A major theme in the book of Acts is that, before the death of the chief apostles, the Church had spread from the first group at Solomon’s Porch to the very heart of the empire, Rome itself. The Church began with “locals,” Jews from Galilee and Judea. Hellenized (Greek-speaking) Jews soon joined them as did “proselytes,” those pagans who had adopted the Jewish belief in one God, but had not formally joined the Jewish people as this would demand complete separation from their non-believing family and associates. Finally other pagans, never drawn to Judaism began accepting Christ ultimately outnumbering the first Jewish believers.
Is the number of Christians still growing today? In 2011 BBC reported that more people go to church on Sunday in China than in the whole of Europe. In 1900 there were approximately 10 million Christians in Africa, mostly in the historic Coptic and Ethiopian Churches and among Italians, Greeks and other settlers. A little over a century later the number has reached 500 million. And where, in 1900, Africans accounted for only 2% of the world’s Christians, today they number 20%.
Persecution (v. 17-18) – As the number of Christian’s in the Roman Empire grew, they came to be seen as a threat to the state. Christians in the empire were persecuted from time to time and from region to region until ad 311, when the Great Persecution of Diocletian came to an end.
Religious persecution has often been carried out with political overtones. When Rome was persecuting Christians, they were welcomed in its neighboring rival, the Persian Empire. When Rome embraced Christianity the Persians began persecuting Christians as Roman sympathizers.
Today Christians may be persecuted outright for political reasons, as in North Korea, or in strongholds of other religions in Asia and Africa. In the historically Christian nations of the West, the contemporary “powers that be” have increasingly marginalized religion, striving to keep it behind church doors for people who fancy that sort of thing. Public figures regularly pit Christian values against “human rights,” “women’s health” and the like. Thus even Mother Teresa of Calcutta was vilified for calling abortion “a great destroyer of peace” when accepting the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize. One lives Gospel values in the public sector at one’s own risk.
Divine Protection (vv.19-20) – The apostles, miraculously delivered from prison, went right back to the temple. As was reported to the Sanhedrin: “Look, the men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!” (v. 25). When questioned about why they had disobeyed the council’s demand that they stop, Peter and the others replied with a phrase that has repeatedly been used since against opponents of the Gospel: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (v. 29).
From the apostles’ preaching at Solomon’s Porch to our own day the Holy Spirit, given by Christ, has protected and made fruitful the proclamation of the Gospel.