Each issue carries an imprimatur from
the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
Acts of the Apostles
by Ronald Witherup, S.S.
What is your church like?” I have
heard this question posed at
gatherings of large groups of
Catholics. The responses to this question
often begin with comments about church
buildings, and only later shift to descriptions
of the congregation.
Yet that experience of the congregation,
of the People of God everywhere, is what the
Church is really about. In this Update, we’ll
look at the testimony of Luke and the early
Church describing the experience of Church.
The story is told in the Acts of the Apostles.
If we want to know more about the
Church from a biblical perspective, we have
to go beyond bricks and mortar.
The Book of Acts is the only New
Testament document devoted
exclusively to the story of the early
Church. It is the companion volume to the
Gospel of Luke (compare the Prologues, Luke
1:1-4 and Acts 1:1-5). The Church uses this book
at Mass almost exclusively through the Easter
season, from Easter Sunday to Pentecost.
In order to provide the proper framework
for reflecting on Acts, we should note first
its general outline. The book has four main
sections: Prologue (1:1-5); The Mission of
the Church in Jerusalem and Environs (1:6—
8:3); The Mission of the Church in Judea and
Samaria (8:4—12:25); and The Mission of the
Church to the Ends of the Earth (13:1—28:31).
Acts gives a clue to this outline at 1:8.
There the Risen Jesus promises the gift of the
Holy Spirit who will enable the apostles to
be emboldened and to embark on worldwide
missionary activity. The text reads: “But you
will receive power when the Holy Spirit has
come upon you; and you will be my witnesses
in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to
the ends of the earth.” (All Scripture citations
are from the New Revised Standard Version.)
There is a certain irony in this
geographic outline. If you go to the
end of Acts (Chapter 28), you will see
that Paul’s missionary journey takes him
to Rome, where he ends up in prison
yet freely proclaims the gospel message
(28:31). In what way can Rome be
considered “the ends of the earth”?
Most everyone remembers the saying,
“All roads lead to Rome.” Indeed, the
Roman Empire was an overwhelming
influence, the world power, in the time
of Jesus and the early Church. Its fabled
road system enabled relatively quick
and safe journeys around the empire.
Some of these roads still exist today!
For Acts to conclude in Rome, then,
is not a statement that this is as far as
the Christian mission went. Rather, it
is to say that if all roads led to Rome,
then all roads also led out from Rome.
For Acts, Rome is a symbol of the
worldwide mission that the Risen Jesus
gave to the Church. The Church is
foremost an evangelizing community.
It is a people empowered by the Holy
Spirit to take the message of Jesus
Christ to the whole world.
This message has not been lost
on the Church today. The late Pope
John Paul II regularly called for a
“new evangelization” in the life of the
Church. He basically was calling us to
recapture the spirit of Acts. The Easter
season offers a good opportunity to
rejuvenate this call. Acts provides the
perfect resource, for much of the book
consists of “speeches” that provide
testimony about Jesus Christ and his
significance to the world.
This does not mean that we have
to climb on our soapboxes at street
corners and shout out the message.
But it does mean putting our faith in
both words and actions, as is described
throughout the Book of Acts.
Life in the Church
If Acts presents the essential
character of the Church as an
evangelizing community, it has
much more to say about the qualities of Church life. These are exhibited
throughout the readings of Easter season.
I will group them, for the sake of convenience,
into four categories: 1) the
Church as a multicultural, universal
community; 2) the Church’s need to
give witness to Jesus Christ even in the
midst of suffering; 3) the Church as a
community of prayer, worship and joy;
and 4) the Church’s inevitable success
spreading the gospel message through
the Holy Spirit.
First, Acts reveals a Church which
is a multicultural, universal community.
One should not miss the
fact that Easter Sunday the first reading
taken from Acts is an excerpt of Peter’s
speech at the conversion of Cornelius
and his household, who were gentiles
from Caesarea (10:34-42).
Peter begins by noting that “I truly
understand that God shows no partiality,
but in every nation anyone who fears
him and does what is right is acceptable
to him” (10:34-35).
Peter confirms this judgment at
the Council of Jerusalem, at which the
Church more formally permitted the
mission to the gentiles (Chapter 15).
Between Easter and Pentecost, the
liturgical year recounts the conversion
stories of many others of differing ethnic
and cultural backgrounds. They all
provide testimony to the effectiveness
of God’s power, at work through the
apostolic preaching, in bringing people
This theme of the universal appeal
of Christ returns at the end of the Easter
season, like a matching bookend.
Pentecost is the quintessential story
of universalism. The Holy Spirit
descends on the apostles and enables
them to speak in tongues mirroring the
nations of the known world (2:1-11).
In this theme, Acts points out a
quality of the Church that speaks to
our own day. More than ever, we live
in a small world where mobility has
enabled the migration of many peoples.
Virtually every sector of the United
States has been touched by the
presence of diverse ethnic groups
who have come to America seeking
freedom, security and prosperity. Our
towns and our churches are filled with
people of diverse ethnic and cultural
backgrounds. It can be a challenge to
incorporate them seamlessly into our
A great hallmark of the Catholic
Church has always been its openness
to this diversity. Catholic (from the
Greek katholikos) means “universal.”
The entire Easter season celebrates
this universality. Peter’s speech at
Solomon’s Portico, for example,
expresses this stance.
Peter points out how Jesus Christ
fulfills God’s promise to Abraham that
in him “all the families of the earth
shall be blessed” (3:25). Languages
and accents may differ, customs and
styles of dress may vary, but the Easter
season testifies to the universal call of
Witness and Suffering
Next, the Church described in
Acts understands the necessity
of giving witness to Jesus
Christ even in the midst of suffering.
A prominent feature of Acts is the
regular presentation of stories about
giving witness in word and deed to
the message of Jesus Christ. The Greek
word for witness is the same as the
English word martyr. Many of the stories
of Acts heard throughout the Easter
season remind us of the price our
ancestors in faith paid for proclaiming
the gospel message.
While Stephen’s martyrdom is
the prime model of witness for Acts
(7:54—8:1), not all the persecutions
end in death. Peter, John, Paul and
others throughout Acts suffer imprisonment,
beatings, trials and numerous
other tribulations for the sake of testifying
to their faith in Jesus Christ as the
crucified and risen Savior of the world.
At times, God sends them miraculous aid (for example, when Paul and Silas
were imprisoned in Philippi, 16:22-34).
At other times, the resourcefulness of
the apostles themselves leads to a respite
in their persecution (see Paul before the
Sanhedrin, 23:6-11). In either case, the
goal is said to be the same. The Church
must give testimony in good times and
in bad, in suffering and in success. In
all cases, the community is to “bear
witness” to Jesus (23:11).
This aspect of the Easter message
may seem more difficult to apply in
our own day, but perhaps not. For
example, the Catholic Church is still
coping with revelations of sexual abuse
of minors. Many believe the voice of
the Church as a moral force in our
society and in our world has been
weakened because of this terrible,
embarrassing failure of trust.
In this case, the interference with
the Church’s ability to give witness to
the message of Jesus Christ is not external
persecution but internal misdeeds.
Both can mute the voice of authentic
testimony. The message of Acts is to
persevere and not to let this stumbling
block silence our voices permanently.
Third, the Church of Acts is a
community of prayer, worship
and joy. This may seem
obvious, but we easily forget that many
distractions can lure us away from the
essentials of faith.
What Church community has not
been tempted at times to emphasize
the practicalities of administration,
financial constraints and the upkeep of
property and buildings to the detriment
of more essential values? Yet Acts
emphasizes that the Church is first
and foremost a community of prayer,
worship and joy.
Already on the Second Sunday of
Easter, which used to be called “Low
Sunday” (probably in contrast to the
“high” feast of Easter), the second
reading describes in idealized terms
the Church’s communal life. “They
devoted themselves to the apostles’
teaching and fellowship, to the breaking
of bread and the prayers” (2:42).
The reading goes on to describe how
all the members of the community shared
their property in common. “Fellowship”
included sharing goods with other
members of the community (see the
idealized description in Acts 4:32-35).
They broke bread in their homes
(2:46), a New Testament expression
for celebrating the Eucharist. Acts thus
highlights the sacramental dimension
of the community.
Acts also recalls the pervading
attitude of joy and exultation, a joy
rooted in the resurrection of Jesus.
That joy resounds in the life of the
Church, even in times of persecution
(2:47; 5:41; 13:52; 15:3).
Such idealistic descriptions are
reminders of the true nature of the
Church community. But we might ask
a legitimate question: How realistic is
this picture? The Easter season is a time
to reemphasize the goal toward which
every Church community should strive.
We honestly should acknowledge
that most of our communities fall short
of this vision of being of “one heart
and soul” (Acts 4:32). As many priests
I know have jokingly commented, the
good warmth of community seems to
evaporate rather quickly in the rush to
be first out of the church parking lot!
Interestingly, while the Easter season
readings emphasize this ideal picture
of the early Church, Acts hints at times
that all was not perfect. One that the
framers of the Lectionary left out is the
curious story of Ananias and Sapphira
(Acts 5:1-11). This married couple
withheld from the common pot proceeds
from the sale of some property. Peter
confronts them and denounces their
selfishness. Their punishment seems rather severe, for, upon Peter’s interrogation
about their evil deception,
they both drop dead! Little wonder
that this reading did not make it into
The message of instilled fear in
the Church (Acts 5:11) goes counter to
the hope-filled, joyful message of the
Easter season. Yet perhaps the reading
interjects a note of realism, namely,
that it is not easy to fulfill the idealized
vision of Church life presented by Acts.
Work of the Spirit
Lastly, the Church described in
Acts expects to succeed because
the Holy Spirit is behind, within
and underneath it all. From beginning
to end, the Book of Acts shows the
power of the Holy Spirit at work in
the life of the Church.
Luke emphasizes that everything
that took place in the earthly life of
Jesus and then that of the early Church
was all part of God’s mysterious plan
of salvation, guided by the Holy Spirit.
Luke emphasizes this, for example,
by speaking of the “necessity” of the
suffering, death and resurrection of
Jesus as the Messiah (Luke 24:7, 44-46;
This divine necessity (this “must”),
because it is accomplished under the
guidance of the Holy Spirit, applies to
the apostles as well. Thus Paul is told
of the necessity of his bearing witness
in Rome (19:21; 23:11).
For Acts, the Holy Spirit is the
“promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4; see
Luke 24:49). The Spirit comes to the
apostles only after the ascension of
Jesus takes place, 40 days after the
resurrection (Acts 1:6-12). The 40
days, a symbolic biblical period of
instruction and preparation to accomplish
God’s will, allows for the apostles
to be prepared for their subsequent
mission. They are then ready to receive
the Holy Spirit and to be emboldened
The Spirit accompanies them
throughout their mission. The Spirit is
their assurance of the presence of the
Risen Jesus as their mission goes forth.
The 50 days of the Easter season,
beginning with Easter and culminating
in Pentecost, are in some ways devoted
entirely to the Holy Spirit. Although the
Spirit is often behind the scenes, Acts
makes it quite clear that the spread of
the gospel—the success of the apostolic
preaching—is due entirely to the
The Spirit gives courage and
strength for testimony to the truth.
These precise values are emphasized in
our Sacrament of Confirmation, which
is often celebrated in parishes during
the Easter season. With this assurance,
the Church is encouraged to have
confidence in the future.
Despite whatever challenges, obstacles
or setbacks we experience, we are to
trust the gift of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps
we can breathe a sigh of relief that the
ultimate success of the Church’s message
does not rest solely in our hands.
The Easter season, when we
hear the Acts proclaimed at
liturgy, offers us an opportunity
to take stock of who we are as
Church. This is not a matter of Church
design, of buildings, of properties or
programs, or even of attendance records
and housekeeping details.
Something far more important is
at stake. Who are we as Church? How
do we today embody the ideal qualities
of the post-Resurrection faith community
portrayed in Acts?
According to Acts, the Church is a
community entrusted with a mission to
carry the “good news” of Jesus Christ
forth to the whole world. We are primarily
a community of believers. We are
called together in fellowship to support
one another in faith, to celebrate the
sacraments and a regular life of prayer,
to share with the community from our
possessions (material and otherwise)
and to give testimony with joy and hope,
confidently trusting that God continues
to guide us in the Holy Spirit.
If the Easter season and the
Lectionary cycle offer us this opportunity,
it is not because it is the sole
time to be Church in the world. It is,
however, a unique time to reflect with
joy that the Church miraculously grew
from a small group of frightened disciples
gathered in an upper room into
bold proclaimers of the message of
Jesus Christ. This is what the Church
of today is called to be about.
You can listen to an interview with
Fr. Witherup about St. Paul at
Catholic Radio show #05-15.
Next: Adam, Eve and Original Sin (by Michael D. Guinan, O.F.M.)