Scripture in Depth
Reading I: Acts 2:42-47
Readings from the Acts of the Apostles take the place of readings from the Old Testament during the Easter season in series A, B, and C. Such readings are appropriate because they show the continuing work of the risen Christ in his Church.
Luke, by defining his first volume as a record of all that Jesus began to do and to teach (Acts 1:1), implies that his second volume covers what Jesus continued to do and teach.
Verse 42 is a succinct characterization of the life of the apostolic church. Here we see the necessary signs of the presence of the church. Where these signs are, there the church is.
(1) The Apostles’ Teaching. The sharp distinction between didache (teaching) and kerygma (preaching) was probably overdrawn.
Certainly the gospel has to be proclaimed in a different way to outsiders (see the kerygmatic speeches of Acts) from the way it is proclaimed in the ongoing life of the church. But the teaching here must include the continued preaching of the Gospel to the already existing church, a function that is necessary to keep the church in being as a church.
In the interest of such teaching, the sayings of Jesus and incidents from his life would have to be remembered and be given shape, and so the gospel tradition would gradually have evolved.
(2) Fellowship. The Greek word used in verse 42 is koinonia, which means common life, a shared life.
In the Christian community this is based on the sharing of the risen Christ’s life with his people—what Paul in 2 Cor 13:14 calls the koinonia of the Spirit, and what the Johannine writer means when he speaks of his readers as having fellowship “with us,” that is, with those who have seen the risen Christ.
But this vertical dimension of koinonia produces a horizontal dimension. The early Christians, we are told, “had all things in common,” the so-called early Christian communism described in the ensuing verses.
Of course, such communism was not based on any economic doctrine but was a spontaneous expression of Christian agape, necessitated in any case by the removal of the Galilean fisherfolk to the capital.
Nor can it have been so general as Luke suggests in his idealized picture (“all who believed”), for when he speaks of Barnabas in Acts 4:36-37, he seems to imply that there was something exceptional in what he did.
This shows that the so-called communism was not meant as law for the church for all time.
In Paul’s churches it took the form of the collection for the Jerusalem church. Nonetheless, there must be some concrete expression of the horizontal dimension of koinonia as an essential mark of the church.
(3) The Breaking of the Bread. Scholars have debated whether this is a reference to the Eucharist or not.
If we mean the Eucharist as it later developed (by the time of Paul, for example, when the backward- and forward-looking elements combined), it would be an anachronism to call it such.
But Acts 2:46 expands on the brief summary of Acts 2:42 to show that this daily meal had a distinctly sacral character. There we read that they took their food “with glad and generous hearts.”
The Greek word (agalliasis) represented by the English adjective “glad” is a noun meaning exuberant joy at the coming of the Messiah (so Bultmann).
This shows that the daily meal was an anticipation of the messianic banquet, a partial fulfillment of the Lord’s promise at the Last Supper that he would eat and drink with his disciples in the consummated kingdom of God.
(4) The Prayers. This rather unspecific term probably refers to participation in the hours of prayer of Jewish devotion. It is curious to find the earliest Christians participating in the prayers of the Jewish Temple.
Stephen would later have something to say about that, and then the breach between Christianity and Judaism would be widened.
The observance of daily hours of prayer, originally a devout practice of individuals, was eventually developed into the monastic office. A private prayer life is clearly one of the marks of the Christian community.
One more comment. This summary does not mention baptism as one of the signs of the church’s presence. There is an oblique reference to it in the final sentence of our reading: “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
Baptism was the means by which this “addition” was effected. The phraseology tells us much about early christian thinking on baptism.
Baptism is an act through which God works (note the “divine” passive), bringing the convert into an already existing community of those who are on the way to final salvation. One does not become a member of the church as a result of individual decisions to get together after an individual experience of salvation.
Responsorial Psalm: 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24
(This is a slightly different selection of verses from the same psalm that was used on Easter Sunday.)
Psalm 118, with its reference to the stone rejected and made the headstone of the comer, was perhaps the earliest psalm that the primitive community applied to the death and resurrection of Christ. It was the basic Old Testament text for the “no-yes” interpretation of the earliest kerygma.
Reading II: 1 Peter 1:3-9
It is widely believed among contemporary New Testament scholars that 1 Peter is based on an Easter baptismal homily. Some even think that it is a baptismal liturgy, but that is probably going a little too far.
Through their baptismal identification with Christ’s death and resurrection, Christians have experienced a new birth. But the author warns his readers that this new life is not yet completely realized.
They are being guarded for a salvation to be revealed in the last time, and meanwhile they may have to face various trials and have their faith tested in the fire of persecution.
Speaking with apostolic authority, that is, as one whose faith is grounded on his having “seen” the risen Lord, the author distinguishes himself from his hearers, who depend for their faith on the eyewitness of others because they have “not seen.” This adumbrates a theme that is to be developed in the story of Thomas in the gospel that follows.
Gospel: John 20:19-31
This is the traditional Gospel of “Low” Sunday. The author is here wrestling with what became a real problem in the post-apostolic church: How could one believe in the risen Lord without the benefit of a resurrection appearance? The answer is that even seeing, as in the case of Thomas, is no guarantee of faith.
For Thomas, faith came by hearing the word of the risen one addressing him personally. For those who come after, faith comes through hearing the Word of God, through hearing the risen one speak through his apostolic messengers.
Reginald H. Fuller
**From Saint Louis University