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Deacon-structing the Acts of the Apostles: Paradoxes

Deacon Pedro

Monday, June 1, 2020

Pentecost by Jean II Restout (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
On the Monday after Easter, we set out on this journey, reading through the Acts of the Apostles, the book used for the first reading at Mass during the Easter season. I wrote seven weeks ago that the Book of Acts is my favourite book of the Bible because it is our story. We are living the story of Acts.
This is the story of the Church after the Ascension, and we are still in the midst of that story.
What set us out on the journey was something Pope Francis said in an interview published in Commonweal magazine about how the Book of Acts helps us understand how to live in a Church that exists in the tension between disorder and harmony that is provoked by the Holy Spirit. That short statement made us begin looking for hope in Acts. Then, six weeks ago, we looked for joy. Five weeks ago, we saw how the Holy Spirit gives us power. Four weeks ago, we saw how the Church grew because the disciples were not afraid to proclaim the Good News. Three weeks ago, we saw how, despite of the many obstacles, they persevered in their mission. Two weeks ago, we saw how important it is to have companions on this journey, and last week, we looked at that final journey of Paul that moved the Church into the western world.
Had we stuck only to the task of looking for hope or joy or the power of the Holy Spirit, we would have found countless examples. This, I trust, is something that you will do, in your own time, as you read and re-read the Acts of the Apostles. I hope that this is something you will continue to do as you live your journey inside the Catholic Church: Always ask yourself where the hope and the joy are. Where can you see the power of the Holy Spirit at work? Where do you see people proclaiming the Good News, and when is it a good time for you to proclaim the Good News? How do you overcome obstacles, and who are our companions on this journey? Lastly, as we saw Paul doing during all last week, when is it the right time to go and proclaim the Word in a foreign land?
This is what I’d like to do today as we wrap up our "Easter Acts of the Apostles Journey". What does it all mean for us in 2020? What does it all mean for us during this COVID spring?
Last Sunday, on the Feast of the Ascension, the pastor at my parish said in his homily that whenever the Spirit is at work, we find fear and wonder. That’s how the angels found the Apostles staring at the sky: in fear and wonder (Acts 1:10-11). That’s kind of like the tension between chaos and harmony that Pope Francis mentioned in the Commonweal interview. This is something that we must always remember about our Faith, and it is found everywhere in the Book of Acts: Our Faith is a faith of paradox.
Paradox is a statement that seems contradictory but when examined closely is proved to be true. Saying that someone is a “wise fool” is a paradox. Our Faith is full of them. So is the Bible.
Consider these:
  • When I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12:10).
  • Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it (Matt. 10:39).
  • The last shall be first, and the first last (Matthew 20:16).
The world tells us that contradictions are “either or”. When it comes to our Faith, the Catholic Church teaches that it is possible to have contradictions that are “both and”. Consider these:
  • Mary was BOTH virgin and mother.
  • In the Eucharist, Jesus is BOTH concealed and revealed.
  • Jesus is BOTH God and man.
  • God is BOTH just and merciful.
These are all Truths of our Faith. They are paradoxes, and we, as Christians, need not be confused by them. We normally deal with them by overemphasizing one over the other. Some will favour faith over reason, will over grace, feasting over fasting, prayer over works, mystery over reality...
But as Christians we are called to live in the tension of these. We are called to live in the tension of the chaos and the harmony, the fear and the wonder. The Holy Spirit is an expert at throwing us into those tensions between what seems contradictory: the joy and the sorrow, the planning and the trusting, the living and the dying.
That is the story of the Acts of the Apostles. That is the adventure that began with the coming of the Holy Spirit upon those who were gathered in the Upper Room on that Pentecost Sunday.
We can run from it, or we can embrace it.
You may think that the Apostles lost all fear after Pentecost; reading Acts certainly makes it look like that. But they didn’t. They were just able to trust and act despite the fear. Were Peter and John afraid when they were arrested by the Sanhedrin in Acts 4? Was Paul afraid when he was being stoned to death in Iconium in Acts 14? Likely, but they were able to focus on the hope more clearly.
Did the Apostles stop experiencing sorrow after Pentecost? Was it all rejoicing and joy? I’m sure it wasn’t. But after receiving the Holy Spirit, the Apostles and all the disciples we meet in the Book of Acts no longer hung on to that sorrow. They were not paralyzed by it. Like when the elders from the churches in Ephesus were saying goodbye to Paul in Acts 20, in the midst of the sorrows, they were full of joy.
After Pentecost, did the Apostles always perform deeds of power? Probably not. In fact, I am sure that there were moments when they expected to and there was no power. Sometimes the Spirit acts that way. Was Peter sure that Tabitha would be raised from the dead in Acts 9, or was Paul sure that Eutychus would live in Acts 20? I’m sure they believed, but there’s always a part of us that is not sure what will happen. It is likely that not every attempt at healing was successful. We know that is the case nowadays. But it doesn’t mean that the Spirit is not acting.
Were the Apostles always great proclaimers as was Peter on that first Pentecost and in Acts 4, Stephen in Acts 7, or St. Paul on so many occasions? Probably not. Maybe they had good days and not so great days. It didn’t matter because after Pentecost it is the Spirit who acts through the words and actions of those who proclaim Jesus Christ. After Pentecost it is those sermons that feel terrible to us that sometimes bear the most fruit.
We already saw how the disciples didn’t always agree. I would love to know what caused Mark to leave Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13 that led to that falling out between Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15. We know that there were other disciples, like the Judaizers in Acts 15, who were not preaching the right message. Were all these disagreements and division caused by ill intent? Not likely. I’m sure most disciples were well-intentioned. But it is possible, even after Pentecost, to get the message or the mission wrong. Some, like Apollos in Acts 18, had just not been fully catechized. Does that mean that the Spirit was not at work? No. The Spirit was very much at work.
After Pentecost, with the coming of the Holy Spirit, perhaps the need for companions was greater. Maybe that’s a paradox: Even with the Spirit at work in us, we need human help. How do we live in the tension between trusting in the Divine and divine assistance and at the same time relying on each other? How much of the work of the Spirit is through those who work with us? How often is the Spirit working with us through those who are not 100% with us, the Church, or even that same Spirit?
Lastly, and this, we know, is the greatest paradox of them all: The Church had to move from Jerusalem to Rome: from Jews to Gentiles. This move guaranteed that most of those first Apostles and so many disciples would be martyred in a Rome that was not friendly to Christians.
Yet, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.
Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)
These are some of the many lessons from the Book of Acts. These lessons are as important for us today as they were in the first century. These lessons are especially important for us in times of crisis.
Don’t be afraid of the tension. Don’t be afraid of the contradictions, of the paradoxes. Especially remember that when you find yourself in fear, despair, or sorrow, trust that right alongside, there is wonder, hope, and joy. The Spirit will be with you.
And that’s how, no matter the obstacles, the doubts, the despair, or the suffering, we will be able to act together with the Spirit.
That's how the Spirit acts.

Every week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: [email protected]

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