Saturday, April 17, 2010

It Is I. Do Not Be Afraid.

Saturday of the Second Week of Easter
Reading I
Acts 6:1-7
As the number of disciples continued to grow,
the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews
because their widows were being neglected
in the daily distribution.
So the Twelve called together
the community of the disciples and said,
“It is not right for us
to neglect the word of God to serve at table.
Brothers, select from among you
seven reputable men,
filled with the Spirit and wisdom,
whom we shall appoint to this task,
whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer
and to the ministry of the word.”
The proposal was acceptable
to the whole community,
so they chose Stephen,
a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit,
also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas,
and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism.
They presented these men to the Apostles
who prayed and laid hands on them.
The word of God continued to spread,
and the number of the disciples
in Jerusalem increased greatly;
even a large group of priests
were becoming obedient to the faith.
As the new community grew so did its need to develop new structures. With its growth came a more complex membership. It is likely that some time had elapsed between today’s passage and those we were reading during the past week.

For the first time, the word ‘disciples’ is used to describe those who had become believers in Christ; up to this it had only been applied to those who had been with Jesus in the Gospel.

The issue in today’s reading is that the Greek-speaking Jewish members began complaining that their needs were being neglected by the Hebrew-speaking Palestinian members, from which the founding core came.

At this stage of its development, the Church was still entirely Jewish in its membership. However, they were divided into two distinct groups:
    » There were the Hebraic Jews, who spoke the Aramaic and/or Hebrew languages of Palestine and kept strictly to Jewish culture and customs.
    » The Greek speakers (or Hellenists) were “overseas Jews”, scattered over the Mediterranean lands and had often largely become culturally and linguistically Greek (in the way, for instance, overseas communities become assimilated in the U.S. or Western Europe). They would have had their own synagogues (which Paul used to visit on his missionary journeys) where the Bible would be read in Greek. Not surprisingly, it was from this group that the main missionary initiatives would come, e.g. the Jews from Antioch rather than those from Jerusalem.

However, it is possible that the Hellenists were not Jews from the diaspora but were Palestinian Jews who only spoke Greek. The Hebrews were Palestinian Jews who spoke Aramaic/Hebrew but may also have known some Greek. Both belonged to the Jerusalem Jewish Christian community.

In either case, it is possible that the Greek speakers were to some extent looked down on by Aramaic/Hebrew speakers. (Overseas Chinese, for instance, can have a similar experience when faced with their Chinese-speaking counterparts from the ‘homeland’.) This seems to be what was happening here. Even at this early stage in the life of the Church, we can see the ugly head of ethnic-cultural divisions surfacing.

From its very beginnings, the Church has consisted of flawed human beings. It should never cause us any surprise and it does not weaken the central message of the Good News.

In general, however, the purpose of the passage seems to be to introduce Stephen as a prominent figure in the community. We will meet him again in the readings of Monday and Tuesday next week.

In particular the Hellenists complained about the neglect of the widows in their group. Widows were among the most pitied group of people in Jewish society at that time. They were not necessarily old but they had lost their husbands and remarriage for nearly all of them was out of the question. In the absence of any kind of social welfare, their only means of support was the charity of their community.

The apostles felt that this kind of material responsibility was not really theirs. In the beginning, the apostles were responsible for church life in general which included both the ministry of the word (evangelising) and the care of the needy in the community. As the community grew, this clearly became more and more difficult a responsibility for such a small number of leaders. It was time for delegation and applying the principle of subsidiarity!

So it was suggested that the Greek-speaking community choose carefully selected people from among themselves to take care of these needs. This met with general approval and seven men were chosen. Not surprisingly all of them have Greek names and all, except for one, Nicholas of Antioch, who was a convert, were born Jews. It is significant that a proselyte was included in the number and that Luke points out his place of origin as Antioch, the city to which the Gospel was soon to be taken and which was to become the “headquarters” for the forthcoming Gentile missionary effort.

It is also worth noting that it was the community who chose the seven men but that it was the apostles who ‘ordained’ them by prayer and a laying on of hands. These are the first recorded ‘ministers’ appointed in the Christian community and the pattern of their formal initiation will become the norm: the apostles prayed and laid their hands on them - as we see in Acts and the letters of Paul. This still is done in the conferring of ministries today. At this stage they are not actually called ‘deacons’ but the word diakonia (diakonia), meaning ‘service’ is used twice in the passage.

Finally, as was mentioned, we will be hearing more about Stephen next week and, later on, Philip also.

In the meantime, the number of Christians continued to increase enormously. Now, even some of the priests, probably Sadducees, were being converted to faith in the Risen Jesus. They were now prepared to give up the temple sacrifices and rituals around which their lives up to now centred to be replaced by the new liturgical celebration, centred on the community Eucharist, which would be celebrated wherever Christians gathered together.

Given the limited human and material resources of the early community, it is amazing how its message was wholeheartedly accepted by so many. The finger of God was certainly there.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 33
Lord, let your mercy be on us,
as we place our trust in you.
Exult, you just, in the LORD;
praise from the upright is fitting.
Give thanks to the LORD on the harp;
with the ten-stringed lyre chant his praises.
Lord, let your mercy be on us,
as we place our trust in you.
Upright is the word of the LORD,
and all his works are trustworthy.
He loves justice and right;
of the kindness of the LORD the earth is full.
Lord, let your mercy be on us,
as we place our trust in you.
See, the eyes of the LORD
are upon those who fear him,
upon those who hope for his kindness,
To deliver them from death
and preserve them in spite of famine.
Lord, let your mercy be on us,
as we place our trust in you.
+++    +++     +++    +++
John 6:16-21
When it was evening,
the disciples of Jesus went down to the sea,
embarked in a boat,
and went across the sea to Capernaum.
It had already grown dark,
and Jesus had not yet come to them.
The sea was stirred up
because a strong wind was blowing.
When they had rowed about three or four miles,
They saw Jesus walking on the sea
and coming near the boat,
and they began to be afraid.
But he said to them,
 “It is I. Do not be afraid.”
They wanted to take him into the boat,
but the boat immediately arrived at the shore
to which they were heading.
We have today an epilogue to the story of the multiplication of the loaves for the 5,000.

Jesus had fled to the mountains to avoid the misdirected enthusiasm of the crowd. Before that (according to Mark’s version of this story) Jesus had packed the disciples off into their boats. Very possibly they were much more ready to receive the adulation of the crowd. They must have been quite excited to have been so closely linked with the sensational act which Jesus had just done and which had stirred up the excitement of the crowd.

The story that follows is much more than a mere account of a storm at sea. There is a good deal of symbolism.

“It was getting dark and Jesus had still not rejoined them.” They might have been feeling quite disgruntled at being sent off so unceremoniously when things seem to be going so well for their Master - and them. Life without Jesus is a kind of darkness.

The strong wind and the rough sea can also be seen as a symbol of the storms that can surround the Church and any Christian community. The boat with the little group inside represents a Christian community surrounded by a hostile sea which can be very threatening at times. It still happens.

Suddenly they see Jesus coming towards them; there is actually no mention here of
walking on the water. Their first reaction is fear until they hear the comforting words: “It
is I. Do not be afraid.” That “It is I” is not mere self-identification, like “It’s only me”.

“It is I” or “I AM” (Greek: ego eimi) here is reminiscent of the words spoken by God to Moses from the burning bush. It is a phrase regularly on the lips of Jesus in John’s gospel. It identifies Jesus as one with God.

The words “Do not be afraid” occur regularly from the lips of Jesus and in other parts of the Scriptures as well. With Jesus close by there is no need to be afraid. As the First Letter of John tells us: “Perfect love  casts out fear.”

They wanted to take Jesus into the boat with them but all of a sudden they found they had reached the shore and safety. Some see a miracle in this. On the other hand, in their fear the shore seemed far away. With Jesus close by they find themselves there in no time. The storm was over, their fears evaporated - with the presence of Jesus. The peace that only Jesus can give has come.

We can have the same experience.

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