Three Pictures of the Church (Acts 5:12-20)
Fr. Patrick Reardon · April 27, 2009
How does the Christian Church appear in these nine verses of chapter 5 of the Acts of the Apostles?
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Very, very early Sunday morning a week ago, my brothers and sisters, we began the reading of the Acts of the Apostles. We’ve had it all this week including the Divine Liturgy this past Wednesday night. This morning we get the fifth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. There’s a picture of the Christian Church that emerges in these verses, and I’d like to look at it with you this morning. How does the Christian Church appear in these nine verses of the Acts of the Apostles? It appears a lot of ways, I’m sure, but I am going to limit it to three.
First, the Christian Church appears as a popular movement. The Church is portrayed as making a popular appeal in the sense of the Latin noun populus which means people. The Latin text of this passage in fact uses this word twice. At the very beginning of the passage, the Vulgate text of this reads with respect to the Christians:
ceterorum autem nemo audebat coniungere se illis sed magnificabat eos populus
Yet none of the rest dared join them, but the people esteemed them highly.
Magnificabat eos populus, the people magnified them, magnificabat, highly esteemed them. Latin has another word for people, which is also found in the Vulgate text of today’s reading. That other word is plebs, meaning common people. That word also appears in the Vulgate text of this morning’s reading:
per manus autem apostolorum fiebant signa et prodigia multa in plebe et erant unianimiter omnes in porticu Salomonis.
And through the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were done among the people. And they were all with one accord in Solomon’s Porch.
“Many signs and wonders were done among the people, the common people.” In both of these cases the underlying Greek noun, in the inspired text, is laos. It’s interesting that in one place Jerome translates it as populus, in another place, plebs. I’m not sure exactly why. There are a lot of questions I want to ask Jerome someday. Laôs, the Greek word laos, is the root of our English word laity. You already knew that.
This same word appears a third time towards the end of the text, where the angel tells Peter: “preach tô laô, preach to the people.” They are the ones to whom the Gospel is addressed. Now that’s significant, surely. Three times in just these nine verses, the reference is to people, particularly in the sense of common ordinary people.
In this passage of Acts the Christian Church is portrayed as a people’s religion. It’s almost dangerous to say that now. It sounds too much like “people’s republic.” But it’s portrayed as a people’s religion and we need to look at that seriously. It is not portrayed as the religion of the elite. When the apostles go out, where do they go? They go to Solomon’s porch where the poor and the needy gathered.
They didn’t immediately head for the university. If they had been like the Jesuit missionaries of the late 16th century, they would have gone after the king, get the nobility first. That was always the Jesuit method, get the nobility first. Get the intellectuals and everybody else will come through later. We don’t really find that in the New Testament, which may be why the Apostles were so successful.
The Christians, in this text, are gathered where the common and ordinary people gathered, a place called Solomon’s porch, which was a sort of piazza del popolo. This porch of Solomon is described back in the third chapter of Acts (Acts 3) as the place where the crippled and the needy gathered to beg. It would have been a lot, I suppose, like Louisville’s Haymarket was when I was a child.
My grandfather used to walk me through the Haymarket. My grandfather was always shopping for that night’s supper. He shopped every day. If the eggs weren’t laid that morning, he wouldn’t buy them. But he brought me through the Haymarket, and it was a wonderful place. You just don’t have places like that now. But I remember the poor, people who were crippled and had all kinds of infirmities. Lots of infirmities you don’t see anymore, because now we abort those babies. But in those days, there were a lot of poor and sick and deformed people. That’s the way Solomon’s porch looked. It seems to me sometimes that the Solomon’s porch area must have looked a lot like the Haymarket. I remember they were even selling sacrificial animals there.
In describing the Gospel as having a popular appeal, I think it instructive to contrast it with certain elitist schools of religious philosophy. Let’s take Stoicism, for example. Indeed I think Luke rather subtly invites us to make that comparison. The expression “on Solomon’s porch” is in Greek en te stoa solomontos, same word stoa. Stoic philosophy was also taught on a porch, which is why they called it stoic, a stoa, a porch. The Stoics get their name from this stoa in Athens, this large porch that overlooked the Agora, where the common people gathered, the major city square in Athens. It’s still there. It looks a little better now, I think.
This school of philosophy was founded at Athens three centuries earlier, by Zeno of Citium (332-262 BC), who taught philosophy on the large porch overlooking the public square at Athens. Stoicism is a very noble and high religious philosophy requiring enormous amounts of self-control and giving very little attention to the passions and emotions, in fact very much distrusting the passions and emotions. It starts to sound like some schools of thought I’m familiar with, but have never followed.
Stoicism, represented by thinkers like Epictetus (AD 55-135) and Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180) was distinctly elitist in its appeal. It really had to be. In fact, among educated people over the next several centuries, Stoic philosophy was to become the rival of the Christian faith. Among educated people it was the chief rival of the Christian faith, but only among the better educated. Among ordinary people, the plebs, it was very difficult for Stoic philosophy to take hold with all of its emphasis on logic and abstraction and freedom from feeling. Among ordinary people it would never be a rival to the Christian faith.
In this respect we recall the description of the Christians at Corinth. Listen to this description of the Christians at Corinth. It’s very clear in this description that the Christian faith was not portrayed as a white-collar religion. It’s not even portrayed as a blue-collar religion, certainly not a green-collar religion. In fact it is mainly for people whose shirts don’t even have collars, if they could afford shirts. Listen to this:
For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty. (1 Corinthians 1:26-27)
These people are not well-placed in this world. They are not the movers and shakers. “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise.” The Christian faith is and always has been a peasant religion. It takes its deepest roots among peasant people, sinful people, uncomplicated people, people of common sense, and that’s still true today. Academia, in this country, is not Christian. In fact on the whole it is distinctly anti-Christian. That goes for those institutions that call themselves Christians and even name themselves after the Mother of God. The media is not Christian today, the elitist media, it is not Christian, on the whole, it is anti-Christian. The entertainment business today is not Christian. On the whole, it is anti-Christian.
The word plebs describes the place where we’re going to find the Christians most of the time. A good way to translate the plebs in English I think is “the folks”, the plebs, the ordinary people, literally, the plebians. That’s why the elite are always the first to lose the faith and the last to regain it. Look at Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century. The elite had already lost the faith in Russia by the time the Russian revolution came along. They had already lost it. Very few of them would be killed in proportion to the number of plebs that would be killed, the ordinary people.
It seems to me important to stress this because there is a disposition, and I see it a lot, to think of one reading himself into the church, to become a Christian by study. People come to me all the time: “What book should I read to be preparing for Chrismation?” They are rather surprised when I say: “You know, Micah would be a good choice.” When Augustine, who was a very well-educated man, Augustine, went to Ambrose and said: “What should I read to prepare for Baptism?” Ambrose said: “Isaiah, read Isaiah.” In the Confessions Augustine tells us: “I’ve tried, but it was just too hard.” Even that was over his head. I am wondering what would have happened if Ambrose had said “Well you know, there’s a recent author who really makes this distinction between the energies and the essence very clear, and you need to have that down cold when you become an Orthodox. You need to understand that very, very well.”
You see, whereas the porch at Athens was the gathering place for the intellectuals, the porch at Solomon was the gathering place for the desperate and the needy, those with troubled lives, those whose marriages were falling apart, those whose teenagers were running wild, those who had lost their jobs, those who had all sorts of problems. They are the ones gathered in the porch of Solomon, those described by Luke today as sick people and those who were tormented by unclean spirits. Those are the ones the Christians go after, those who are tormented by unclean spirits. Nowadays, if somebody came into that door tormented by an unclean spirit and started to act that way, I wonder what we would do? 911 comes to mind. Those are the ones we are supposed to go after, those who are needy and poor and don’t have anything going for them, because those are the people with whom Jesus habitually associated as a point of preference.
Second, in today’s passage, the Church is portrayed as apostolic. Although it was popular, the Christian Church was never portrayed as democratic. The authority did not lie in the démos, the people. The authority lay in the Word of God. That’s what has authority, the Word of God. The apostles were authorized to speak the Word of God. The church was centered around specific men with authority, men chosen by Jesus and authorized to speak for Jesus. Now, notice in today’s Gospel, these apostles are intermediaries of divine grace. It’s very hard for American religion to buy that, that there are intermediaries, established institutional mediaries of Divine grace. We read this morning:
so that they brought the sick out into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might fall on some of them. (Acts 5:15)
What authority, the very shadow of Peter falling over the sick. Later on we read of Paul’s apostolic ministry at Ephesus:
Now God worked unusual miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons were brought from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them. (Acts 19:11-12)
Even the bodies of the Apostles are filled with grace. This picture of the apostles is consonant with what Luke told us earlier:
And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. (Acts 2:42)
“The apostles doctrine and communion” — in the modern translations that’s fellowship. I’ve always thought of fellowship as not terribly religious. When I hear the word fellowship it doesn’t say Church to me. The Christian word is communion or the Greek koinónia. That’s something sacred. Fellowship is everybody having a good time and partying. That’s fellowship. Communion, koinonia, is something in God.
Both these components of apostolicity are essential. Not just the didaché, not just the teaching of the apostles, but also the communion, the koinonia of the apostles. This latter term is a reference to the Church itself, that corporate group of believers tied to the apostles by direct historical continuity. It isn’t just the teaching of the apostles, but their communion, their common life. The communion of the Church is not just a fellowship among contemporaries. It’s a trans-historical and life-giving link to the apostles themselves. See, when we joined the Church, we joined the Church of the apostles. It’s the same living body now as it was then.
Third, the Church in today’s reading is portrayed as life, zoe. Thus the angel tells Peter in the last verse today:
“Go stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life.”
Πορεύεσθε καὶ σταθέντες λαλεῖτε ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ τῷ λαῷ πάντα τὰ ῥήματα τῆς ζωῆς ταύτης.
“Go stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life.”
“Poreuesthe kai stathentes laleite en tô ierô tô laô panta ta rêmata tês zôês tautês.”
This is a striking and curious expression — panta ta rêmata tês zôês tautês. All the words of this life refers to the Gospel. The content of the Gospel, its words ta rêmata is instruction about a reality identified as life.
What are the apostles to do? Look closely at the command. The apostles are to begin by taking a stand, the angel says: “Go stand in the temple and speak all the words of this life.” Take a stand and speak. Speak all the words of this life, all the words must be spoken, the words that are pleasant, the words that are hard to hear, God’s entire message. Speak all the words because this life is an integral whole. It is life according to the Gospel.
It is not just a lifestyle. It is not a question of conforming to rules. Much less is it “Let’s do what Jesus would do…What would Jesus do?” That is raw imagination. Jesus is not a hypothesis: “What would Jesus do?” No hypothesis there. Jesus is living inside us. What does Jesus do? This life refers to a new principle of life. It is not life in a merely physical sense. It is not bios, as in biology, it’s zoe. It is a new source of life. It is life drawn from a completely new principle. It is Christ living in His Church. It is the Holy Spirit enlivening every member of the Church, just as the soul enlivens every part of the body. To be in Christ, my brothers and sisters, is to be alive in a completely new sense, so that it becomes possible, among Christians, to meet and love Christ in one another, to see the fruits of Christ in the lives of one another.
The Gospel becomes thus an atmosphere. Think of the Holy Spirit as an atmosphere. What is the atmosphere? It is that in which we are and which is in us. That with which I am surrounded I take into myself, I breathe it into myself. In the Christian Church, the Holy Spirit is to be the new atmosphere. We live in the Spirit, breath in the Spirit, the Spirit lives in us, a new source of life.