Sermon: The Church of "Acts" is the Catholic Church
The Church of the Acts of the Apostles is the Catholic Church.
For the past few weeks we have been hearing about the life of the Apostles and their followers in the early days of Christianity. This period, from Pentecost until the legalization of Christianity in 313 AD is often known as the “early Church.” But what is the relationship of the Church that we call “the Church” to this “early Church” we see in the Book of Acts?
Protestant polemics hold that the “early Church” was corrupted by the institutionalization that occurred following the legalization of Christianity in the year 313 and then Christianity’s becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380. At this point, they hold, a new entity emerged – the organization now known as the Catholic Church.
When Catholics address these misconceptions, we often make a critical mistake. We can think that the question is “which Church looks most like the early Church”? We point to the regular celebration of the Eucharist, the existence of a hierarchy, and other signs to show that we are the Church that is most like the “early Church.” But this is not actually the question. The question is, “Which Church is the Church of the Apostles?”
The Catholic Church’s claim is not that She is the Church that most closely resembles the Church described in Acts. She that this Church described in the Book of Acts actually is the very same Catholic Church present throughout the world today. This is indeed a radical claim, but one that finds much proof in history and the scriptures.
We see the Apostles today gathered to resolve the most difficult question faced by the “early Church” – whether non-Jewish (gentile) converts had to follow the Jewish ritual law. Notice the lack of the presence of sola scriptura in the way that they deliberate. While reference is made to Scripture, it is clear that the Scriptures they had received from Judaism could not answer this question. Even as they provide guidance and inspiration, the Scriptures must be interpreted by Apostolic authority in order to address the concrete problems faced by the Church.
When the deliberations are opened, it is St. Peter, the prince of the Apostles, who makes the decisive intervention: “We believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as [the gentiles] will,” and not through the ritual law of the Old Testament. After Peter’s speech, St. Luke tells us that “all the assembly kept silence.”
The confusing part is that it isn’t Peter who has the last word in this dispute, but James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, giving the solution that we hear articulated in the Apostles’ letter today. This has been used by many Protestants to argue that Peter did not have any special role, but was one bishop among many. But this ignores the history and context of what is happening.
St. James was the leader of the Jewish faction. The ones causing this trouble and insisting that the gentile converts have to take up Jewish ways are his people. The fact that he speaks second is not a sign of his importance compared to Peter. Rather, he gives a concession speech, acknowledging the leadership of Peter.
We can see here that peace, harmony, and unity in the Church are largely determined by people’s willingness to be good losers. St. James and his followers do not go off and start a new church, but submit to the judgment of the Holy Spirit. A similar dynamic was seen in the 19th Century. Many bishops in the United States and England were not in favor of defining the Pope as infallible in matters of faith and morals for fear of misunderstandings regarding this teaching in non-Catholic countries. But the doctrine was defined by the First Vatican Council and these bishops all not only submitted to its judgment, but became enthusiastic supporters of the doctrine of papal infallibility.
Closer to our own day, something very different created much ambiguity about Catholic teaching following the promulgation of the Second Vatican Council in the twentieth century. There were many people in the Church at the time who had hoped that the Second Vatican Council would inaugurate an era of radical change in the Church. When the Council produced texts that proposed modest reforms in a spirit of continuity with the Church’s past, many people simply disregarded the actual documents of the Council and enacted the changes they wanted to make regardless – invoking a so-called “Spirit of Vatican II.” Unfortunately, almost everything that people think they know about Vatican II can be traced to these deceptions, either intentional or unintentional. This becomes particularly confusing when we hear news reports of members of the hierarchy criticizing people who want to “go back in time” or celebrate “staid liturgies that reject Vatican II.” But again, we have to remember that what we think happened at the Second Vatican Council is usually not actually what the Council actually taught. Most of what people now think constitutes “pre-Vatican II Catholicism” is actually the same Council’s authentic interpretation and implementation.
These ambiguities were cleared up on at least a doctrinal level during the pontificate of St. John Paul II, who worked heroically to restore unity to the Body of Christ through re-stabilizing the Church on the basis of solid Catholic teaching. Unfortunately, more recently, we have come to see the Papacy as an office like the American Presidency, in which the policies of one’s predecessors can be whimsically reversed, and much of this uncertainty has returned.
But this does not have the be the case. Knowing the Catholic Church to be the Church founded on the Apostles gives us hope and peace in knowing that Christ’s promises will be fulfilled: The Holy Spirit will teach the Church everything and remind Her of all that Christ taught.
We see in the Book of Revelation the beautiful imagery of the foundation of the Church on the twelve foundation stones, representing the Apostles. This is fulfilled in the Catholic Church in the continuing of the Apostolic Ministry in the successors of the Apostles, the Bishops. Many Protestants claim that the Scriptures are teaching here about the Apostolic teaching as the foundation. That is, the true Church is that Church which we find to be faithful to the teachings contained in Scriptures (according, of course, to the way that we interpret those Scriptures).
It is certainly true that any “church” that teaches anything contrary to the doctrine revealed in Scripture could not possibly be the Church founded by Christ. But this is incomplete without the reality contained in the New Testament that the Church is founded not only on the truths taught by the Apostles but on Apostolic ministry. And we also see in the Book of Acts that the Apostles chose successors to continue their ministry, electing Matthias in place of the traitor Judas. So the true Church will be marked not only by the teaching of the Apostles, but the continuation of their ministry through their successors.
But is this all just a history lesson, or a set of arguments with which to rebut Protestant polemics about the Church? No, there is much more here than that. Recognizing the Catholic Church as the Church described in the Scriptures is not an invitation to triumphalism, but rather to deeper conversion.
This recognition of who we are as the Church calls us to a greater docility to the Holy Spirit expressed in the Church’s definitive judgments regarding faith and morals. Just as the Apostles were guided by the Holy Spirit to make a difficult decision regarding which Jewish practices applied to the new Christian converts, so does the Holy Spirit continue guiding the successors of the Apostles when, through an official exercise of their office, in union with the head of the Apostolic College, the Pope, they teach on faith and morals.
We have seen this Easter season not only the teachings of the early Church, but also its practice and its life. “all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.” (Acts 2:44-47).
Seeing the Catholic Church in the early Church means seeing ourselves as that community of believers that remains called to care for all those in need in our midst, to break bread together with glad and generous hearts, and to praise God together. It means (while certainly not endorsing socialism), that we recognize the universal destination of goods – that anything that is mine is only mine for a while, and ultimately is for the good of all.
The controversy resolved by the Apostles regarding the non-Jewish converts is also deeply relevant for this consideration. We can also be perplexed or frustrated by fellow believers in Christ with different traditions, customs, or languages than our own. The Apostles, under the leadership of Peter, were led by the Holy Spirit to acknowledge what was essential and what was not, and declined the temptation from the evil one to impose unnecessary burdens upon these new arrivals to their community, accepting that their ways might be different but that they were called to worship the Lord together and live together with “glad and generous hearts.”
Reflecting on this reality – that we belong to the very Church built by Christ on the foundation stones of the Apostles, whose life can be witnessed in the Sacred Scriptures – should lead us to a spirit of profound thanksgiving for receiving this immense gift. The Lord has promised not to abandon us and this promise has been fulfilled in the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Church through the successors of those same Apostles when they exercise their authentic office. We should ask the Lord today for a spirit of docility to the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Church, and pray and fast for a greater spirit of obedience in the Church, through which the peace and joy of the Church can fulfill the mission given to Her by Her founder – to preach the Gospel to all nations, making disciples in this world, and saints in the next.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
VI Sunday of Easter, A.D. MMXXII