The Church in the Acts of the Apostles

St Paul Preaching in Athens by Raffaello

The Acts of the Apostles tells a fascinating story of the early Church, but it is much more than just a history book.  Within the narrative provided by Saint Luke is a wealth of revealed truth and theology about this institution and her missionary nature.

In Acts, we see the Apostles beginning to structure the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to deal with the reality that this body is the living, continuing presence of Christ in the world today.  Before the Risen Lord ascended to heavenly glory, he charged his followers to be his witnesses “to the ends of the earth,” to go and “make disciples of all nations” (Acts 1:8; Matthew 28:19).  This is no small mission – the earth is a big place!  The task would require assistants, companions and apostolic succession.

Thus, an order of ministerial service was established to meet the requirements of a growing Church.  After devoting themselves to prayer, asking the Lord to make known whom to choose for the apostolic ministry, the Apostles chose a successor to Judas (Acts 1:14-26).  Soon the Apostles would also appoint presbyters – priests – to help them in the work of celebrating the Eucharist and forgiving sins, as well as deacons to assist in the temporal chores, works and duties of the Christian community.

The essential purpose of the diaconate is to serve.  Deacons serve at table, notably at the table of the Eucharist meal, and they are ministers of the charity of the Church (cf. Acts 6:1-4).  They are witnesses to the faith and defenders of it.  Thus, the deacon Stephen became the Church’s first martyr; he proclaimed the faith with courageous eloquence and forgiving love before he died (see Acts 7).  Deacons also take part in the Church’s task of evangelization as did the deacon Philip in Samaria (Acts 8:4-13).

On their journeys, the Apostles took with them other helpers and companions, like Timothy, Barnabas and Silas.  The people they encountered became disciples themselves, such as Cornelius, Aquila and Priscilla.  And when missionaries such as Paul moved on, it was these disciples who remained who would help build up the Church in their own communities.

This is how the Church grew from a small band of followers of Jesus in Galilee and Judea to “the ends of the earth.”  This is how the Church continues to grow and build up the kingdom of God in our midst.

Occasionally someone will ask me, usually in the context of some social, cultural or political issue that has arisen, something to the effect of: “Why doesn’t the Church do more?”  “Why isn’t the Church more involved?”  “Why aren’t bishops and priests speaking up more?”

These questions reveal a view that places the mission of the Church and the renewal of the temporal order on the shoulders of the clergy.  Yet the lesson of the Acts of the Apostles calls us to a more diversified responsibility. The bishops – who are the successors of the Apostles today – and priests do have a role. They are to sanctify through providing the sacraments, teach and proclaim the Gospel, and govern the flock entrusted to them.  But the work of transforming the world by applying that message falls to the laity – the Aquilas and Priscillas of today – when we deal with the temporal order. It is the charge of the laity to complete the evangelization and sanctification of the world. This is how the Church grows.

In the Church, and in the world, there are always needs to be met in fulfilling our mission.  Today, as in the early Church we read about in Acts, none of us is a bystander in the working out of God’s plan for a world of peace, truth, compassion, kindness, justice and love.