Today’s first reading says, “The church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria was at peace. It was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord, and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers.” (Acts 9:31) There have been times when I’ve envied that experience of peace.
Many years ago, in a previous parish assignment, I had pastoral care responsibility for a local hospital. By weird coincidence, there was one week during which I received multiple phone calls about the very same patient. All of the phone calls came in the wee hours of the night (on successive nights), and each was an urgent plea for “last rites.” I anointed the patient upon the first request.
The fact that the patient had already been anointed seem not to allay the concerns of the hospital nursing staff. They continued to call, and to do so at the most inconvenient times. After the first few calls, I began to wonder if this was a well-orchestrated practical joke. After all, how could one hospital have so many nurses who were suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder? After a few more calls, however, I no longer saw any humor in the situation. On one of the many occasions that I found myself giving “last rites” to the same patient, I asked the nurse how many more times this was going to happen before these were actually the last “last rites” that would be requested. She seemed not to appreciate the irony of my having administered next-to-last rites repeatedly.
I’ll probably never know what was going on with the family, the caregivers, the patient’s parish, and all the others who were drawn into the dramatis personae about one person’s hospital stay. It isn’t important to know. As I look back on the event, what’s important to me is that it was a missed opportunity to exercise patience in a situation that didn’t merit any patience at all.
When the first reading describes the nascent Christian Church “at peace,” it was not the case that those church communities faced no troubles or challenges. The Acts of the Apostles is very clear about the struggles and persecutions suffered by the Apostles and other preachers of the Gospel. Those communities were neither passive nor unperturbed. They spent all of their energies and resources in order to expand the preaching of the Gospel. In doing so, they encountered a great deal of opposition.
In this reading from Acts, being at peace, being built up, and walking in the fear (that is, reverence), of the Lord means that the first church communities were living in radical faithfulness to the Gospel message and, as a consequence, were at peace with one another and God. Their faithfulness to Jesus’ teaching was demonstrated by the increase in their numbers; they lived according to God’s Word, and the witness of their lives attracted new members to their communities.
The Acts of the Apostles makes it clear that the growth of the early Church was the result of those first disciples living in strict accord with the teachings of Jesus. Further, the growth that the Church experienced was growth both in numbers and in suffering; those who followed Jesus’ teachings also imitated his manner of life (some even imitated the manner of his death).
If you, like myself, are attracted to the peace and consolation enjoyed by the Apostolic Church, there is an easy way to find that peace. The simple way to experience the peace and consolation that characterized the Apostolic Church is to imitate Jesus. He embraced unavoidable suffering rather than run from it or live in denial. He forgave those who persecuted him unjustly. He remained innocent of violence and hatred, even though he was surrounded by people who were ruled by their concupiscence and fears. He faced the very worst that humanity had to offer, but did not succumb to cynicism, resentment, or vengefulness.
Imitating Jesus means that you will have to forgive all those people who drive so aggressively that they seem to relish the idea of causing a traffic collision. Imitating Jesus means that you will have to show love for people who disagree with your political convictions. Imitating Jesus means that you will have to respond with prayer to those who insult or mistreat you.
If it seems that loving your enemies, forgiving your persecutors, and praying for those who harm you is too high a price to pay for the consolation of the Spirit, try a little experiment. Try to live according to Jesus’ teaching just once a day. If a rude driver annoys you in traffic today, forgive them and then go back to your usual behavior. If a family member takes you for granted, express love for them and then return to your normal life. If you find that a person or group or organization threatens your comfort or peace of mind, pray for them and then go about your daily routine.
If you undertake this experiment in sincerity of heart, you will find that the daunting task of imitating Jesus becomes easier and easier; eventually, you will find that you are truly at peace with God and your fellow believers because the teachings of Jesus have taken the place formerly occupied by your fears and worries.
It is no secret that we live in a society driven by fear, worry, insecurity, self-concern, and vengefulness. Neither is there any secret to living in a self-destructive society without drowning in the pervasive pettiness. God continues to offer the peace experienced by Jesus’ first disciples, and that life of the Spirit’s consolation continues to be readily available to those who imitate the Lord.