Today’s selection from the Acts of the Apostles makes me laugh every time I read it. I imagine there are many Catholics who hope that “a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6:7) I am among those who hope for that outcome.
The priests mentioned in this reading are not, of course, priests of the Catholic Church. The priests mentioned in this reading were the hereditary Temple priests descended from Aaron the brother of Moses. John the Baptist and his father Zechariah were this type of hereditary priest. You might recall that Luke’s Gospel says an angel announced the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah while he was performing his priestly service in the Temple. (Lk 1:5-17)
The confusion between the Hebrew Temple priests and contemporary Catholic priests is the result of the fact that English has no word for the type of priest who performed ritual sacrifices and offerings in Hebrew religion. The English language developed under the influence of Christianity. The English word “priest” is derived from a Greek word that means “elder.” The “elders” mentioned in the Christian Scriptures were elected or appointed to act as administrative leaders for a congregation; they were not necessarily leaders of worship.
This confusion about the identity of priests isn’t the only clerical anomaly in today’s first reading. The reading describes an accommodation the Apostles made in order to maintain harmony in the nascent Church community in Jerusalem. According to the Acts of the Apostles, the Jerusalem Church community was composed of Aramaic speaking Jews from Judea and Greek speaking Jews from Hellenistic (gentile) regions of the Roman Empire. Apparently, the Greek speaking Jews thought they were being slighted. In order not to be distracted from the mission of preaching the Gospel, the Apostles chose seven Greek speakers and appointed them to look after the material needs of their fellow Hellenists.
The Acts of the Apostles says that this accommodation was made so that the Apostles would not have “to serve at table.” The word used by the Apostles was “diakonia.” This event in the Christian Scriptures was used as a proof-text by medieval theology to validate the practice of ordaining Deacons. There are a couple of reasons to be very circumspect, however, about a simple identification of these seven Hellenistic Jews with the Deacons in today’s Church. Firstly, the seven Hellenistic Jews appointed by the Apostles are not called deacons in the Acts of the Apostles. Secondly, two of these seven appear later in the Acts of Apostles in very different roles from what is described in today’s first reading. Stephen is described as a wonderworker and an inspired preacher. (Acts 6:8-7:53) Philip is similarly described as evangelizing and performing miracles. (Acts 8:4-8)
As if this above isn’t confusing enough, today’s second reading contains a further reference to religious ministers. The author of the first letter of Peter invites the members of his congregation “to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Pt. 2:5) This is another example of the limitation of the English language that I mentioned above. The word used here for “priesthood” is the same word used to denote the Temple priests in the first reading. The author of the letter compares the baptized with the type of ritual intermediary who offers sacrifices on behalf of others. This second reference to a priesthood that differs from the ordained Catholic priesthood is of the utmost importance for all of us.
Baptism is described in the Scriptures and Church teaching as a pledge on the part of the baptized to imitate the faithfulness and mercy that Jesus demonstrated in his life and death. The baptized promise to live such a life in the hope that God will grant them a share in Jesus’ resurrection. Unlike many of the experiences and ideas mentioned in the Scriptures, this understanding of baptism hasn’t changed over the past twenty centuries. Baptism remains one’s admittance to God’s People by adoption and one’s pledge to live up to that honor.
The plain truth is that deacons, priests, and bishops today are related only remotely to the roles called by those names in the Scriptures. For the first hundred or so years of Christianity, ministerial roles were ad hoc functions; they were not necessarily lifetime vocations. If one looks at the list of ministerial functions in 1 Corinthians 12:28, it’s apparent that many of those ad hoc functions are no longer extant in the Church.
Despite the many shifts and transformations of Christian life over the centuries, baptism remains the foundation of life in the Church. As with any foundation, the structure is only as strong as what supports it. In every age, there is reason to wish that Church leaders are “becoming obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6:7) The foundation on which a healthy Church community rests is the baptismal vocation to “be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Pt 2:5) We, the baptized, are those “living stones” which form God’s temple on earth; if we were to forget who we are or what kind of life to which we are called, no one – no bishop, no priest, no deacon, no convert – would be able to become obedient to the faith.