The early Christian community in Jerusalem continued to witness through the power of the Spirit that they received at Pentecost. Luke deliberately highlights the initial preaching of Peter and John and the rejection of the Jewish authorities. This is followed by communal prayer (Acts 4:23-31) and a new infilling of the Spirit with even greater power for apostolic witness (4:33). The community is renewed and “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possession were his own but had everything in common” (4:32). This is not the imposed false unity of communism but a voluntary sharing of individuals moved by the needs of their community.
The words “everything in common” (Acts 4:32) echoes the earlier description of “the communal life” of Acts 2:24. The disciples would sell property and lay the proceeds “at the feet of the apostles” (4:35). They did not give the money to the apostles but to the community and the apostles “distributed to each according to need” (4:35).
Just as God demonstrated his power through signs and wonders in the desert with Moses, so now many miraculous works occur through Peter and John. Luke desires to highlight Jesus’ role as the New Moses and the Christian community as spirit-filled, new people of God. Just as the community of Moses encountered problems in the desert, so the Christians encounter a problem reminiscent of Joshua 7:1-26. In the Joshua narrative Achan stealthily took goods from the plunder subject to the ban, and deceitfully hid them in his tent. When Achan is discovered and confesses both he and his family are punished by stoning.
In Acts 5 a couple named Ananias and Sapphira collude together to sell a piece of land and pretend to give the all proceeds to the apostles. They could have openly given only part of the money and it would have been thought generous (Acts 5:4). The fact that they lie to God and ‘test the Spirit’ (Acts 5:9) by attempting to deceive the apostles, causes their immediate judgment. Both husband and wife are struck dead. Luke tells us, “And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things” (Acts 5:11).
Luke now tells us about more signs and wonders done at the hands of the apostles and then a second arrest and imprisonment of Peter and John incited by the ‘jealousy’ of the Sadducees (5:17). The second arrest and rejection by the Sanhedrin may parallel the pattern of rejections in the patriarchal narratives of Joseph and Moses which Stephen highlights in his discourse which follows in Acts 7:12-13, 23, 30.
Another parallel is drawn to Moses who was rejected on his first visit to the people. Moses second visit was prompted by an angel and accompanied by ‘signs and wonders.’ Peter and John are released from jail by an angel (Acts 5:19) and many ‘signs and wonders’ are performed at their hands (Acts 5:12-16). The Twelve Apostles demonstrate that they are the true leaders of the people through the evidence of God’s hand being with them.
In the next section of Luke’s narrative a dispute breaks out between the Aramaic speaking Jews and the Greek speaking Jews in their community. The widows of the Greek speaking Jews were being overlooked in the food distribution. The Twelve Apostles call together the community and appoint seven reputable men who are “filled with the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3) to take on this task. These assistants are sometimes thought of as the first deacons. Although the office of ‘deacon’ appears early in the New Testament (Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:8), the majority of Catholic scholars do not think these seven men are equivalent to our modern office of deacon. The main activity we see Stephen and Phillip engaged in after this passage is not ‘table service’ but evangelism. A fuller treatment of the office ‘deacons’ is found in 1 Timothy 3:8-13.
In any event the meaning of the deaconate has changed over time. The Second Vatican Council significantly revived the principle of a permanent exercise of the diaconate as a specific degree of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Although it is exercised “not unto the priesthood, but unto the ministry,” it is a “proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy” which is given for “the service of liturgy, of the Gospel and of works of charity” (LG 29, AG 16). The Catechism reminds us, “The sacrament of Holy Orders marks [deacons] with an imprint (‘character’) which cannot be removed and which configures them to Christ, who made himself the ‘deacon’ or servant of all.” (CCC 1570)
Like Jesus, Mary, and the Apostles let each of us desire to serve and not to be served by others.
Scott McKellar is Director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.