Good Old Days?
Fifth Sunday of Easter. Fr Isidore Clarke preaches on how a Church of Sinners can also give opportunities for new developments.
There’s a great danger of looking back with nostalgia to the ‘Good Old Days’, especially as we advance in years. I can say this, because recently I celebrated my seventieth birthday. We tend to think that the past was better than the present, and we can become fearful that the decline will continue in the future.
Certainly there was much that was good in the past. We were in the prime of youth, and now the years have taken their toll. But we also tend to edit our memories and forget what was bad in the past.
Those who extol the Victorian Values of the Industrial Revolution — the inventiveness of the entrepreneur — overlook the human cost in the appalling conditions of labour. In contrast, working conditions are now far better, and medicine has made an enormous improvement in our health.
Today’s first reading sparked off these thoughts. There’s a great danger of idealising the Infant Church. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the Christian community was of one mind and heart, and held everything in common. Certainly there was the enthusiastic zeal which you would expect of any recently formed group. And this was fired by the Holy Spirit.
But as you read the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters, you soon realise that all was not sweetness and light. Some conservative Jewish converts tried to undermine Paul’s mission to the pagans. And he had such a disagreement with Barnabas that they could no longer work together. Two incompatible saints!
Again, the Church in Corinth, which Paul himself had founded, was torn by feuding factions and caused him great sorrow. Everything was not peace and harmony among the Christians of Corinth, nor in their relationship with Paul.
In today’s first reading we learn of another failure in the life of the early Church in Jerusalem. A very vulnerable section of its community — poor Greek widows — was being neglected. Converts from Judaism overlooked the widows in the daily distribution of food. That showed a serious lack of care and concern, and undermined the unity of the community. Not surprisingly, there were complaints.
This incident should warn us against being starry eyed about the first Christians. But more importantly, when the Church recognised its failure it immediately took steps to remedy the fault. And it used great imagination in finding a solution.
Seven deacons were given the special task of caring for the widows. That released others to concentrate on preaching. By allotting different tasks to different people, the life of the Church developed. What had started as a failure became an opportunity for growth.
That has been the pattern throughout the history of the Church. Certainly holiness is one of the essential marks of the Church, as providing us with the means to sanctity, and in fact producing great saints.
Nevertheless, the Church’s members are all flawed. We are sinners, and have blind spots about our faults. But under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, reformers have opened our eyes to our failures. This has led to the community developing imaginative solutions, sometimes new ministries.
This is much more than filling in the gaps; having to find new solutions to fresh problems provides an opportunity for positive development in the life of the Church. More people are enabled to use the variety of their talents in the service of God. We’ve seen that happen in our own day.
And we must expect this process to continue in the future. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the Church should recognise new needs and may find unexpected solutions. That’s a sign of its vitality — not by trying to recapture an idealised past, which never existed.
Although this can create unsettling uncertainty, we can be confident that the Holy Spirit will continue to guarantee that any development in the Church will be consistent with its nature, not a betrayal.
Today’s first reading shows us that our very failures can become the spring-board to future progress. That’s encouraging and exciting!