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Apostolic Succession and Suffering in Acts 14

by Brant Pitre November 13, 2019 0 Comments


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And then finally (and this is important), the role of suffering in the life of discipleship. If you want to be a Christian to escape suffering, you should join some other religion because this is not how this one works. Look at Paul’s message. This is a great selling point if you want to sell the gospel: through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God. So how do I enter the kingdom? I want to be in the kingdom. People say, “I want to go to heaven.” Good. Alright, then be prepared to suffer, because you’re being brought into the mystical body of the crucified one, the pierced one. The mystical body of Christ who (yes, he was raised, but he) suffered and died first. So we’re not going to escape it ourselves.

This is important too. There can be a real temptation in evangelization to sell the gospel by putting on rose colored glasses, by just accentuating the good elements of it or (in a sense that) the pleasant elements like the joy, the peace, the love, the understanding. Joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, understanding, all the fruits of the spirit; those are all wonderful things. And they’re part of the gospel. And you receive the virtues of faith, hope and love in baptism. That’s all true. But we’ve got to be careful that when we evangelize, when we share the gospel, we don’t leave out the essential role that suffering plays in it. One reason it can be tempting to leave this out is because suffering is not attractive. The cross is not attractive. And even less attractive is not just the cross of Jesus, but me having to pick up the cross, and me having to suffer in order to enter into the kingdom. And so you’ll notice that Paul doesn’t mince words in this regard, he doesn’t soft pedal the gospel. He’s very clear about the utterly essential character of suffering as a prerequisite for entering into the resurrection. There is no resurrection without the cross; period. And so he exhorts them to continue in the faith and reminds them that through many tribulations they must enter into the kingdom of God.

So that’s the authentic gospel: preaching the good news, making disciples, exhorting people to persevere in the objective faith and also always having the cross as a part of the good news. That’s all there. But that’s not it, because notice what else is going on here, and this is really crucial for us today. What does the Church look like in terms of its organizational structure? In contemporary times a lot of people will say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” And what they mean by that is “well, I believe (I might believe in Jesus or believe in God), but I don’t obey. I don’t follow the rules of any particular church.” Usually it means “I believe in God or I believe in Jesus, but I don’t go to Church on Sunday, I’m not a member of any particular organization.” And so when you encounter that (it’s kind of a remarkably wide spread view), hold it up against the light of the Acts of the Apostles. Is that the church of the Acts of the Apostles? Is the church of Acts a bunch of self-appointed apostles making their own churches, setting up little, local congregations without any authority or individuals having authority over themselves and just believing and not being disciples? No. Not at all.

If you look here, it says that when Paul and Barnabas go to a church, once they’ve evangelized the particular locale, they don’t just take a hike and leave people to their own whims, to kind of teach themselves, but Acts says they appointed elders for every church with prayer and fasting and committed them to the Lord in whom they believed. So the Greek word here for elders, presbuteroi, from the Greek word presbyterous, which literally means “elder” – no mysteries here — is the Greek word from which we get the English word “priest” actually. The English word is rooted in this Greek term presbyter. And elders, in a 1st Century Jewish context, were appointed leaders within the synagogue (or within the temple), who had authority (usually as teachers) over the community. So Paul (this is so crucial) is setting up an apostolic community, which he, as one who is sent by Christ, has the authority not just to found (through evangelization), but also to organize according to a hierarchy in which he ordains presbyters to be the official leaders and teachers of “the” faith, the objective faith to the congregation.

This stands in striking contrast to many Christian communities outside the Catholic Church (many ecclesial communities), where the leaders of these communities are either self-appointed or appointed by the congregation without any hierarchy of authority above them that goes back to the apostles. In the Catholic Church, we believe in apostolic succession that is rooted in New Testament texts like this passage from the Acts of the Apostles. That when the apostolic church went around founding churches, they were in communion with the apostles and they had an ordained hierarchy of presbyters, which to this day, if you look at documents on the priesthood in the Catholic Church, usually (not every single time) the word for priest is presbuteros. It’s presbyter, it’s a loaned word in Latin from the Greek term for an elder. Which is kind of funny because I’ve taught at seminary for years and some of the guys who get ordained, they’re in their twenties and they’re not old like an elder, but they’ve entered into the office of an elder after a period of training and formation. And that’s how the early church did it as well.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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