Signs of Hope
Catholics are sometimes accused of having a very rigid understanding of tradition and authority that prevents them from engaging appropriately with the world around them. But as the Easter Season unfolds, the readings of the Church take us into the world of the Acts of the Apostles, where we can see a much more dynamic model of tradition, authority and personal responsibility at work.
Luke’s drama focuses on the two leading figures of Peter and Paul. It begins with Peter and the small group of disciples in Jerusalem challenging the authority of the High Priest and ends with Paul preaching freely in the city of Rome, the heart of the Empire. The story gives us a sense of the immense energy of those early followers of Jesus. But we also see how their message developed in different ways in different contexts and we catch glimpses of their internal struggles and disputes.
A ‘tradition’ was first established in that ideal Jerusalem community, where the believers shared everything they had in common and worshipped in the Temple. But then it was taken out into the globalised communities of the Roman Empire. How was a faith rooted in the Jewish tradition to be made comprehensible to people who did not know the scriptures? How were the preachers to ‘explain’ the resurrection to people brought up on the most sophisticated science and philosophy of the age? How many of the ethical customs and belief then considered central to authentic Judaism should continue to be central to authentic Christianity?
As we follow Acts and read Paul’s letters alongside them, we realize that there were many different responses to these questions. There was a famous showdown between Peter and Paul over whether non-Jews had to keep all the Jewish laws. No single person had the complete answer. Every Christian teacher and preacher had to try and find the balance between what was essential to the shared tradition and what was a legitimate adaptation for the needs of the people to whom he, or she, was preaching. If we look carefully, we can see that it was precisely through such adaptation that the tradition developed and the whole Christian community learned new things.
When we, as Christians, look around us here and now, what do we see? We look backwards to the holy city, to find where we began, but we also look forwards into our own streets and towns and cities. We not only read the Bible. We also read our newspapers. Not all of us are good with words and preaching, but all of us can recognize injustice, corruption, violence and cruelty, sickness and misery in our societies. We can recognize the dark places of the world that need signs of hope.
Our tradition is a dynamic one. The word ‘apostle’ means someone ‘sent out’, a messenger. All Christians have a share in the authority and responsibility of apostles. Peter and Paul showed what the resurrection was about by the way they lived, the way they spoke and the healing signs that they performed. We cannot work that sort of miracle, but we can find the places in our communities where we can bring our bit of healing, our bit of justice, our bit of reconciliation. All of us can adapt what we have received to the needs of the time. When we do so our tradition becomes a sign of hope for the people among whom we live.