The Acts of the Apostles chronicled the rapid expansion of the early Church as the number of believers increased in response to the Easter proclamation. The account of the election of Stephen as the first deacon to assist the Apostles in their duties was something more than a housekeeping detail. Here we see that Christ’s ministry was not entrusted to the Apostles alone. The Spirit of the Risen Lord, alive in all believers, would enable all to share in this ministry of witness to the Resurrection. The passing of centuries has inevitably formalised the structures of the Church. This formality should not obscure the fundamental truth described in the Acts of the Apostles. The Church lives in the presence of her Risen Lord. In him all, like Stephen, are called to play their part.
Peter’s Letter to those first Christians saw baptism as an inclusive invitation to share in the ministry of Christ. The priesthood of the Jerusalem Temple had been the exclusive prerogative of the chosen few. Only those set aside for the Temple priesthood could sanctify God’s people. Peter broke through these barriers by describing all the baptised as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart and called out of darkness into his wonderful light”.
The vocation and involvement of the laity in the ministry of the Church is not a refinement of recent decades. It was Christ’s intention from the very beginning. Peter expressed this truth through the imagery of a living temple. Before Christ the Temple, with its sanctuary representing the presence of God, had been forbidden to all but the few. In Christ each became a living stone in the spiritual house that is God’s presence in our world. Our lives are to be lived as spiritual sacrifices in communion with the unique sacrifice offered on the cross. We have different parts to play, but it is only together, in Christ, that we become the sacrifice made acceptable to the Father.
Peter’s description of the Church as a royal priesthood, while inspiring, is also challenging. Can we, conscious of our frailties, live as a people called out of darkness into his wonderful light? Jesus addressed these hesitations. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God still, and trust in me.”
Jesus was speaking within the context of his own approaching death and the inevitable anxieties of his followers. How were they to remain faithful without his sustaining presence? He spoke of going to prepare a room in his Father’s house. After he had prepared a place he would return and take them with him “so that where I am, you may be too”.
It is perhaps understandable that these words have been taken to refer almost exclusively to the place that we shall have in the Resurrection after our own deaths. It would be more accurate to say that it was through the Resurrection that Christ returned, taking us here and now into that room that is the dwelling place of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. What Peter described as a spiritual house, with ourselves as its living stones aligned with Christ as the cornerstone, Jesus described as the room prepared in his Father’s house. Already we dwell in the Father’s house. It was for this reason that Jesus reassured his disciples. Vulnerable though they felt, he assured them that “whoever believes in me will perform the same works as I do myself”. We, as the Church, are that room in Father’s house. It is not a closed room. As witnesses to the Resurrection our lives must become an invitation to live in the presence of the Lord.