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Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 6: 1-7, Ps 33: 1-2, 4-5, 18-19; 1Pt 2: 4-9, Jn 14: 1-12

May 14, 2014

Judging from the lectionary texts, this fifth Sunday of Easter would be best named the Sunday of Mixed Messages. In the Gospel, Jesus begins with the comforting words "Do not let your hearts be troubled" (John 14:1) but the passage is about his leaving those closest to him. Those among us trying to cope with the loss of loved ones can only shout back "but of course my heart is troubled!" The letter of Peter celebrates the stone rejected as cornerstone, and then complicates matters by proclaiming the stone simultaneously an obstacle.

The real trouble begins in Acts where the Twelve make a truly cringe-worthy declaration: "It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table" (Acts 6:2). For any among us who set and serve at tables, in our homes or in soup kitchens, or who perhaps wait tables to earn our daily bread, this text appears to suggest our labors are secondary to those who devote themselves to prayer and ministry of the word (6:4). For those among us who come from racial, ethnic, linguistic and cultural communities historically marginalized in the Church, this troubling distinction of ministries appears to create a hierarchy that delegates the manual labor to the disciples from the non-dominant ethno-linguistic side of the greater community.

The Twelve were busy! The numbers of Jesus' followers was growing; expectations of care exceeded their ability to respond to the material needs of the community's most vulnerable. A practical response seemed in order: invite the disciples to select from among their company some who are reputable, to either provide for the actual feeding of their hungry or, as other scholars suggest, for the administration of the equivalent of a social ministry program. Furthermore, since this particular need arose from one sector of this multi-ethnic Jewish community, the choice of seven from the Greek-speaking side would insure that their poor would not be excluded. The apostles lay hands on them, and the division of labor in a fast-growing ministry was confirmed. The Twelve would handle prayer and the ministry of the word and the seven would minister to the practical daily needs of the community. This restructuring of responsibilities would hopefully address this local pastoral issue for the time being in this growing Jerusalem community.

Over time this contextualized response of a community to a concrete evolving situation was interpreted in ways that enshrined it as a moment in the institution of ordained ministry, namely the diaconate. Ironically, in the contemporary Church, the important work of deacons includes the very ministries of word and prayer originally reserved for the Twelve. The responsibility associated with serving at table became the task of the laity in the world, especially as articulated in Catholic Social Teaching.

Wisdom from socio-centric cultures offers another set of perspectives that shifts focus to ministry as the work of the community. From an interpretive location that sees identity in terms of belonging, this text is not about individual ministers or even distinctions of ministries, rather it is a call to mutual accountability addressed to communities who choose to follow Jesus. In effect the text reminds us that Christian communities are obligated to insure that all are fed with the word and with the daily bread necessary for survival. Communities as a whole are responsible for their most vulnerable, and this multi-ethnic Jerusalem community responded in a manner that drew on their resources and their consent.

This reading from Acts also draws our attention to the challenges that emerge from varying translations of words. In the original Greek, both the ministry to the word and to the table employ the same term for service. Therefore it is important to recognize dysfunctions that resulted from subsequent misinterpretations: for example those that used this text and others to support clericalism, a malpractice of particular concern to Pope Francis. Also, we cannot forget that at various times in history certain men were barred from "ministry of the word" because of their race, ethnicity, culture and physical abilities. In the colonization of the Américas indigenous men were excluded from priesthood, African Americans in the U.S. Church were long denied access to ordination, and globally the Deaf were only admitted to ordained ministry in the late 20th century. A mistranslation that imposes a descending order of rank in service, privileging word over table, can be problematic too when one considers that historically men, women and children of lower socio-economic status, and from colonized racial and ethnic groups were frequently servants at the tables of dominant masters.

In Acts, this pastoral response of the Jerusalem community underscores the integral relationship between the word of God and the concrete responsibilities this word demands from all of us in our daily living together. It might be helpful to keep in mind that across biblical texts the One who sets the table, prepares the banquet, and sends out the invitations is God.

Carmen Nanko-Fernández

Associate Professor of Hispanic Theology and Ministry
Director, Hispanic Theology and Ministry Program

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