Acts 6:1–7; 1 Peter 2:4–9; John 14:1–12
You cannot pass on what you do not have.
You cannot pass on what yourself you do not have.
It’s a pretty simple fact. Parents can’t hand on an inheritance beyond what they possess—financially or genetically. A teacher cannot impart greater knowledge than they possess. To hand something on, you have to possess it. This is, in part, the message of our readings today. In each reading, we can see that a gift, a faculty, or a foundation is passed on from one who possesses to one who does not.
I want to focus on what the Apostles do here in this passage. I have to admit a certain bias for this first readings from Acts, as it is what many consider to be the founding of the order of the diaconate, which is the first overt celebration of the sacrament of Holy Orders. All the elements are present for a sacrament: valid recipients are chosen from among the people; clearly the Apostles are valid celebrants; they lay their hands on the candidates, which is even today the matter of the sacrament of orders; and then there are the prayers of consecration. I don’t think any other sacrament is so clearly exemplified anywhere in scripture as the sacrament of Holy Orders is in this passage
We see that the Apostles are busy preaching the gospel, and they see this as their primary responsibility. Service to the people is also a responsibility, but the twelve do not see it as their primary responsibility—one that they have to address themselves, but must make sure is accomplished. So they do what any executive does: they grant that responsibility to someone else.
This is the essence of why we have Holy Orders. Our bishops cannot do everything themselves, so they grant a certain set of rights to deacons, and a higher order of rights to the presbyters, or priests. Deacons can preach, baptize, receive consent at weddings, impart blessings, and perform some funeral rites. Priests can do all of that, as well as consecrate the Eucharist, absolve sins, anoint the sick, and confirm the faithful. Bishops can do all of that and ordain priests and deacons. All of these faculties devolve down from the bishop to the priests and deacons.
This is the way it is with our Lord as well. He says that he does not His will but the Father’s, that He is in the Father and the Father in Him, that those who believe in Him will do the same works. And so also the Apostles and bishops have done. The bishops act on this authority granted to them by Jesus. They grant these rights, based on the model they have been given, to those that they believe are qualified to exercise it. That’s why we have Holy Orders. A higher authority passes on its gifts and faculties to one lower, just as parents pass on gifts through genetic transfer, through formation and so on. A bishop ordains priests and deacons to different degrees of his service. He possesses the fullness of orders. He grants the faculties of this ministry to priest and deacon to act in his name. That is why all priests and deacons vow to the bishop who ordains them to obey him and his successors. My obedience to the bishop didn’t stop when Bishop Driscoll retired. It simply transferred to Bishop Christensen.
So let’s look back at Acts and this particular event. The seven men are Greek-speaking Hebrews. Deacons are ordained to service, in whatever that form might take. Shortly after this passage in Acts, we see St. Stephen evangelizing in the Hellenist Jewish synagogue, and he pays for his boldness with his life. So a deacon is our Church’s first martyr. Later on in Acts, Phillip is prompted by the spirit to go south on the road to Gaza, where he encounters an Ethiopian eunuch. He instructs him and baptizes him, and then is immediately whisked away by the Holy Spirit. You see, Phillip doesn’t go where he wills but where the Holy Spirit wills him to go. That should be the response of all who are ordained to the diaconate and priesthood.
So you see that a deacon’s role was then similar to what it is now. We serve in outreach ministries. We preach. We baptize. But what’s most important for anyone in Holy Orders is to witness to the gospel. That is our strongest tool of evangelization—to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world, to represent for Christ. And guess what? Witnessing to the gospel is not just our responsibility. It’s yours as well.
All of the faithful are obligated to spread the gospel. All of us are ordered to that service. In the reading from Peter, we see how that inheritance goes another step further—from the hierarchical orders to the universal priesthood. “You are a chosen race,” he writes, “A royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
That’s right. You and I … all clergy and laity… are a royal priesthood, and your ministerial role is to declare the wonderful deeds of Christ. This is our mission, your mission, the mission given to the Church by Jesus. If you recall, at the end of Matthew, Jesus sends the Apostles out on this self-same mission: “Go and make disciples of all the nations.” That is the core mission of the Church: to evangelize, which means in Greek, to tell the good news, to proclaim the gospel. It is the mission that the last three popes have all called us to do. Preach the gospel! Do it in your deeds, always, and if necessary, in your words.
But to do that, you need to know your faith. You need to study your faith. You need to know what the Church teaches. Most Catholics who leave the Church know next to nothing about what the Church teaches. That is tragic, but what is worse is that many of us sitting here don’t know our faith and can’t answer the questions of our children and our friends. It’s great that we’re here and love our faith, but as St. Peter says in his first letter, always be prepared to give an answer for your hope. We must always be prepared to explain the gospel, to explain why we believe.
Every week, I send you out with one of two dismissals. I either chant, “Go and announce the gospel to the world,” or I chant, “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord with your life.” I intentionally use those two because the Church literally wants you to go out and live your gospel witness to the world. You’re not simply to come to mass to get your fix and leave, to fill your tank for the next week. No! You’re supposed to take what you get here and share it in the world, in your workplace, in your school, in the line at the supermarket.
Do we light a lamp only to put it under a basket and hide the light? No! We expose the light so that everyone can see. That’s what the great commission is about. That’s what the Church lives to do, and that’s your primary ministry and calling is as a Christian. Go and announce the gospel to the world. Announce it with your actions! That’s the most important witness you can provide. And when people see what you’ve got, when they see the joy you have because of your faith, they will want it. That is the number one factor in conversion of people to the faith: believers who are on fire with their love for Christ and who live like it. And the number one factor keeping people away from the faith is believers who claim to be Christian with their lips and deny Him with their actions.
You are a royal priesthood, a holy nation. You are being sent to preach the gospel to the world. Your life may be the only gospel some people ever read. So you need to have the gospel, to know the gospel, to pass it on—because you can only pass on what you possess.