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Acts and Sacraments

Many people in the Episcopal Church are continuing to read through Luke-Acts as part of the Good Book Club. Reading Scripture “with the Fathers” has long been a feature of the Christian tradition, and I have often found that their comments both personally and challenging. They frequently have a wider eye on the canonical meaning of Scripture than many commentators today.

As an aid to meditating on passages from last week and this week, I have selected a few excerpts from the Venerable Bede’s Commentary on Acts. This was one of the most commonly read commentaries in the Middle Ages, and it contains a series of interesting notes on sacraments. I quote here from Lawrence Martin, Bede: Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (Cistercian Publications, 1989), with a few minor changes in translation, punctuation, and spelling.

1:3 During forty days appearing to them and speaking of the kingdom of God and eating with them.

In order to build up faith in his resurrection, the Lord quite often after his passion appeared alive to his apostles; he took food and showed them the same tangible body which he had raised up from the dead. Yet in terms of a higher mystery, he signified by this forty-day period of association with his disciples that he would fulfil what he had promised in his hidden presence — “Behold I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world” (Matt. 28:20).

Now this number forty designates this temporal earthly life, either on account of the four seasons of the year, or on account of the four winds of the heavens. For after we have been buried in death with Christ through baptism, as though having passed over the path through the Red Sea, it is necessary for us, in this wilderness, to have the Lord’s guidance.

1:5 But you shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit not many days hence.

“The apostles had not yet been baptized … with the Holy Spirit. We understand that they had already been baptized, either by the baptism of John, as some people think, or as is more believable, by the baptism of Christ. For since he did not shun a ministry of memorable humility when he washed their feet, he would not have shunned the ministry of baptizing them, so as to have servants who had been baptized, through whom he could baptize others” (Augustine, Letter 265.3-5).

Therefore, when the Lord said, “John indeed baptized with water,” he did not continue with “yet you shall baptize,” but with “yet you shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5, emphasis added), because neither the apostles nor their followers, who still baptize in the Church to this day, had the power to baptize except as John did, that is, with water.

However, when the name of Christ is invoked, the inner power of the Holy Spirit is present, which, with the human administration of water, simultaneously purifies the souls and bodies of those being baptized. This did not happen in the baptism of John — “for the Spirit had not yet been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified” (John 7:39)

4:11 This is the stone that was rejected by you builders, which has come to have the chief place in the corner.

The builders were the Jews, while all the Gentiles remained in the wasteland of idols. The Jews alone were daily reading the Law and the Prophets for the building up of the people. As they were building, they came to the cornerstone, which embraces two walls — that is, they found in the prophetic Scriptures that Christ, who would bring together in himself two peoples, was to come in the flesh. And, because they preferred to remain in one wall, that is, to be saved alone, they rejected the stone which was not one-sided, but two-sided. Nevertheless, although they were unwilling God by himself placed this stone at the chief position in the corner, so that from two testaments and two peoples there might rise up a building of one and the same faith.

4:12 And salvation is not in any other

If the salvation of the world is in no other, but in Christ alone, then the fathers of the Old Testament were saved by the incarnation and passion of the same Redeemer by which we also believe and hope to be saved. For although the sacraments differed by reason of the times, nevertheless there was agreement in one and the same faith, because through the prophets they learned as something to come the same dispensation of Christ which we learned through the apostles as something which has been done. For there is no redemption of human captivity except in the blood of him who gave himself as a redemption for all.

4:32 There was one heart and one soul in the multitude of believers.

Those who had completely left the world behind by no means pushed themselves forward, one over the other, glorying in the nobility of their birth. Rather, as those born from the womb of one and the same mother, the Church, they all rejoiced in one and the same love of brotherhood.

5:15 So that, when Peter came, his shadow at least might fall on some of them; and they were cured.

At that time Peter visibly relieved the infirm by the shadow of his body. Now, he does not cease to strengthen the infirm among the faithful by the invisible screen of his intercession. And because Peter is a type of the Church, it is beautifully appropriate that he himself walked upright, but by his accompanying shadow he raised up those who were lying down. So the Church, concentrating her mind and love on heavenly things, passes like a shadow on the land, and here on earth she renews with temporal sacraments and figures of heavenly things those whom she rewards in heaven with everlasting gifts.



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