I found it hard to keep my "priestly cool" one evening years ago while working with a man and women who were in a relationship in which the man was physically abusing the woman. Both were sitting on a couch across from me that night as the woman narrated the facts of the violence. Black-and-blue marks covered her arms and legs.

But while she was talking, her partner continually leaned over and stroked her hair, repeating again and again, "I love you!" Though he was trying to block out the reality of the situation with his "comforting" words, nothing he said could remove the signs of his abuse.

Sunday's three readings likewise contain some very comforting words and ideas. But like the bizarre situation above, they must be judged against the reality in which some Christians find themselves.

Royal priests

The author of I Peter reflects essential, early Christian belief (I Peter 2:4-9). "You are a chosen race," he reminds his community's newly baptized members, "a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people."

Combining the two most important tiers of his highly structured society -- royalty and priesthood -- he sees both qualities present in Jesus's disciples. No one has ever expressed the dignity and importance of being a follower of Jesus more perfectly.

John attempts the same task in the Gospel (Jn 14:1-12). But the words he has Jesus speak make sense only when we realize the liturgical passage immediately follows Jesus' prediction that Peter, the leader of the early Christian community, will deny Him three times before the night is over. It's in that depressing context that Jesus first assures His disciples of His intention to make certain that "where I am, there you may be also."

Then He ends this part of the discourse with this amazing statement: "the one who believes in me will also do the words that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father."

It is to these weak, fearful people that Jesus turns over His work and mission. One day, they'll take Jesus' place on this earth, doing even more than He, in His historical ministry, was able to accomplish. How important can a group of people be?

Though Luke, the earliest author of the three readings this week, doesn't use the highfalutin' words of I Peter or John, he still narrates an event in which the community's worth is demonstrated (Acts 6:1-7). Instead of hearing this Acts passage as the proof-text for the institution of the diaconate, listen carefully to the Jerusalem community's problem and its solution.

Solving problems

The difficulty arises when the Greek-speaking widows complain that the Aramaic-speaking food-ministers are short-changing them at meals. The solution begins with the Twelve convening a meeting of "the whole community of the disciples" and informing them that they should be the ones who work through their problem. Their task:

"Select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the spirit and of wisdom, who we may appoint to the task" of distributing the food.

Note the names of the seven: "Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolaus of Antioch." Everyone is a Greek! Luke believes that if the Greeks in the community have a problem, then the Greeks in the community are important and gifted enough to solve their problem.

Like all reformers, the bishops at Vatican II tried to mesh Church practice with our earliest faith traditions. During their deliberations, Scripture stopped being just a collection of proof-texts defending the Church's behavior and became, as the biblical authors intended, an ideal against which Church behavior and structure should be measured.

These readings are a clear sign that the reform which began at Vatican II must be ongoing. If reality doesn't correspond to the words we say and hear, then we shouldn't be surprised if some of the faithful find themselves in danger of losing their cool.