Saturday, 20 May 2017

Easter Week 5 Saturday

Readings: Acts 16:1-10; Psalm 100; John 15:18-21

The Spirit works always through human experiences: political, quasi-mystical, social, personal. We see it happening through all of these things in today's readings.

Paul's 'political' decision to have Timothy circumcised is puzzling. At the same time as he is communicating to the churches the decision of the meeting in Jerusalem that non-Jews becoming Christians would not be obliged to be circumcised, he arranges for Timothy to be circumcised. Although he is the son of a Greek father, Timothy is Jewish, taking his ethnic identity from his mother. With an eye to the Jewish party, Paul has him circumcised.

In other contexts, as well as in many of his letters (especially Galatians and 2 Corinthians), Paul speaks vehemently against the judaizers. He criticises Peter for giving in to them whereas here he ensures that the requirements of the law are fulfilled in the case of a Jewish man who has become a Christian.

Perhaps it is unfair to call his decision 'political' but how else are we to understand it? Coming from one who elsewhere describes circumcision as nothing, that it implies the observance of the whole law, and that it has now been replaced by a circumcision of the heart - well it can only be the overall good of his mission that moves him to do this, a decision that can only be called 'political'.

The unfolding of the mission is guided by the Holy Spirit, referred to here also as 'the Spirit of Jesus'. They were prevented or forbidden by the Holy Spirit from preaching in Asia which is why they went through Phrygia and Galatia. They journeyed towards Bithynia but turned away because 'the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them'. What is going on? At the end of Acts 15 we hear that Paul and Barnabas disagree about whether or not John Mark should travel with them this time (he had abandoned them during the first missionary journey). Paul and Barnabas have a serious falling out with each other and go their separate ways. We know from Paul's letters that there were other individuals and groups of 'apostles' preaching in the same places as he was preaching, sometimes trying to undermine what Paul was doing.

There is clearly another 'political' aspect to what is going on. We might be tempted to reduce the unfolding of Paul's mission to this horizontal, political level. Clashes of personality, disagreements about strategy, different emphases in the doctrine being taught: all of this is emerging, and emerging so quickly. But through it all the author of Acts - in this clearly following Paul himself - sees the Holy Spirit at work, the Spirit of Jesus, the primary evangelizer who is the real manager of the mission.

In a quasi-mystical experience a man from Macedonia appears to Paul in a dream and like the Irishman who asked St Patrick to come and walk once more among them, this Macedonian asks Paul to come and preach the gospel to them. This is the key to what is happening through the political, social, and personal disagreements. The apostles and the other preachers of the Gospel are merely instruments of the mission of Jesus. Their thoughts and struggles, desires and decisions, even their arguments and separations, are the physical realities through which God works out His purpose. So Paul moves across into Europe to preach the gospel there.

Even the negative reactions of the 'world', in hatred and persecution, are woven into the tapestry of the Church's mission. So they treat me, Jesus says in today's gospel, do not be surprised if you receive similar treatment. It can only happen in the world since the mission is for the world and the preachers live in the world. But the mission is not simply identified with worldly things - political, quasi-mystical, social, personal. Through all of those things something that is not of the world is being brought to bear on it. Something that does not belong to this world is given to the world and made present within it. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus. In many different ways and in countless varied circumstances God continues to call preachers and apostles to strengthen those who believe and to preach the Good News to those who do not yet believe.

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