Monday, 29 May 2017

Easter Week 7 Monday

Readings: Acts 19:1-8; Psalm 68; John 16:29-33

In the Acts of the Apostles there are the big names such as Peter, Paul and James. But there are also other names, characters who remain more or less in the background and about whom it would be very interesting to know more. We might think of John Mark, Barnabas and Apollos as people in this category.

Apollos was a cultured convert to Christianity who came from Alexandria and who may have contributed to the more spiritual interpretation of the faith that characterised one party in the Church in Corinth. He appears first in Ephesus (Acts 18:24-26) where he preaches enthusiastically in the synagogues but is taken to one side by Aquila and Priscilla who explain the Way of God to him more accurately. For all his sophistication Apollos seems to have received, and believed, an incomplete or distorted version of the gospel. At least it did not coincide with what Paul and his converts were preaching.

Then in today's first reading, from Acts 19, we see him remain behind in Corinth while Paul continues on his journey. Interestingly Paul goes back to Ephesus, where Apollos had been preaching, to sort some things out. He found believers there who had  received only John's baptism and he needs to baptise them in water and the Holy Spirit. Once he gives them Christian baptism they receive the Spirit and begin to speak in tongues and to prophesy. Are we to assume that this was the incompleteness in the gospel they had received from Apollos who had preached there earlier?

We come across Apollos again in the letters Paul sent back to the community at Corinth when it was disturbed by serious divisions. Apollos had become quite renowned there since his name is used, along with those of Paul and Peter (Cephas), to identify one of the factions in the Church. 'I belong to Paul', 'I belong to Apollos', 'I belong to Cephas': this is what they were saying. And what about Christ, Paul asks? Do we not all belong to Christ? What are Paul and Apollos except servants through whom the Christians had come to believe? Paul may have planted and Apollos watered but it is God who gave the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6). In one of his most stirring conclusions Paul tells them not to boast of any man, whether Paul, Apollos or Cephas, since these men 'are yours', along with life and death, the present and the future, 'and you are Christ's and Christ is God's' (1 Corinthians 3:22-23).

It seems that at least the names of Apollos and Cephas served to identify factions in Corinth between which Paul felt obliged to explain and defend his own gospel. Apollos is mentioned again towards the end of that letter, when he seems to have withdrawn from the work (1 Corinthians 16:12), while some time later (Titus 3:13) he is back preaching.

The most striking thing about all this is how ordinary human life is underway along with the preaching and living of the gospel. They are already struggling with all the difficulties that face human beings as they try to live and work together. They need constantly to be called back to Christ, and to his work. It is there, in Him, as Christ himself says in today's gospel, that they will find peace. In the world they will have trouble. This is not the 'world' as opposed to the 'Church' but the world as the theatre in which Christian believers are called to live their lives, the world to which they too belong and which they must seek to convince about the love of God. Take courage, Jesus concludes, I have conquered the world.

I like to think of Apollos as a sincere and cultivated soul, seeking the truth and the right way, sensitive to the ways in which he is getting things wrong. I do not imagine him as a political personality in any way: if others used his name it was their work rather than his that led to this. But he is in the fray of the debates and movements that already challenged early Christianity. There is a strange comfort for us in knowing that it has been like this from the beginning and that figures like Peter and Paul, Barnabas and Apollos had to struggle with the vagaries of human nature, whether in themselves or in others who might have tried to use them for their own purposes. Only in Christ could they - as we - find a peace that this world cannot give.

No comments: