Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Easter Week 5 Tuesday

Today's first reading contains the phrase 'door of faith' which gives its name to the apostolic letter of Benedict XVI that opened the Year of Faith which the Church celebrated in 2012-2013. With these words Acts summarises what God did with Paul and Barnabas in their first missionary journey: he opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. Itinerant, charismatic, preachers, they brought the Gospel firstly to the Jewish communities of Asia Minor, and then to any Gentiles who were prepared to listen. Their message was that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament, that he is in fact the Son of God, that salvation is in his name alone, and that his death and resurrection have transformed the relationship between human beings and God. Those who, through the preaching of the apostles, became convinced of its truth were baptised for the forgiveness of their sins. They were then to live according to this new Way, by prayer, mutual love, sharing goods, celebrating the Eucharist, and bearing witness to their Lord.

Not all of them were called to follow Paul, Barnabas, and the other apostles, as itinerant preachers and founders of churches. Some of them were called to that - Timothy, Titus, Silas, and others, whose work is recorded in the Acts and in the Epistles of Paul. But most of them remained where they were, living in their families and carrying on their work, 'ordinary' Christians who believed in Christ and sought to live their faith and its demands in the course of their 'ordinary' lives.

In fact this passage from Acts is one of the first in which we hear of the Church getting itself organised. Paul appointed presbyters in each Church, we are told. To use a later language, he ordained priests. These stayed behind as the leaders of the community, adapting a form of government borrowed from Judaism. The solemnity of this moment of ordination or appointment is shown by the fact that Paul and Barnabas prayed and fasted before making their decisions. Likewise, the church at Antioch had prayed and fasted before laying hands on Paul and Barnabas, deputing them for the missionary journey. We see how it is the Church that appoints its leaders, praying for the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit when it makes its choices, praying (and fasting!) in preparation for this task.

The churches begin to know peace: we are told this from time to time in the Acts of the Apostles. But the peace that came to them through this new faith was of the kind described by Jesus in today's gospel reading. It is peace not as the world gives but as the Risen Lord gives, something deeper, more enduring, more mysterious, often paradoxical. It can exist along with rejection and persecution, as Paul and Barnabas discovered: as they shake the dust off their feet on leaving Antioch in Pisidia they are filled with joy and the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:51-52). Their faith gave them patience and perseverance to continue in their mission of encouraging and strengthening the believers, exhorting them all to persevere in the faith. Just as it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and so enter into his glory, so 'it is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God' (Acts 14:22).

The readings today sketch for us a picture of the developing Church. The community of believers is missionary and domestic, itinerant and structured, local and universal, in the world, clearly, but always somehow not of the world, a Church welcomed by some and rejected by others, bearing a wonderful promise of grace and peace, but, for whatever reasons, provoking rejection and anger. Do not be troubled or afraid, Jesus tells the disciples, my going to the Father is a reason for joy because I will be with the Father, and 'the Father is greater than I'.

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