APRIL 17TH, 2016: FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Paul and Barnabas continued on from Perga
and reached Antioch in Pisidia.
On the sabbath they entered the synagogue and took their seats.
Many Jews and worshipers who were converts to Judaism
followed Paul and Barnabas, who spoke to them
and urged them to remain faithful to the grace of God.
On the following sabbath almost the whole city gathered
to hear the word of the Lord.
When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy
and with violent abuse contradicted what Paul said.
Both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said,
“It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first,
but since you reject it
and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life,
we now turn to the Gentiles.
For so the Lord has commanded us,
I have made you a light to the Gentiles,
that you may be an instrument of salvation
to the ends of the earth.”
The Gentiles were delighted when they heard this
and glorified the word of the Lord.
All who were destined for eternal life came to believe,
and the word of the Lord continued to spread
through the whole region.
The Jews, however, incited the women of prominence who were worshipers
and the leading men of the city,
stirred up a persecution against Paul and Barnabas,
and expelled them from their territory.
So they shook the dust from their feet in protest against them,
and went to Iconium.
The disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.
I, John, had a vision of a great multitude,
which no one could count,
from every nation, race, people, and tongue.
They stood before the throne and before the Lamb,
wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.
Then one of the elders said to me,
“These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress;
they have washed their robes
and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
“For this reason they stand before God’s throne
and worship him day and night in his temple.
The one who sits on the throne will shelter them.
They will not hunger or thirst anymore,
nor will the sun or any heat strike them.
For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne
will shepherd them
and lead them to springs of life-giving water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
“My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.
My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all,
and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.
The Father and I are one.”
No one sits down on a beautiful sunny day, no worry in the world, and writes Scripture. If our sacred authors didn’t have some problems bugging them, we’d have no Bible. They only write because something or someone needs to be confronted. That’s certainly the case with Luke/Acts.
One of the issues prompting Luke to compose his double volume work was the claim of some Jews that the historical Jesus planned to destroy their religion by bringing huge numbers of Gentiles into it without obligating to keep the 613 Laws of Moses. That certainly was what some of his followers were doing fifty years after his death and resurrection; Luke’s day and age.
The evangelist counters their argument, claiming Jesus and his disciples originally evangelized only Jews. Non-Jews came into the picture only after Jews rejected his call to reform. Gentiles simply were benefitting from what Jews had discarded.
Today’s Acts pericope contains one of several statements of Luke’s thesis. “Both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, ‘It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you (Jews) first, but since you reject it and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.’” In other words, God’s word, spoken through Jesus, isn’t going to be dead-ended just because those to whom it was originally directed, reject it.
It’s significant that, in this passage, the Gentiles who accept the word are a unique group: God fearers. That’s the biblical term usually employed for non-Jews who are very favorable to Jews; frequently attending synagogue services, and even keeping some of the Mosaic regulations.
Historians have recently delved into these individuals, reflecting on their position in various Jewish communities. Since they seem to have been generous contributors to Jewish causes – even building some synagogues – their becoming Christians certainly created tension between Jews and Jesus’ followers.
Yet it’s interesting to note that Paul and Barnabas never stopped preaching when those whom they expected to eagerly receive their word, eventually rejected it. They simply began to realize God’s word, as Deutero-Isaiah discovered five centuries before, is alive, and that there’s always someone around who’s eager to benefit from that life – even if it isn’t those whom we logically expected to benefit from it.
I originally taught Scripture to Catholic high school girls, who seemed bored by almost everything I taught. Then one morning, when called into the hall to receive a message from the office, I discovered an eighty some year-old retired nun standing in the corridor outside my classroom door. When I asked if I could help with something, she just smiled and said. “No. I come here and listen whenever you’re teaching. We never had many Scripture classes in the convent during my formation. I’m learning a lot from you.” Obviously I was teaching the wrong group. Along with high school students, I’ve been teaching adults ever since.
We have no idea who’s going to be in that great heavenly multitude the author of Revelation refers to in our second reading, nor do we have any secret information on what our role is and will be in helping gather that multitude. But we do know there’ll always be people out there listening for the voice of the shepherd. John’s Jesus is convinced of that.
As other Christs, our job is to never stop preaching that word. Deutero-Isaiah was convinced it always has an effect, no matter how or to whom it’s proclaimed. But it does bother me that the gospel Jesus was frequently criticized and dismissed because he preached it to sinners. Wouldn’t you think the “good folk” would do more with it than sinners? Does that create a problem?