APRIL 24TH, 2016: FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
After Paul and Barnabas had proclaimed the good news
to that city
and made a considerable number of disciples,
they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch.
They strengthened the spirits of the disciples
and exhorted them to persevere in the faith, saying,
“It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships
to enter the kingdom of God.”
They appointed elders for them in each church and,
with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord
in whom they had put their faith.
Then they traveled through Pisidia and reached Pamphylia.
After proclaiming the word at Perga they went down to Attalia.
From there they sailed to Antioch,
where they had been commended to the grace of God
for the work they had now accomplished.
And when they arrived, they called the church together
and reported what God had done with them
and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.
Then I, John, saw a new heaven and a new earth.
The former heaven and the former earth had passed away,
and the sea was no more.
I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem,
coming down out of heaven from God,
prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race.
He will dwell with them and they will be his people
and God himself will always be with them as their God.
He will wipe every tear from their eyes,
and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain,
for the old order has passed away.”
The One who sat on the throne said,
“Behold, I make all things new.”
When Judas had left them, Jesus said,
“Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.
If God is glorified in him,
God will also glorify him in himself,
and God will glorify him at once.
My children, I will be with you only a little while longer.
I give you a new commandment: love one another.
As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.
This is how all will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another.”
Many of us have yet to recognize the importance of communities in the early church. Individuals certainly stand out. But the communities which helped form and sustain those individuals frequently fade into the background. That’s why today’s first reading is so significant. There’s no way the community which gave birth to Paul and Barnabas’ missionary journeys can ever be overlooked. Wherever they went, they always introduced themselves as representatives of the church at Antioch. That community sent then out and paid their bills. And it was to that community that they eventually returned.
The news they brought seems to have pleased everyone. Through their evangelization “God . . . had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.” We know from chapter 11 that the Antioch community was one of the first Christian churches to take the ultra-liberal step of baptizing non-Jews, prompting Barnabas to travel to Tarsus and encourage the newly-converted Saul to return with him to Antioch. As a “Hellenist” Jew, Saul had grown up in a non-Jewish culture, spoke Greek and knew how to relate to Gentiles. He was perfect for carrying on a Gentile ministry.
Of course, as we’ll see later in Acts, not every Christian community agreed with Antioch’s practice of baptizing Gentiles without first converting them to Judaism. Paul would have to fight that battle literally until the day he died.
The early church certainly had more variety community to community than we have today. Though each dedicated itself to carrying out Jesus’ gospel command to “have love for one another,” each developed and showed that love in different ways.
When couples ask me to suggest a first reading for their wedding ceremony, I always suggest Proverbs 30:18-19. During my high school marriage courses, I’ve always taught, “There’s no one way always, everywhere, and to everyone, to show love.” That belief is mirrored in the Proverbs passage: “Three things are too wonderful for me, yes, four I cannot understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent over a rock, the way of a ship at high sea, and the way of a man with a woman.”
The Hebrew word – “derek” – which here is translated “way,” basically refers to a path or road. The Proverbs author is reminding his readers that there’re no roads in the sky, over rocks, or at sea. Eagles, snakes and ships have to create their own roads to get from point A to point B. The zinger is that, in the same way, there are no roads in relationships between men and women. Each couple must create its own path. Love demands they do so.
That why no two Christian communities are exactly alike. Because each exists in order to show love to one another, each will do that in a different way. That’s also why we have four gospels. Since each gospel springs from a different community, it’s impossible to have just one. Notice how the author of Revelation speaks so often about “a new heaven and a new earth.” If God is really dwelling among us and helping us show love to those around us, we’ll always be new.
But in this day and age, when almost every diocese is closing and/or combining parishes, we have a problem. Church by church, we’re getting rid of each parish’s unique theology, the special way in which its members have loved one another.
As disturbing as this process is, it might be one way the risen Jesus is forcing us to reflect on how our own parish demonstrates its one of a kind love . . . before it’s too late.