"FIRST IMPRESSIONS"

5th SUNDAY OF EASTER -C- MAY 15, 2022

Acts 14: 21-27; Psalm 145; Revelation 21: 1-5; John 13: 31-33, 34-35

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

Ever since Easter Sunday our first readings have been from the Acts of the Apostles. From these readings, along with Paul’s writings to the early churches, we learn that the church was, shall we say, "lively," exhibiting a rich and powerful variety of gifts. We also learned that charismatic leaders and their followers emerged from the community. The church also had its chaotic moments and sometimes could get out of control. Those first Christians were not unlike us modern Christians. Through his letters to the nascent churches and the narratives in Acts, we observe that Paul tried to exert his authority to keep the members unified and focused on their primary task: giving witness to the risen Christ.

Because of Paul’s missionary travels, he had to do most of his work of instruction and unification from a distance, through his letters and those he delegated as his representatives. This lack of immediacy caused him difficulties and frustration. For example, read what Paul has to say to the Galatians (3:1-3), "You senseless Galatians!"

In today’s Acts reading, Paul and Barnabas are in the midst of their missionary journeys; which sounds like a travelogue of the ancient world. Their travels take them far and wide. Eventually they set back for Antioch, their home base. Acts tells of the success of their preaching. They returned to cities where they had formally preached and where they had "made a considerable number of disciples." The backdrop of the stories reveals that, besides the church’s growing numbers joining the communities, there was also suffering among the Christian converts. Hence, we read when Paul and Barnabas returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, "they strengthened the spirits of the disciples."

That is the sober note that flows throughout Acts. While there is an enthusiastic growth in numbers as the preachers spread the word of God, there is also suffering of those who accept the faith. Paul and Barnabas were not working on their own. The church in Antioch had sent them to preach and. after they finished their appointed preaching. they returned to their base in Antioch to make a report of what, through the power of the Holy Spirit, they had done. They may, or may not, have been eloquent speakers. Even if they were, they attribute the success of their mission to God working through them.

Through their preaching Paul had noticed a remarkable phenomenon: Gentiles were responding to the gospel message. From their Jewish roots they never would have anticipated this. Although prophets like Isaiah had said that Israel would be a light to all nations. (For example, we heard Isaiah’s message to us during our Holy Week readings. Monday, 42:1-7; Tuesday, 49:1-6.) With the arrival of the Gentiles into their community Paul, Barnabas, and the early Christians were experiencing God’s open-armed acceptance of all people. So, Paul tells the gathered church in Antioch what he and Barnabas had experienced on their missionary travels: God "had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles." Paul was a major instrument in God’s invitation to "the nations" i.e, the Gentiles.

Acts helped the early Christians accept and receive non-Jews into their communities. Gentiles could now, by their faith in Christ, claim the heritage and promises God gave Israel. Luke is showing that the church’s experience with the admittance of the Gentiles demonstrated the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that God’s people, Israel, would be "the light of the nations" (49:6). Jesus’ words to his disciples before his ascension really give the central theme and outline of the Acts of the Apostles: "You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

While the Acts of the Apostles has historical references about the early church, it is not primarily a history book. It is a faith document. It is a look back to help us look present and forward at our a contemporary Church and our own Christian lives. We tend to idealize the first generation of Christians. They were closest to Jesus’ time on earth so, we figure, they got it right – how to act like Christians and be a model, closely-linked community. But, as we read Acts and the epistles we realize they were just as human as we are. Like our contemporary Church, they had their rabid doctrinal disputes, liturgical variations, sexual scandals, feuds among the leaders, clericalism etc.

Some have said that the Acts of the Apostles should really be named the "Acts of the Holy Spirit." While we observe Paul, Barnabas and the other missionaries spreading the gospel far and wide and making "a considerable number of disciples," we are really witnessing the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise at the beginning of Acts: that his meager group of disciples would,

"Receive power when the Holy Spirit comes down on you. Then you are to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, yes, even to the ends of the earth" (1:8).

The early missionaries were able to continue their efforts despite many hardships. And yes, there were conflicts, scandals and serious divisions in the early church. The same can be said of our Church today. But hearing the "Acts of the Holy Spirit" should give us trust that, despite the shadows and dark times, God has not left us on our own – not back then, not now!

The Lucan author tells us Paul and Barnabas returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch and "strengthened the spirits of the disciples." – a sign of the Spirit’s active presence in their midst, despite the hardships they faced. That same Spirit continues to "strengthen the spirits of the disciples" through spirit-filled preachers, teachers, musicians, lectors, parents, theologians, etc. Can you name a few spirit-filled disciples in your worshiping community and give thanks to God for them at today’s Eucharistic celebration?

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings:

https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/051522.cfm