As we celebrate the Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year C, our first reading continues to come from the Acts of the Apostles. The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the early church. In chapter 2 the disciples receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. They then go out to proclaim the good news. Who do they proclaim the good news to? Our second reading from Revelation speaks of John’s “vision of a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.”
Everyone is called to be part of God’s house. Where did the disciples begin?
They begin with God’s chosen people, the Jews. That’s why every time Paul and his companions enter a new town, the first place they go to is the synagogue. We see this in our reading from Acts today. “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.“
People are excited by what they hear from Paul. “On the following sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.” This is good news. However, not all see it that way. There were some Jews who became “filled with jealousy.” They “contradicted what Paul said.” Please note it does not say they “disproved” what said. They couldn’t for it was true. They contradicted because they wanted the attention Paul was getting.
Paul did not tell the Jews to abandon their Jewish ancestry. He told them to remain faithful. What God had taught them through the scriptures (what we today call the Old Testament) remains true. In fact, Jesus is the fulfillment of what was foretold in the Old Testament. The New Testament is in continuity with the Old Testament.
Why did Paul and his companions go to the synagogue first? Because, as Paul says, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken” to them first. It was God’s will that they be the first to hear it. Yet, once they reject it (and thus reject the salvation Jesus offers), Paul and his companions now turn to the Gentiles as the Lord commands. By this time, even Gentiles were gathering to listen to Paul. When they heard the message was for them too, they “were delighted.”
“The word of the Lord continued to spread” exactly as it should. Yet, there were the Jews who continued to stirred up a persecution against Paul and Barnabas. They would expel them from their territory.
Did the disciples give up when they faced persecution? No, they merely “shook the dust from their feet” and moved on. This is what the apostolic age was like, a time of persecution. For the first 300 years, the church faced a “time of great distress.” Through God’s grace, the Church persevered.
In 313 A.D. Emperor Constantine instituted the “Edict of Milan” legalizing Christianity. People could worship Jesus openly. In time, Catholic Christianity would become the religion of the western world. Over time, it would even spread some to the whole world. Over the centuries, enough people became Christian that societal values were based on Christian morality. Not everyone wholly lived Christian faith and morality but it was generally accepted as the basis for societal values. This age is often called “Christendom.”
Are we still living in Christendom today? Is Christianity a cornerstone today? Can it be when so many are not going to church? Society is loosing its Christian foundation. In the challenges we face today in living out our faith, in some ways, we are returning to the challenges Christians faced in the apostolic age (see my blog article, “We Need to See as God Sees” on University of Mary, From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age. Bismark, ND: University of Mary Press. 2020 at http://blog.renewaloffaith.org/blog/?p=6083).
The early disciples “survived the time of great distress.” They did so in faith and we can do the same. They put on white robes. We put on white in our baptismal garment. As they “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb,” we do the same in submitting our lives, most especially our sufferings to Jesus who is lamb who takes away our sins. Jesus is the shepherd who leads us to “springs of life-giving water.“
We hear his voice. Do we follow Jesus?