Every day, during these seven weeks we call the Easter season, the Church at Mass reads from the Acts of the Apostles – the evangelist Luke’s inspiring account of the growth and expansion of the Church from Jerusalem into the pagan Roman world - in the process, eventually transforming first the Church and then even the Empire itself. Today’s excerpt [Acts 14:21-27] resumes the story of Barnabas and Paul at the farthest point of their 1st missionary journey, and follows them as they retrace their steps back to their original starting point, Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for this work in the first place (they weren’t freelancers), and where they now reported, not in terms of what they themselves had accomplished, but what God had done with them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. A children’s book about the Acts of the Apostles, that came out a number of years ago, captures this story so well with its title, Good News Travels Fast.
To us, today, who are the historical beneficiaries of all this, the Church’s growth and expansion all seems as if it were just a natural development. At that time, however, it was something of a surprise. Nor was it, in any sense, easy. When Barnabas and Paul strengthened the spirits of the disciples and exhorted them to persevere in the faith, they told them, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”
In saying that, the apostles were not, I think, talking primarily about their physical ailments or any of the other ordinary difficulties that characterize daily human life, however significant such perennial problems undoubtedly are. They were, rather, referring to the challenge of being transformed from one kind of person to another, the challenge of changing from one way of life to another, the challenge to be a new kind of person, the challenge produced in the present by the power of a radically new future that is already revealing itself in the Church.
Such hardships, of course, include the opposition Barnabas and Paul encountered - and which faithful believers will always encounter when the Church is doing its job, in this interval between the old and the new, between Easter and the end.
What better illustration of the decisive break between the old and the new than the image of Judas, the personification of the world’s opposition to Jesus and his Church, leaving the Last Supper [John 13:31-35], just as Jesus is about to begin his big speech!
In stark contrast to the way of life represented by Judas, Jesus commanded his disciples to do somethign radically new, to create an alternative community which would already embody in the present the power of his new future. “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.”
Talk about defining boundaries and setting the bar high! The community which Barnabas and Paul were constantly inviting people to join (and were also actively appointing leaders for), that community was not just some social club or mutual aid organization or exotic religious cult – although its attractiveness to people presumably included elements of all those things. It was in fact a new way of being, unmistakably different from the way of being left behind in the world outside, left behind with Judas, and unmistakably different so that the outside world will notice and (hopefully) get the point and be attracted to it!
So it was not primarily that outside world which Jesus talked to his disciples about at the Last Supper. His focus was rather on us, how we are to be here with one another – in that new heaven and new earth [Revelation 21:1-5a] already taking shape in the present in his Church. Transformed by the Easter experience, our universal human solidarity in sin is being challenged by our new solidarity in Christ, through whom God really does dwell among us, making us his new people.
Of course, a challenge is just that, a challenge. It calls for an ongoing effort. It’s not automatic. We have to want it enough that our daily “Yes” to Christ and his Church really does become also a daily “No” to other options and alterantives.
The invitation to embrace a new life within the new community of the Church does not mean pretending that the world has changed, that everything old has suddenly disappeared, or that we are now somehow unaffected by it. It doesn’t mean pretending, for example, that the laws of economics have suddenly been repealed, or that social distinctions between rich and poor, for example, or between citizens and immigrants, have somehow ceased to exist or have somehow lost their significance in the world. But it does mean that those distinctions have no significance whatever here, with us, within the Risen Lord’s Church.
As Pope Benedict XVI has written: “Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own. Communion draws me out of myself towards him, and thus also towards unity with all Christians” [Deus Caritas Est, 14].
Whether at the macro-level of the Universal Church or at the micro-level of one single little parish community, to whatever extent our behavior toward one another contradicts who and what we claim to be, in whatever way our behavior towards one another conceals rather than reveals the presence and action of the Risen Lord, then the word of God may seem silent (precisely when and where it most needs to be proclaimed), and the love of God may appear absent from the very world which Christ came to save.
That, by the way, is one of the reasons why celebrating Sunday is so important for us. Sunday is the day when we, who are being transformed into disciples of the Risen Lord, “emerge” – in Mark Searle’s memorable words [Sunday Morning, p. 138] – “from the camouflage of lives lived quietly in an unbelieving world,” in order to be seen (or at least to start seeing ourselves) for what the Lord’s Last Supper commandment is challenging us to be: “the beginning of a new humanity freed … to serve the living God.”
Homily given at St. Paul the Apostle Church, May 2, 2010.