Sunday, April 21, 2013

Being Paul and Barnabas Today

History, as Blessed Pope John XXIII is supposed to have said, is the greatest of teachers. So it is no accident that the bulk of the Bible – both Old and New Testaments – is history of one sort or other.

And so it is also that every day of these seven weeks we call the Easter season the Church reads from the New Testament book called the Acts of the Apostles, actually the second volume of Luke’s Gospel, his continuation of the story of Jesus in the history of the Church.

Acts tells the amazing story of the Church’s growth, of the gradual but definitive expansion of its membership and the widening of its mission as the Good News spread – first in Jerusalem, then through Judea, then in to Samaria, and eventually into the Greek-speaking, pagan world of the Roman Empire. All this took place not by  happenstance, but as part of God’s long-term providential plan – as Saint Paul makes clear quoting Isaiah in today’s 1st reading [Acts 13:14, 43-52]: I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.

We get some sense of what that is supposed to mean from the Book of Revelation’s vision of the heavenly liturgy [Revelation 7:9, 14b-17], with its great multitude which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. But how do we get from here to there? Getting from here to there – that’s the mission of the Church and the history of the Church, modeled for us in the Acts of the Apostles.
It’s called the Acts of the Apostles, but after the first few chapters most of the original 12 fade from center stage. Paul (who wasn’t one of the 12 and who never knew Jesus during his earthly life) eventually emerges as one of the central figures in the history of the Church’s growth and expansion. Perhaps that had something to do with the fact that Paul was bi-cultural and bi-lingual – a Jew from a Greek city (and a Roman citizen besides).

In any case, Paul’s conversion to Christ has been so complete that it compelled him to share Christ with everyone. Paul recognized in the Risen Lord the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel and God’s plan to include all people in eternal life. Since it was ultimately Christ who counted, Paul saw no conflict between being a Gentile and having faith in Jesus – thus making it possible for the Gospel to be really Good News for all.

The world has changed a lot since Paul’s time, but the Church’s mission hasn’t. There is always a temptation to turn inward, to become a cozy kind of community, caring a lot about ourselves, concerned with who we are and what we have together. But the mission of the Church, our literally quite Catholic mission, remains that of the Good Shepherd, whose voice in the world we now are – we, who have been commanded, as Paul was, to be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.

On this 50th annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations, we are also reminded of what we might call the “personnel needs” of the Church for it to fulfill its mission of making the Good Shepherd’s voice heard in today’s world. The wonderful story Acts tells of the growth and expansion of the Church needed people like Paul and Barnabas to respond to the Risen Christ’s invitation to full-time involvement in the mission – even at the risk, as Acts acknowledges, that such a life might put one at odds with prevailing cultural and societal trends.

All the more reason, therefore, why it is so necessary for all of us to be always ready to respond filled with joy and the Holy Spirit to the challenge of God’s call – whatever in particular it may be in our individual lives – and ever on the alert to identify, encourage, and support the Pauls and Barnabases of our day, who may be right here in our community today and whose energy and commitment will be needed if the Good Shepherd’s voice is to continue to be heard in our world.

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Easter (50th Annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations),, Immaculate Conception church, Knoxville, TN, April 21, 2013.

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