Every day during the Easter season, the Church at Mass reads from the Acts of the Apostles – the evangelist Luke’s account of how the Risen Christ’s parting gift of the Holy Spirit transformed a small group of 120 disciples into a missionary movement that spread from Jerusalem to Rome, how a small Jewish sect became a world Church with a universal mission.
To us who already know the story, the Church’s growth and expansion may seem like a natural development, both obvious and inevitable. Back then, however, it was one learning experience after another. And one of the leading figures in that process was Saint Paul, who makes his first Sunday appearance in this year’s readings of Acts in today’s 1st reading [Acts 9:26-31].
At that point Paul – then still known as Saul – was not yet the leading figure he would soon become. In fact, when he first tried to join the disciples in Jerusalem, they were all afraid of him, not knowing that he was a disciple. That was hardly surprising, given his recent history as a ferocious persecutor of the new Christian movement. As we all know, our past actions often linger with us long after we would like them to be forgotten. (Not for nothing did the European Union try to establish a right to be forgotten in social media!)
So what we now take for granted, namely that every new member of the Church needs a sponsor, was also the case even for Saul, who was, in effect, sponsored by Barnabas, who took charge of him and brought him to the apostles, and in effect testified to them that Saul’s conversion was the real deal.
This episode raises an interesting question that is in some sense always with us. How do we remain open to the possibility that God is telling us something new or doing something unexpected, while at the same time distinguishing what is truly from God from what is not, what is authentically holy from what is transient, temporary, a passing fad, or just plain false? Just this past month, in his Apostolic Exhortation On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World, Pope Francis warned against “all those forms of ersatz spirituality – having nothing to do with God – that dominate the current religious marketplace.”
The classical religious answer is what we call discernment. “Without the wisdom of discernment,” Pope Francis has written, “we can easily become prey to every passing trend.” We need discernment, the Pope writes, “to help us recognize God’s timetable, lest we fail to heed the promptings of his grace and disregard his invitation to grow.”
At some level we do this all the time. So we speak, for example, of people discerning their vocation, their calling in life, or of attempting to discern what God is calling us to do in new situations as they arise in our lives. Acts illustrates how the apostolic community did it – by looking at the results. Anticipating John’s injunction in today’s 2nd reading [1 John 3:18-24] that love is not just about word or speech but about deed and truth, Barnabas told the apostles about Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ and confirmed its authenticity by the evidence of the genuineness of Paul’s transformation. As Saint Therese of Lisieux famously said: “Love proves itself by deeds.”
As a practical matter, that is one more reason why being – and remaining – connected with the larger community is so important, lest, as Pope Francis warns, we grow “isolated, lose our sense of reality and inner clarity, and easily succumb.” Paul may have been personally called by the Risen Christ to become his apostle. Even so, he had to have his credentials validated, so to speak, by the judgment of the authorized leaders of the Church, who in turn based their judgment on what the Church community actually experienced in regard to Paul, as attested to by Barnabas.
As Jesus’ farewell address in John’s gospel illustrates [John 15:1-8], the future for which we hope is already present in our union with the Risen Lord – a union which is not myself alone, or Jesus and me alone, and Jesus and me and my friends alone, but rather Jesus and the whole Church (of which I am a part). The choice for a life in union with Christ is a choice of a life of communion with Christ’s Body, the Church, within which we are both welcomed and challenged, forgiven and changed, taught and fed.
Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN April 29, 2018.