History, as Pope Saint John XXIII supposedly said, is the greatest of teachers. So it is no accident that so much of both the Old and New Testaments is history of one sort or other. Nor is it any accident that every day during these seven weeks we call the Easter season we read from the Acts of the Apostles, 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 expansion of its membership and the widening of its mission as the Good News spread – first in Jerusalem, then through Judea, then into Samaria, and eventually into the 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: I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth. [Acts 13:14, 43-52]
We get some sense of what that is supposed to mean from the Book of Revelation’s vision of the heavenly liturgy, with its great multitude which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue [Revelation 7:9, 14b-17]. But how do we get from here to there? Getting from here to there – that is the mission of the Church and the history of the Church, modeled for us in the Acts of the Apostles.
The Apostle Paul (who wasn’t one of the 12 and never knew Jesus during his earthly life) eventually emerges as the central figure in the Church’s expansion. Bi-cultural and bi-lingual – a Jew from a Greek city and a Roman citizen – Paul was especially well suited for this mission. More importantly, Paul’s conversion to Christ was so complete that he felt compelled 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 and our families, 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.
As Pope Francis has recently written, in his Message for today’s 56th annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations: “God in fact desires that our lives not become banal and predictable, imprisoned by daily routine, or unresponsive before decisions that could give it meaning. The Lord does not want us to live from day to day, thinking that nothing is worth fighting for, slowly losing our desire to set out on new and exciting paths … he wants us to discover that each of us is called – in a variety of ways – to something grand ... Every vocation is a to follow Jesus on the path he has marked out for us, for our own happiness and for the good of those around us.”
Today’s 56th annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations reminds us 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 to be alert to identify, encourage, and support a future Paul, a future Barnabas of our day, who may well 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 and the 56th Annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 12, 2019.