The Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 2, 2021.
Every day during this and every 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 and how that small Jewish sect became a world Church with a universal mission.
To us who already know the larger 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 Sunday selections from 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 have some argued for 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, turned out to be the case even then 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.
I think this episode raises an interesting question which in some sense is 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? Not for nothing has Pope Francis warned against “all those forms of ersatz spirituality – having nothing to do with God – that dominate the current religious marketplace.”
In the current environment, it is easy to observe how politics decisively defines the identities of more and more Americans, and how for many one's religious affiliation - one's identification with a particular denomination or with a specific faction within that denomination - is determined increasingly by one's political identity. Whereas once upon a time one's religious beliefs might have been thought to form - or at least inform - one's political positions, nowadays the reverse seems increasingly true.
Hence the importance of what is classically called discernment. And so we speak, perhaps sometimes too simplistically or casually, of discerning one's calling in life, or of discerning what God is calling us to do in new situations as they arise in our lives. Acts illustrates how the apostolic community did its discernment – 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 Saul’s encounter with the Risen Christ and confirmed its authenticity by the evidence of the genuineness of Saul’s personal transformation and what Saul was newly contributing to the Church's life and mission. As Saint Therese of Lisieux famously said: “Love proves itself by deeds.”
As a practical matter, that is one more obvious reason why being – and remaining – connected with the larger Church community is so important, lest we grow isolated from the experience of others in the community and lose the much needed sense of perspective which we get from interaction with others and learning to appreciate their experiences. Saul had been personally called by the Risen Christ to become his apostle. Even so, Saul still 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 was actually experiencing with Saul, as attested 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 Jesus and me alone, or Jesus and me and my friends alone, or Jesus and me and my political party alone, but rather Jesus and the entire universal Church, toto orbe terrarum ("throughout the whole world"). 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 fed, taught and transformed.