Sunday, May 8, 2022

To the Ends of the Earth


History, as Pope Saint John XXIII is supposed to have said, is the greatest of teachers. Thus, it is no accident that the bulk of the Bible – both Old and New Testaments – is history of one sort or other. And thus 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 into 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: 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 inspired vision of the heavenly liturgy, 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 it is Paul who eventually emerges as one of (if not the) central figures in the history of the Church’s growth and expansion - perhaps because Paul was bi-cultural and bi-lingual, a Jew from a Greek city (and a Roman citizen besides). Such human and cultural considerations are always important, always have an impact on how effectively the Church fulfils its mission.

Most important, of course, Paul’s conversion to Christ was so complete that it compelled him to share Christ with everyone. Paul recognized in the Risen Lord, who had appeared to him, the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel and God’s plan to include all people in that promise. Ultimately it was Christ who counted, and Paul saw no conflict between being a Gentile and faith in Jesus – thus making it possible for the Gospel to become 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 natural temptation to turn inward, to become a cozy community, caring a lot about ourselves, concerned with who we are and what we have. As a Church, we have been doing a lot of that lately. Indeed, ever since the 1960s we have been doing lots of that. It is certainly arguable that the Church may be less effective in her pastoral ministry and her missionary outreach to the wider world than might otherwise be the case, whenever more energy is directed to internal battles between and among factions and interest groups within the Church. 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 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 some future Paul or Barnabas, 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, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, NY, May 8, 2022.


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