4th Tuesday of Easter
Acts 11:19-26; Jn 10:22-30
St. Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, is wonderful in giving us the progression and stages of development of the early years of the Church. And in this section of Acts we see a very important turn in the road. The Church was heading in one direction, and suddenly it took a big swerve which would have a huge significance for its future. It may seem like it happened kind of accidentally, but the Holy Spirit was carefully guiding the fledgling Church into what he could already see in the future.
Up to this time the Apostles and disciples saw themselves as Jews. They didn’t see this new way as a separate Church, like we do today. They had all been brought up in the Jewish faith and were loyal to their heritage. They saw Jesus as someone who had come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, not someone who had come to break away and start his own Church. He was the long-awaited Messiah.
They preached their message only to the Jews, and expected their members to follow the Jewish laws and precepts. If their beliefs weren’t exactly mainstream, it wasn’t all that extraordinary – within the Jewish faith at the time there were sects or groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees and Essenes who disagreed with each other on doctrinal points.
At first they were centered around Jerusalem. But then the persecution started moving them out to the greater world. We just heard of them reaching Cyprus, Phoenicia, and Antioch. St. Luke is careful to record that they were preaching to no one but Jews. But then a major shift occurred, which was very significant for most of us in this building, given our Gentile ancestry. We are told that in Antioch some of the disciples, “began to speak to the Greeks as well, proclaiming the Lord Jesus.”
Meanwhile, in the selections that we’ve been listening to from Acts during the past week, St. Luke has been telling us about similar things happening elsewhere as a result of the persecution. Philip preaches to the Samaritans, they believe, and he baptizes them. When the Apostles in Jerusalem hear of it they send Peter and John, who lay hands on them so that they receive the Holy Spirit. Philip then baptizes an Ethiopian eunuch. Yesterday we heard about Peter preaching the word to Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and his household, who received the Holy Spirit and were baptized.
Today’s selection from Acts is like a encapsulated version of this phenomenon which was going on simultaneously in various places. All the common trademarks are there. Mention is made of the persecution because of Stephen, and the scattering that resulted from it. Then the message of Jesus is preached to the Gentiles. The message falls on fertile soil, and many believe and accept it. When word of this gets to Jerusalem and the leaders of the followers of Jesus, they send a delegate, Barnabas, to make sure everything is in order. When he sees the wonderful fruits, he rejoices and “a large number of people was added to the Lord.”
This Barnabas must have been a wonderful fellow. Just the fact that the leaders in Jerusalem would select him says quite a bit. In the other instances mentioned, only members of The Twelve were sent to authenticate a rupture to the Gentiles and confer the Holy Spirit on them. But this time they send Barnabas, and we are told “he was a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and faith.” Elsewhere, we are told his name means “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36), and today we see him living up to his name in regards to the new recruits in Antioch when he “encouraged them all to remain faithful to the Lord in firmness of heart.” Previously, we were told that his name had been Joseph, but the apostles had changed it to Barnabas. They must have found it encouraging when he sold a piece of property he owned and put the money at the feet of the apostles. He was a Levite and had been born on Cyprus.
What really says a lot about Barnabas was the fact that he then left Antioch to go search for Paul in Tarsus. Most of the followers of Jesus were still scared of Paul and found it hard to trust him. But Barnabas was so in tune with the Holy Spirit that he sensed how this man could be a key player in this new development of turning to the Gentiles. This Paul was such an interesting story in himself, which of course we can’t get started on. But he had been prepared by God and had all the qualities to make this new development explode.
So you see, our little first reading this morning had all kinds of wonderful things packed into it. What an exciting time in the Church it was! And as the cherry on top we are told, “and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.”