Monday Acts 16, 11-15
John 15, 26-16,4
Tuesday Acts 16,22-34
Wednesday Acts 17, 15, 22-18,1
John 18, 12-15
Ascension Thursday Acts 1, 1-11
Luke 24, 46-52
Friday Acts 18,9-18
John 16, 20-23
Saturday Acts 18, 23-28
John 16, 23-28
The Feast of the Ascension is celebrated on Thursday this week in the eastern United States and on Sunday in the western dioceses. Better to celebrate this feast at the same time, I think.
In the Acts of the Apostles, Paul takes the stage at Athens, the intellectual capitol of the Roman world, but his words chosen carefully are met only with curiosity. “We would like to hear you some other time.” (Wednesday)
Paul gets a better reception in Corinth, not far from Athens, but worlds away from the proud self sufficient city. “Do not be afraid. Go on speaking, and do not be silent, for I am with you.” Jesus says to Paul in a vision. (Friday)
In the reading from Acts on Saturday, Luke reminds us that Paul had great people with him like Priscilla and Aquila, the wife and husband, who instruct Apollos, a good speaker but weak in his theology. “When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the Way of God more accurately.”
I told a cousin of mine recently who wasn’t sure about a sermon she heard in church. “You may be right and he’s wrong.”
Our reading at Mass from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 15, 7-21) brings us to a critical moment in the life of the early church– the Council of Jerusalem, which decided whether and on what terms gentiles would be accepted into the new Christian movement. Its decision to admit the gentiles led to a rapid expansion of the church as non-Jews from all parts of the Roman world embraced the faith.
Luke Timothy Johnson has a fine commentary on this crucial event. (Acts of the Apostles: Sacra Pagina, Liturgical Press 1992)
Did a meeting really take place? Johnson writes “we can state with considerable confidence that in the first decades of the Christian movement an important meeting was held concerning the legitimacy and basis of the Gentile mission; that participants included Paul and Peter and James and Barnabas; that certain agreements were reached which, in one way or another, secured the basic freedom of the Gentile initiative. The most striking agreement between the sources comes, in fact, at the religious level. With only very slight variation, both Luke and Paul agree that the basis of the mission to the Gentiles was a matter of God’s gift, (Acts15,11. Gal 2,9) and that God was equally at work in the Apostle Paul as he was in the Apostle Peter. (Acts 15,7-8.12; Gal 2,8)
Notice the hesitancy of the original Jewish followers of Jesus to accept gentiles into their ranks. That’s evident in Peter’s strong reluctance to meet the Roman centurion Cornelius as he visits believers of his own kind around Joppa. Not only are the disciples slow to recognize their Risen Lord, they’re slow to accept his plans for expanding their ranks. Peter must see signs of God at work in Cornelius before baptizing him and his household. Paul, James and Barnabas also must see God’s gifts in the outsiders they meet before they recognize that God is calling them to believe.
God sows seeds of faith, but we’re as slow to recognize the action of God in others as the first disciples were. We have trouble seeing God’s action in the stranger and in the unexpected. We need enlightenment.
Johnson notes that the Church’s journey through time is marked by conflict and debate. We must accept those conditions today too. Those who follow Jesus will not always agree with each other; there are strong opinions and differences among believers.
One thing I would add. Besides conflict and debate, our reading today speaks of the “silence” that comes as they debate. We’re in the presence of our transcendent God, whose ways and thoughts are above ours. We need silence to discern God’s will. Too much talk can get in the way.
May 14th is the Feast of St.Matthias, chosen by lot to take the place of Judas. He joins the eleven apostles so that the twelve tribes of Israel will be represented when the Holy Spirit comes. Tradition says Matthias brought the gospel to Ethiopia. The Pentecost narrative follows Matthias’ selection in Luke’s account.
The qualifications for a new apostle seem simple enough. Peter says it should be someone “who accompanied us the whole time the Lord Jesus came and went among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day on which he was taken up from us. He joins us as a witness to his resurrection.”
Two have those qualifications. Joseph called Barsabbas and Matthias.
Then, they pray:
“You, Lord, who know the hearts of all,
show which one of these two you have chosen.”
Then they gave lots to them, and the lot fell upon Matthias,
and he was counted with the Eleven Apostles.” (Acts 1,15-17, 20-25)
Yet, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. For Matthias to be a witness to Jesus it wasn’t enough to get all the details right about what Jesus did or said, as a reporter or witness at a trial might do it.
In John’s gospel read for Matthias’ feast, Jesus describes a disciple as one who abides in him, who remains in him– a friend committed to him. So, a disciple cannot be just an on-looker, but one who enters the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection. He’s one who weathers doubts and uncertainties as the disciples listening to Jesus’ Farewell Discourse did. He’s like Thomas who sees the wounds in the Lord’s hands and side and learns to trust and believe through them.
Rembrandt’s wonderful portrayal of Jesus showing his wounds to Thomas (above) presents Thomas, not as a lonely skeptic, but representing all the disciples. All the disciples must come before Jesus’ wounds.
Pope Francis in a homily spoke of the importance of the wounds of Christ for a disciple of Jesus. We’re on an exodus beyond ourselves, he said, and there are two ways open for us. “one to the wounds of Jesus, the other to the wounds of our brothers and sisters.”
“If we are not able to move out of ourselves and toward our brothers and sisters in need, to the sick, the ignorant, the poor, the exploited – if we are not able to accomplish this exodus from ourselves, and towards those wounds, we shall never learn that freedom, which carries us through that other exodus from ourselves, and toward the wounds of Jesus.”
The wounds of Christ and the wounds of our brothers and sisters– we learn from both to see victory of death and to trust in the passion of Jesus.
Like Matthias, we’re called to be witnesses..
The daily Mass readings for Eastertime, from the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of John, are so different in tone. The Acts of the Apostles is a fast-moving account of a developing church spreading rapidly through the world through people like Paul of Tarsus and his companions. Blazing new trails and visiting new places, they’d be frequent flyers today, always on the go.
The supper-room discourse of Jesus from the Gospel of John, on the other hand, seem to move slowly, repeating, lingering over the words of Jesus to his disciples. Listen, be quiet, sit still, they say. Don’t go anywhere at all.
St. Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists, was inspired by St. Paul, the Apostle, to preach and to teach. Many of his letters end telling readers he has to go, he’s off to preach somewhere. He was a “frequent flyer.”
But the Gospel of John also inspired him; it was the basis for his teaching on prayer. Keep in God’s presence, in pure faith, he often said. Enter that inner room and remain there. Don’t go anywhere.
“It’s not important for you to feel the Divine Presence, but very important to continue in pure faith, without comfort, loving God who satisfies our longings. Remain like a child resting on the bosom of God in faithful silence and holy love. Remain there in the higher part of your soul paying no attention to the noise of the enemy outside. Stay in that room with your Divine Spouse…Be what Saint John Chrysostom says to be: silent clay offered to the potter. Give yourself to your Maker. What a beautiful saying! What the clay gives to the potter, give to your Creator. The clay is silent; the potter does with it what he wills. If he breaks it or throws away, it is silent and content, because it knows it’s in the king’s royal gallery.” (Letter 1515)
Our readings from the Acts of the Apostles this week tell us one thing about the early church: it didn’t evolve through human planning. It was God’s plan. The disciples gave little thought to the long range or short range planning we do today. They certainly didn’t expect Stephen.
The church was pretty settled in Jerusalem after Jesus rose from the dead, according to Acts. Good Jews, the followers of Jesus continued to worship in the temple, despite occasional squabbles with the Jewish leaders. They remained in Jerusalem, where Jesus worshipped and preached. It was their world. Besides praying in the temple, they met together, probably on Mount Sion where the Last Supper was celebrated. There they broke bread and prayed.
They were probably Galileans at first, then others joined them who came from elsewhere. One of them was Stephen.
Stephen was a new-comer. Some say he may have been a Samaritan, which may explain his polemic against the Judaism of the day. The scriptures see him as one who follows Jesus in his passion. So many of his sufferings are like those Jesus endured. But he was also the cause of the first scattering of believers to other places. He was brash and undiplomatic. I would guess some of the Galileans didn’t like him.
Yes, he was a saint, but a hard-nosed saint.
He brought change, or better, God did.
We celebrate Easter through the month of May. The Risen Lord stays with his church on her pilgrim way and walks with her step by step. Jesus is with us; he won’t leave us orphans. He gives us his gifts.
One of his gifts is Mary, his Mother. We honor her this month and ask her to guide us into the mysteries of Jesus, her Son. She knew him better than any of his creatures. I have been out in our Mary Garden these last few days visiting her.
In the Acts of the Apostles, our primary scriptural source for knowing how the church developed, Luke describes that development mainly through the missionary journeys of Peter and Paul. But let’s not forget Mary, a key figure in that development. She’s “embedded” in the story of Jesus’ life and in the development of the church. I like that word to describe her–”embedded.”
After Jesus ascends into heaven, forty days after his resurrection, a group of his followers, whom we already know from Luke’s gospel, go back to the upper room in Jerusalem. Luke describes them:
“Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they entered the city they went to the upper room where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.”
As he says earlier in his gospel, Luke depends on eyewitnesses who not only have seen and heard what Jesus said and did, but also are given prophetic gifts for preaching and teaching in the church. They tell us Jesus rose from the dead but, inspired by the Holy Spirit, they also tell us what that mystery means for the world.
Luke’s eyewitnesses are the eleven apostles, paired up two by two as Jesus told them for preaching the gospel. There are also women, like Mary Magdalen, followers of Jesus during his ministry and important witnesses of his resurrection. And finally Mary, the mother of Jesus, and his brothers, his relations, who knew him from the beginning.
Mary, who kept all these things in her heart, is the chief eyewitness.