Tag Archives: gentiles

Paul’s Conversion

 

The dramatic conversion of Paul is recalled in today’s  first reading at Mass from the Acts of the Apostles. Luke describes this event three times, acknowledging Paul’s special  role in the spread of the church from Jerusalem to Rome.

 Luke sees Paul’s conversion and ministry as a work of God, who uses the apostle for his own divine purposes. It’s not Paul’s genius or imagination that achieved so much. God’s grace brought him to the ground on his way to Damascus and God’s grace sent him on his mission.

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  Jesus says to him. Their meeting caused Paul to be convinced that faith is a gift that justifies us and that the church is the body of Christ. He did not come to those beliefs on his own.

Paul’s great conversion story in Acts introduces a succession of stories recalling the conversion of the gentiles. Though Paul has a prominent part in these stories, he is still an agent whom God sends and constantly empowers.

The Acts of the Apostles is not just a description of the past;  it’s a template for the church of every age. Personalities like Paul and human factors play a part in her growth, but the church’s advance is not principally through human power, reason, or imagination. The power of God’s Spirit guides and supports it through time.

We need to recognize the church as God’s church..

Church Leaders

Keep Peter and the rest of the apostles in mind when thinking about church leadership. In today’s reading at Mass from the Acts of the Apostles Peter recalls his experience in Joppa, at the house of Simon the Tanner. Joppa, remember, was the seaport where Jonah began his perilous journey into the gentile world.

After Pentecost, the church seems to do nicely in Jerusalem and Judea as Peter and the others proclaim the resurrection of Jesus, perform miracles and bravely withstand persecution by Jewish leadership. The gospel is proclaimed even in Samaria and Galilee. Near Joppa, Peter heals Aeneas, a paralyzed man in bed for eight years and raises Tabitha from the dead. (Acts 9,31-43)

Then, the tired apostle goes to sleep on the roof of Simon the Tanner’s house in Joppa overlooking the vast sea, where he has a disturbing vision. Instead of his usual  kosher food  a gentile banquet is poured out before him, and reacting like a typical Jew Peter pushes it away.  Three times the vision invites the puzzled apostle to eat before vanishing.

Then, messengers appear at the door from Cornelius, a gentile soldier stationed in Caesaria Maritima, the main Roman headquarters some miles up the coast, asking Peter to come and speak about “the things that had happened.” It’s the gentile banquet that Peter is invited to attend in his dream.

“I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but every nation is acceptable to him,” Peter says, and he goes to Caesaria and instructs Cornelius and all his household and then baptizes them.

Yet, did Peter truly understand all the consequences of his visit to Cornelius? Was the simple fisherman, who spoke Aramaic with a Galilean accent, who felt the pull of home, family and the nets of his fishing boat, ever comfortable in a gentile world? Later, he traveled to Antioch in Syria and then to Rome, where he was killed in the Neronian persecution in the 60’s. Was he ever as confident in a gentile world as he was in his own? Did he ever understand the gentile banquet?

Portraits of Peter in Rome usually portray him firmly in charge of the church, holding the keys of authority tightly in hand. Clearly, he is a rock.

I saw another image of Peter years ago in the Cloisters Museum in New York. He’s softer, reflective, more experienced, not completely sure of himself. There’s a consciousness of failure in his face. He seems to be listening for the voice of the Shepherd, hoping to hear it.

Church leaders never fully understand the mysterious ship they’re called to steer. They have to listen for the Shepherd’s voice.

Scraps from the Table

syro-phonecian woman

We’re reading at Mass today the story of the Syrophoenician woman who asks Jesus to cure her daughter. Mark 7, 24-30

My mother (God rest her) used to sneak food under the table regularly to her beloved cocker spaniel, Buffy. Once when I visited home after becoming a priest I said–in a losing attempt to keep Buffy’s weight down– “Mom, you shouldn’t feed that dog scraps from the table.”

She replied, “You don’t live her. He does. Besides, I’m not feeding him scraps from the table. He’s eating the same food we eat.”

I could never understand all the logic of her answer, but I gave us trying to stop her. I remember her every time this gospel is read. She put me in my place.

Maybe that’s what the Syrophoenician woman did to Jesus when she met him on his excursion north into gentile territory near Tyre.

Father John Donohue, SJ, offers an intriguing commentary on Jesus and this woman in Mark’s gospel. (The Gospel of Mark, John Donohue, SJ and Daniel Harrington, SJ (Sacra Pagina), Collegeville, Minnesota 2002. ) Their meeting takes place  following the feeding of the 5,000 in Jewish territory (Mark 6, 30-44) and Jesus’ announcement to the Pharisees and the scribes from Jerusalem that “all food is clean.” As a sign that the gentiles too would receive the Bread of Life from his hands, Jesus journeys into gentile territory to feed another 4,000. (Mark 8,1-10)

Now, you would expect him to welcome any gentile he met near Tyre, but the woman who meets Jesus alone in a house is harshly rejected when she asks him to heal her daughter. “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”

The woman doesn’t take no for an answer. “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps, Lord.”

Matthew’s gospel, written after Mark, says the woman’s daughter was healed because of her faith. Not so, Father Donohue says. According to Mark, it was because she got the best of her argument with Jesus, the only one who does that in the gospels. “It’s not right to ignore us,” the woman says to him. Jesus heard the truth from her and accepted it.

20th Sunday A: Scraps from the Table

 For an audio of the homily:

My mother (God rest her) used to sneak food under the table regularly to her beloved cocker spaniel, Buffy. Sometimes, when I visited home after becoming a priest I’d say to her–in a losing attempt to keep Buffy’s weight down– “Mom, you shouldn’t feed that dog scraps from the table.”

She’d reply, “You don’t live here. Besides, I’m not feeding him scraps from the table. He’s eating the same food we eat.”

I could never understand the logic of her answer, but I gradually gave up trying to stop her. And I remember her every time I hear this gospel,

Jews and gentiles didn’t mix in Jesus’ time and as an observant Jew from Nazareth, Jesus usually avoided eating with them and entering their homes. After his baptism in the Jordan he saw himself sent first “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But then, gentiles like the Roman centurion from Capernaum and this Canaanite woman from Tyre and Sidon came to him.

Matthew’s gospel says the woman was “calling out” to him from a distance, asking him to cure her daughter, but Jesus doesn’t answer. She keeps calling out in spite of his silence. “Send her away,” his disciples say, but the woman persists and even draws nearer.

“It’s not right to take the food of children and throw it to the dogs,” Jesus finally says. But the woman’s answer has a logic of its own. “Please Lord, even the dogs eat the scraps that come from their master’s table.” “ Let it be done for you as you wish,” he says and God fed her from the table.

Jesus’ answer to the woman sounds hard, doesn’t it? But sometimes doesn’t the silence of God seem just like that? A daughter’s sick, a wife is dying of cancer, a child is taken away so young. Is the woman calling out to Jesus an example that persistent prayer is always heard, even if God seems silent, even when God seems not to care?

The Feast of St. Barnabas

We believe in the communion of saints. One way of sharing life with the saints in heaven and on earth is by recognizing their gifts. That’s what St. Barnabas did. He recognized the gift of Saul of Tarsus.

After his dramatic conversion on the way to Damascus, Paul preached the gospel in Damascus and then in Jerusalem, according to the Acts of the Apostles, but because of his past as a persecutor of Christians, they were suspicious of him. “They were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple.” “Then Barnabas took charge of him and brought him to the apostles, and he reported to them how on the way he had seen the Lord and that he had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus.” (Acts 9, 25-27) Barnabas recognized the grace of God in Saul.

As gentiles became increasingly interested in the gospel, especially in Antioch, the leaders of the Jerusalem church sent Barnabas there to see what to do. “When he arrived and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain faithful to the Lord in firmness of heart, for he was a good man, filled with the holy Spirit and faith. And a large number of people was added to the Lord. Then he went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a large number of people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.” (Acts 11,23-26)

Once again, Barnabas recognized Saul, who would become Paul, and sought him out to bring the gospel to the gentiles. Previously, in the Acts of the Apostles the Apostle Peter encountered the gentile Cornelius in Ceasaria Maritima, whom he baptized with his household. But Barnabas knew Paul was better able to preach to the gentiles than Peter, so he brought him to Antioch. The two embarked on a mission to the gentiles. The Acts of the Apostles refer first to “Barnabas and Saul” then gradually it becomes “Paul and Barnabas.” Paul emerged as the gifted apostle.

It was Barnabas who first recognized his gift.