4th Sunday of Easter
Reading 1. Acts 13:14, 43-52
Reading II. Revelation 7:9, 14b-17
Gospel. John 10: 27-30 (The Father and I are one).
In all the Sundays between Easter and Pentecost the first reading comes from the Acts of the Apostles as we follow them on their early missionary activity. Please note that even though we read these accounts now, they refer to the activity of the Apostles after Pentecost. Today the focus shifts from Peter to Paul, who called himself "the least of the Apostles."
In this cycle of readings we don't even get into the story of Paul's conversion. We'll have to wait for another day to hear the account of his meeting with the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus. By the time we pick up the story in today's reading Paul, the persecutor of Christians, has already been converted, baptized, and empowered to preach. From the hints in today's reading it seems clear that his mission was at first to the Jewish communities outside of the Holy Land.
By the time of Christ practically every city in what we would call the Near East had a prominent Jewish community of merchants and tradesmen. Although the Romans had conquered, it was Greek culture, language, thought and practices that predominated in this part of the ancient world. So when Paul speaks of Gentiles he is usually referring to the Greeks. Needless to say there was bound to be friction between Greek and Jew. Historians trace the origins of anti-Semitism to the rivalry between these Greek and Jewish communities long before the time of Christ.
On their part the Jews regarded the Greeks as unclean and preferred to live apart from them. The worship of idols and the offering of sacrifices to those idols was an abomination to the Jews. Just as serious were some practices among the Gentiles, like abortion and pornography, which disgusted the Jews.
Antioch, where we meet Paul today, was a flourishing Greek trading center. Obviously, Paul feels at home among the Jewish community there. Following normal Jewish practice Paul and Barnabas enter the synagogue on the Sabbath and take their seats. It seems clear from today's reading that Paul doesn't think that Jews have to stop being Jewish in order to follow Christ. In fact, the more we learn about Judaism in the time of Christ, the more we see the great similarity between Jew and Christian.
However, in the next few weeks we are going to see that there were fundamental differences. The most basic one had to do with the claim that Jesus makes in today's gospel account from St. John.
My sheep hear my voice;...
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish....
My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all,...
The Father and I are one.
Jesus identifies Himself with the God of Israel. We must realize that no one would ever think of the Holy Trinity unless Jesus had continually referred to Himself along with the Father and the Spirit. A reasonable person could conclude that there could only be one God. The Jews did and so would the Moslems 600 years after the time of Christ. The Moslems still regard Jesus and His Mother with great reverence. Mary, for example, is the only woman named in the Koran. Still, Jesus was only a good man or a great teacher. The claim that He is one with the Father is equally shocking to them as well as to the Jews. It was not logic or reason that led the early Church to reject heresies that claimed that Jesus was only a man. It was the words of Jesus, himself.
Why should we believe His words? Who wouldn't regard them as absurd or crazy? Although it's clear that Paul converted many Jews, we can sympathize with those who found his words shocking and threw him out of town. Indeed, whenever we see the Jews mentioned in scripture, we should put ourselves in their place. How many Christians today prefer to think of Jesus as just a good man or a fine teacher who went about doing good works? Even then we don't want Him running our affairs or interfering in our lives.
For Paul the reason for belief was the Resurrection. In another place, he said that "if Christ is not risen, then our faith is in vain." He personally witnessed the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus. He called himself the least of the Apostles because he had persecuted the Church and was the last to see the Lord. After his conversion Paul's eyes were opened and he saw that the God of Israel had become incarnate in Jesus. Things could never be the same.
Jesus came for all men. It was no longer possible for Jew and Greek to live apart, for all are brothers and sisters. Paul now believes that the mission of the Jews all along had been to save their despised enemy. He says to his Jewish brethren and to us,
I have made you a light to the Gentiles,
that you may be an instrument of salvation
to the ends of the earth.
In the reading from the Book of Revelation John has the same vision as Paul. He sees a multitude "from every nation, race, people and tongue" standing at the Heavenly throne before the Risen Lamb. The Lamb "will lead them to the springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."