This Sunday's First Reading from Acts seems at first to offer little for meditation or celebration. Luke seems simply to be rounding off his account of the first mission of Paul and Barnabas. Having told about their preaching (“to mixed reviews”) in Antioch of Pisidia, their roaring success among the pagans of Lystra, and the persecution by some of their unconvinced Jewish peers, Luke ends with a quick summary, retracing their route through seven towns and bringing them full circle to their home-base community in Syrian Antioch. But even this crisp summary, because of how it is told, carries food for the spirit.
Even in the midst of persecution, Paul and Barnabas make plenty of new disciples. Indeed, persecution becomes an engine of the mission. Resistance and harassment in one town leads them to receptive hearers in another. And when they retrace their steps to encourage recent converts, typically small communities in hostile environments, they preach, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” This is precisely the wisdom Paul explores, on a more personal level, in his writings to the Corinthians (see 2 Cor 12).
Churches need leaders, and so, in the First Reading, “They appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith.” (Acts, 14:23). No time for extended seminary training here. It is all so brisk, it looks like the hasty action of harried administrators, but the very phrasing lets us know that it was something else entirely. The appointments were done with prayer and fasting—that is, with a powerful physical and spiritual investment on the part of all. And this appointment of elders is carried out with a profound sense of collaboration with the risen Christ. They entrust these leaders to the Lord in whom they (the leaders) had put their trust (i.e., in their original Christian conversion).
When they come home to the community of Antioch in Syria, Luke can describe the place as “where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work they had now accomplished.” This reminds us that Paul and Barnabas were commissioned by that community in the same way that they themselves now commission elders to preside in their local communities (see Acts 13:1-3, the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas after much prayer and fasting).
As an indication of how they saw evangelization as a collaboration with God, Luke says, “When they arrived, they called the church together and reported what God had done with them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27). Thus the ministry of evangelization is a matter of cooperating with something God is doing through the risen Lord. Christian mission enables people to discover God-with-them as they come to believe in the presence of Jesus risen. Luke describes it that way because that experience of the early Church is understood as a paradigm for what the Church continues to be and do. Luke is careful to insist that mission is a matter both of getting doors slammed in your face and of finding doors mysteriously opened. Easter teaches that, in the midst of much slamming, God is the great Opener.
The Second Reading, Revelation 21, ponders that same divine presence with an image from Ezekiel 37:27. Seeing the new Jerusalem descending, John hears a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God's dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them.” This, of course, is a vision of final union with God, but we can recognize that the post-Easter communities had already begun to speak of their communal life as being the very dwelling place or temple of God (see 1 Cor 3:16; 1 Pet 2:4-6).
The Gospel reading from John's account of the Last Supper takes us to the heart of what is going on in the Christian mission flowing from Easter. Instead of focusing on the offering of body and blood in the form of bread and wine (which this Gospel has already treated in connection with the feeding of the five thousand, in chapter 6), the Fourth Evangelist dwells rather on the profound action of the Master's washing of his disciples' feet. That action of service, Jesus says, shows them how they are to treat one another (Jn 13:14). That provides the background for “the new commandment” expressed in this Sunday's Gospel, which is also the deepest form of evangelization: “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” People observing a Christian community are supposed to be impressed that their kind of mutual service and love can only be explained by a divine presence they claim to know.
Dennis Hamm, SJ