As more and more Gentiles came to believe in Jesus, ready to become part of the community, the issue of whether they needed to abide by all of the laws of the Jewish tradition became quite hot. Did they need to convert to Judaism to become Christian? Our first reading reflects the decision on how to move into the future. Notice: they believed that if they approached the question prayerfully, debated back and forth, and came to an answer the majority could live with, the Holy Spirit could be recognized in the process.
Today’s passage from Acts of the Apostles is about St. Paul’s first missionary journey. Turns out Paul and Barnabas were commissioned at Antioch, traveled to Cyprus, Pamphilia, Pisidia, Antioch, Attalia & back to Antioch. Sound confusing? There were actually 16 or 17 cities named Antioch in the ancient world (Seleucus I Nicator liked to name cities after his father, Antiochus). The two Antiochs mentioned here are Antioch on the Orontes (in Syria) and Antioch of Pisidia.
Elizabeth’s unborn child leapt for joy in the womb when expectant Mary came visiting. Angels brought glad tidings of great joy at Jesus’ birth. Luke lets us know right from the start that his message is a joyful one. There is joy in the Gospel, and we hear about the Holy Spirit in the very first chapter. But the joy truly breaks out in book two, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Holy Spirit becomes a lead character. Joy and the Holy Spirit both figure in today’s first reading. Here is the best part: the joy doesn’t depend on what is going on around these early Christians.
Right from the beginning of Luke’s two volume work (Luke-Acts), he has faithful, devoted Jews, Anna & Simeon offer prophecies about Jesus. By Gospels’ end, the prophecies are fulfilled. Early in the Acts of the Apostles, in the verses omitted in our 1st reading, Gamaliel, a wise Jewish leader and member of the Sanhedrin offers advice, a prophecy that will be fulfilled by the end of Acts.
People coming to believe, folks who are ill finding hope and healing, those disturbed by unclean spirits finally finding peace; these powerful signs accompanied the apostles. The miracles attracted attention, led people to want to know more, touched hearts, and paved the way for faith to be planted and to grow. The Holy Spirit working today is little different. Something stirs the heart of people to give faith a chance, Jesus becomes real for them, and they are added to the number of the faithful. Folks who are sick find hope and healing in God’s love and mercy.
Two nouns. Or, could be a noun and a verb. Apostle // Witness. Apostle means one sent. For us, one sent to share the good news of Christ coming into the world, his life-giving ministry, and the transforming power of his life, death and resurrection. Witness, as a noun, is quite similar: one who has seen the events, the power, the explosion of God’s grace in the ministry of Jesus, and in the Paschal mystery.
Matthew Kelly’s great book suggests many ways to get to know Jesus better. Here is another. Spend time with the Songs of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah. The book of Isaiah includes four poems, Servant Songs, and today we hear the third one. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week we will hear the other three at Mass. Who is the suffering servant? Many Jewish scholars see these passages as referring to the nation itself. Some see them as prophecies about the Messiah. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostles and evangelists recognized Jesus in these powerful poems.
I did it before, and now I am doing it again, even more gloriously! Isaiah wanted the people to make the connection. God had led their ancestors out of Egypt and into freedom, opening a way through the sea. The return from exile was not just a stroke of great fortune – it was the power of the same God, returning them home after their sins and failures brought them into exile. At the Easter vigil, we will hear a beautiful rendition of Miriam’s song at the sea, praising God for the deliverance from Egypt.
For the guardians of tradition and authors of the scriptures, Israel’s time in Egypt came to represent alienation from God. The first Passover, in flight, represented escape from slavery. The Passover we hear in our 1st reading today is the culmination of events, God’s promise of freedom fulfilled. From alienation and slavery, to a time of testing in the desert; finally, freedom in the Promised Land. Think of folks in our world today, oppressed by the slavery of violence and conflict. Pray they may experience a first Passover, escape from a life that has become untenable.
“I am who am.” A fascinating name. One held with tremendous reverence. In respect for our Jewish sisters and brothers, who believe that the Divine name is too holy to be spoken, recently the church has asked that we not use the name ‘Yahweh’ in the liturgy. Songs like “Yahweh is the God of our salvation” are out. But there is more to this reading. Moses has a mission that is central to God’s plan, and the process begins as any healthy relationship does – God shares who he is: I’m the God of your fathers. I’m the one who has heard the cry of the people.