Lectionary 54, Gospel John 13: 31-33A, 34-35
I always enjoy the public reading of the Acts of the Apostles during the masses of the long and joyful Easter season. With a spirit of great optimism and faith the Acts remind us that the early Church managed to spread the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection across the Mediterranean basin in spite of seemingly insuperable odds. The impact and inevitability of this result is expressed in the flow of St. Luke’s words which we hear at mass today:
“After Paul and Barnabas had proclaimed the good news to that city and made a considerable number of disciples….They strengthened the spirits of the disciples and exhorted them to persevere in the faith….They appointed elders for them in each church and…with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord ….Then they traveled through Pisidia and reached Pamphylia. After proclaiming the word at Perga they went down to Attalia….[They were] commended to the grace of God for the work they had accomplished….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 14:21-27).
These verses almost fall over each other in an effort to show how much the Spirit was with the apostles and the early disciples and missionaries of the gospel. They are indeed true—the peaceful spread of Christianity and its enduring power through the centuries is a strong testimony to its truth—yet stepping back for a moment one realizes that not everything was coming up roses in those heady early days.
Disputes within the fledgling Church itself, such as the situation which led to the appointment of the first deacons (Acts 6:1-7), show us that the living Body of Christ is both a perfect divine reality and a flawed human one. Paul’s conversion reminds us that he was a fierce persecutor of Christians before that moment of transformation, and that persecution of the faithful on account of the gospel continued throughout this era (Acts 9:1-22). The hostile reception accorded to the good news in some places narrated in the Acts of the Apostles, such as when Paul presented his teaching on Jesus and the resurrection in the Areopagus of Athens (Acts 17:22-34), reflects our modern culture and the attitudes it often bears which are opposed to Christian belief and morality.
Considering another dimension of this thought, contemporary studies have suggested that the entire Christian population may have only numbered as few as 5,000-10,000 Christians by the end of the first century—a lot fewer than we may imagine. Keeping all of this in mind, we can reflect constructively on the situation in which we find ourselves today. One often hears that “things aren’t like they used to be”, or that “young people are not interested in the faith”. In reality such challenges to growth and vitality have always been with the Church as it seeks to share the news of our Easter joy to the ends of the earth.
In today’s gospel reading we hear our Lord saying to his apostles: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). With this commandment in mind we move forward firm in our hope and faith that no matter what obstacles or failings we may encounter, the Risen One has in whom we believe has triumphed over all and will impart to us every gift we need to persevere and to bring to completion the good work his followers began so many centuries ago in the Acts of the Apostles.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.