Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings : – These readings recount the story of the spread of the gospel. St Luke was writing his gospel and Acts some 40 years after the resurrection, and speaks of the spread of the faith out from its Jewish origins to encompass the pagans. Just as in the letters of St Paul, who was writing in the 50’s and early 60’s AD, we begin to get a real feel of the joys and difficulties, the high’s and low’s of the missioners task. It was clearly not all plain sailing, no more than the task of spreading the Good News is today. Here in our first reading, (Acts 13:14, 43-52); we see how Paul and Barnabas fared in Antioch of Pisidia, in South-Central Turkey, the Roman Province of Galatia. It appears that initially they were well received by both Jews and converts from paganism.
However things rapidly became much more difficult. Now we know from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians that his mission among both Jews and pagans, which deliberately exempted the pagans from obedience to the Jewish law or Torah, was savagely challenged by Jews from Jerusalem who insisted that the only way to salvation in Christ was by fully following the Jewish law. Paul, to the contrary insisted that salvation was entirely by Christ, irrespective of the law. You will also remember how in Acts 10 we hear of Peter’s dream of the clean and unclean foods, and the Lord’s voice insisting that he ate regardless of the law and which initially Peter accepted and included former pagans in the Christian dispensation. At some point however, Paul tells us that, knobbled by the ‘Judaisers’ of Jerusalem, Peter reneged on this message to the utter fury and despair of Paul, despite the fact that the Council of Jerusalem in 49 gave specific permission for his Torah-free mission among the Gentiles. Peter then stopped sharing the Eucharistic meal with pagan converts. Paul’s subsequent mission among the pagans would continually be harassed by Judaisers, a feature of many of his letters.
This reading from Acts gives us a real insight into the difficulties faced by some of the earliest Christians. Verse 45 clearly speaks of the rows over the binding or non binding nature of the Torah in relation to belief in Christ and verse 50 that of the power of the upper class in a city like Antioch. We have to remember how ancient society worked. Many were slaves or freedmen and women and both groups would have been heavily dependent on the power and patronage of their masters or former masters. The poor in such societies would have depended upon the wealthier for daily hand-outs of food; for jobs; for the provision and regular use of public amenities. They would have been obliged to vote for their patrons in local elections; powerful men whose word counted and controlled events. So we can well imagine how difficult it might have been for converts whose masters were subverted by Jews; especially as the wealthier were the owners of homes large enough to host the Christian Eucharist. “But the Jews worked upon some of the devout women of the upper classes and the leading men of the city and persuaded them to turn against Paul and Barnabas and expel them from their territory.”
No! Reading between the lines we can see the difficult and dangerous task that spreading the gospel became, and this quite irrespective of any opposition from the Roman Empire which happened later. The future of Christianity hung in the balance, and clearly it was only the conviction and dogged tenacity of Paul and the like that kept things on the road at all. Any fairy-tale picture we may have had of the easy spreading of the gospel must be drastically revised.
This of course is why we also have readings from The Apocalypse, (7:9, 14-17), at this time. The writer of this extraordinary document writes in the later first century quite clearly at a period of persecution of Christians. His work is specifically designed to rally the troops, to secure their loyalty and utter conviction to the faith, and is resplendent with his glee at the overthrow of those nations and powers opposed to the faith in passages which may well reflect the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD, and the devastation of the cities of the Campania south of Rome. We have to remember the effect of the promise of eternal life to the faithful, especially to those of the poor who were given few rights and little respect in their earthly lives, and for whom Christ’s message of their immense worth and destiny as sharers in the divine nature was so powerful. These men and women were promised a share in the very best; “The One who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. They will never hunger or thirst again.” Persecuted in this life, they are assured of an eternal life and status greater than that of emperors.
The process by which this is achieved is relatively simple, as we see from our gospel, (John 10:27-30), “The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me.” It is quite clear from all these readings that the spreading of the faith from its first beginnings in the life of Jesus, and subsequently among the community of the resurrection, was always a tricky call. Yet these first Christians were no super heroes, but ordinary people, given the opportunity to respond to God’s call; and the very fact that they rose so magnificently to the occasion should give us today great hope and inspiration, as we, like them, struggle both to understand our faith and find the courage to take it out to the world.