To the Ends of the Earth

[Homily based on the Acts of the Apostles, Friday, May 27, 2022.]

We have been reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

As we have been celebrating the profound mystery of the Resurrection and are about to celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension this Sunday and the Solemnity of Pentecost the following Sunday, I would like to invite you to a prayerful reading or re-reading of the Acts of the Apostles.  Many of us may not yet have an opportunity to do this.  In the flow of our liturgy, now may be the time.  In the first pages of the Acts, there are accounts of the Ascension and of Pentecost: 

Acts says of Ascension Thursday [yesterday, 50 days after the Resurrection]:  Jesus said, “’You will receive power when the Holy Spirt comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this as they were looking on, he was lifted up.  A cloud took him from their midst” (1:8-9).

Of Pentecost, Acts reports of the apostles who had huddled together in the upper room in fear, “Then there appeared to them tongues of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim” (2:3-4). 

Two Volumes of One Work

It is good however to locate these events in the context of the integral unity between Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.  Luke is the author of both.  He did not mean them to be read in isolation of one another, but as two volumes of one work, that is, two volumes of his intended “narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us” (Lk 1:1).  The narrative does not close with the Ascension.  Instead, the Ascension is a transition to the fulfillment of the promise that reached beyond the Ascension:  “…the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and “…that repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name to all the nations beginning from Jerusalem” (Lk 24-47).   That fulfillment is described in the entire book of Acts, where after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles in Jerusalem, Luke narrates how the Gospel is preached first to the Jews, then to the non-Jews or Gentiles, to the ends of the earth.

Of course, the whole New Testament is how the Old Testament covenant between Yahweh, who is faithful, and his People, who are unfaithful, is finally fulfilled in the New Covenant, the New Testament, where Jesus, the Messiah, suffers, dies and is raised from the dead to redeem and reconcile God’s chosen People with the Father.  But Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are saying it does not stop with the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.  As Jesus in the Resurrection is ascended to the Father, so does he together with the Father send the Holy Spirit to us – as he promised – to bring together those who believe in Jesus Christ into a new community, which under the direction of the Holy Spirit will bring the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. 

So if in the narrative of the Gospel according to St. Luke Jesus’ ministry moves from Galilee gradually to Jerusalem, the narrative of Acts is how from Jerusalem with the outpouring there of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples of Jesus, the Gospel under the direction of the Holy Spirit is preached to the ends of the earth.

St. Peter’s Leadership and Witness

In the beginning of Acts, the leader and spokesperson of the community of believers in the Resurrected Jesus is Peter.  When, after the Pentecost event in Jerusalem, some people deride those who had received the power of the Holy Spirit as drunkards, it is Peter who addresses them declaring they were not drunkards but witnesses to the Resurrection of the Lord whom the Jews had wrongly put to death.   He calls for repentance and belief in the Gospel, that is, in Jesus as our redeemer.  It is Peter who in the name of Jesus cures a crippled beggar and many other sick, and so wins the belief of more people in Jesus.  It is Peter who defends the new community before the hostile Jewish Sanhedrin that attempted to gag them from preaching about Jesus as the Messiah.  Peter and the Apostles declare, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to obey you rather than God, you be the judges.  It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard” (4:19-20).  The good news about Jesus needed to be preached.  The immediate outcome:  Jewish Christians.  Practicing circumcised Jews who became Christians.  Their opponents, Jews who refused to become Christians. 

The Gospel needed to be preached not only in Jerusalem and in the territories around Jerusalem.  The Gospel needed to be preached to the ends of the earth.  It needed to be preached to people who were not Jewish nor Jewish Christians, but who may have had other religious beliefs. 

God’s Conversion of a Jewish Pharisee

That’s also what’s exciting about the Acts of the Apostles.  For these non-Jewish people, or Gentiles, God intervenes very dramatically.  He takes a young man from Tarsus specially educated under the famous Jewish rabbi, Gamaliel, who had been appointed to the central Jewish governing body, the Sanhedrin;  he was a learned and ambitious Pharisee who had been brutally persecuting the believers in Jesus.   On the way to Damascus and Antioch to proclaim the formal prohibition of the Sanhedrin to believe in Jesus, God knocks him off his horse with a light that actually blinds him.  Jesus complains, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  It was not only a vision but a deep and personal experience by Paul of the Crucified but Resurrected Lord.  This experience changed his life – and changed the course of human history.  It obligated him to give witness to the Crucified and Resurrected Lord as the source of salvation for all who would believe in him to the ends of the earth.  

To the Ends of the Earth

The rest of Acts is an account of how Saul suffers, first,  in order to find his way into the very Jewish Christian Community of “The Way” that he used to persecute, and then how he suffers eventually to bring the Gospel beyond this first community of Jewish Christian believers to communities of non-Jews, the Syrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans , that is, to the Gentiles.  Paul undertook three separate missionary journeys on foot and by sea, first in Asia Minor, but then all the way to Greece, including those ancient cities we have heard of in our recent readings at Mass.  In Athens, Paul tries to evangelize the Athenians by identifying the Athenian statue “to the Unknown God” with Jesus, the Messiah.  But when the intellectual Athenians hear of a man resurrected from the dead they laugh him out of Athens.  In today’s reading he is in Corinth where despite the attacks of the local Jews, obeying the Lord’s mandate he stays for a year and a half to build up the Corinthian Christian community.  From his letters to the Corinthians, we know that this was a community endeared to Paul but challenged, and some of the most moving pastoral sentiments of Paul in caring for the Corinthians can be found in 2 Corinthians.   Finally, in Paul’s last trip to Jerusalem, he courageously faced the Jews who wanted him put to death for preaching Jesus Christ.  He escapes death as a Roman citizen by appealing to Ceasar.  On this appeal he endures shipwreck and the attack of a viper in Malta to finally make it to Rome.  Here, Acts ends, with Paul as a prisoner, yet free enough to preach the Gospel of Jesus in Rome, fulfilling Jesus’ mandate that Gospel be proclaimed to the ends of the earth.

“…if only we suffer with him…”

As I said, it is time to read or re-read the Acts of the Apostles especially before the Feast of Pentecost.  Understanding the experiences of Peter and Paul in establishing the first Christan communities under the direction of the Holy Spirit would help us better understand our calling, our responsibilities, and our future under the Holy Spirit:  “The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit,” Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “that we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:16-17).

About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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