Hazardous journeys, persecution, imprisonment, miraculous escapes, shipwreck, conversions, rejections, adulation of crowds and assaults by crowds – just some of the elements making up the thrilling adventure story of the early Church, all happening under the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit.
Since Easter we have been hearing in the Acts of the Apostles, the narrative of a band of brothers specially commissioned by Jesus Christ to carry his mission to the furthest ends of the known world. Who are these witnesses so commissioned?
When we give them our attention we find them a motley crew. A handful of fishermen, two of whose mother tried to canvas the best jobs for her boys, a collaborator with the hated Roman administration, a freedom fighter, a few men of whom we know nothing and others, who according to the questions raised by them, were familiar with Greek culture. Only their friendship with Jesus could possibly have brought such a disparate group together. In addition, one man turned out a traitor and to replace him, a new member was chosen by lot.
Now Jesus is no longer with them. Instead they are commanded to go and preach what he taught to all nations. This is the story Luke the evangelist brings to us in the Acts of the Apostles. Luke’s first volume is one of the synoptic gospels dealing with the ministry of Jesus that culminates with his death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. The second volume, ‘Acts of the Apostles’, covers the years from about 33AD to the early 60s. During that time, faith in Jesus Christ was spreading from a small number of Jews in Jerusalem across most of the eastern Mediterranean including the islands, finally reaching the imperial city of Rome. People of various religions as well as pagans and those of different races heard the Word of God and many were converted. This was the beginning of the world-wide movement of Christianity spearheaded by a band of men, untrained and unskilled in communication who despite hostility and hardship carried out the mission entrusted to them by the Lord – “Go therefore make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Mt. 28:19)
It is significant that The Acts of the Apostles bridges the time when some of the original eye-witnesses were no longer alive. Luke, although not himself a witness, nonetheless had people available to him who had themselves heard first-hand from Jesus and his associates. Luke’s supreme and constant theme is the guidance of the Spirit and this is clearly manifested throughout the texts. Just as the ministry of Jesus began officially with his baptism in the Jordan, so does the ministry of the Apostles begin with the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
The effect is dramatic. No longer are the fearful band of brothers praying in the locked upper room in the company of the Blessed Mother. With the coming of the Holy Spirit there is an outpouring of the gifts. Especially noticeable is the gift of fortitude.
The gifts of the Spirit enable Luke to stress continually the unity of the first community of Christians, not alone in Jerusalem but later with Paul on his missionary journeys. The counsels and decisions of the community are inspired as is seen in how the Spirit is poured out on the pagans when they are baptised (10:44-47) and in many other instances throughout the narrative. As Peter reports the conversion of the first Gentile, a Roman named Cornelius, to the brothers in Judea: “I had scarcely begun to speak when the Holy Spirit came down on them in the same way it came down on us in the beginning” (11:15)
The Acts of the Apostles reads like an adventure story. The band of brothers, now counting among them Paul, Barnabas, Silas and others, suffer many punishing ordeals and particularly in Paul’s case, shipwreck several times and marooning on an island.
It is true that sacred scripture is best heard and meditated upon, after having asked the Holy Spirit for enlightenment. However any means that help make the Word of God more relevant should be encouraged. In today’s world we have the benefit of dramatisation on screen. The film The Acts of the Apostles (produced by Christian Movies and available on YouTube) is an excellent means of appreciating the reality of scripture, as the production does not add anything to the words but uses dramatic effect along with the sacred words in a way that brings the narrative to life.
In this production we see for example, the cripple healed outside the temple, the moment when Saul is thrown to the ground and hears the words of the Lord, the extraordinary conversion of Cornelius and his household, and the many sea voyages that had to be undertaken, to name only a few tremendous events of the beginning of the spread of Christianity. There are spectacular scenes of crowds in the various cities visited by the brothers, particularly noteworthy is the revolt in Ephesus. This was brought about by the silversmith Demetrius and his associates whose protest against Paul caused a riot in the city where its citizens believed Ephesus to be the guardian of the goddess Artemis. We also see Paul’s taking his farewell from the tearful community at Miletus portrayed with sensitivity and depth. Later the commotion caused by his presence in Jerusalem and his defence before King Agrippa is watched by the Roman Governor Porcius Festus accompanied by the tribunes and city nobles of Caesarea. We see how Paul’s courage and perseverance impress even the king. “A little more and your arguments would make a Christian out of me” (26:28)
Luke, the author of the Acts uses his craftsmanship to demonstrate the action of God working through the events undergone by the disciples so that a new global community of believers can be brought to birth. We know from the Old and New Testaments that God often chooses the weak and makes them strong. The closest men and women to Jesus during his life on earth had little or no earthly power or wealth and were without important connections. Therefore it should be no surprise to find them setting out to found a movement that has profoundly shaped subsequent history. By the end of the Acts of the Apostles, their success has been remarkable and indeed the message of Jesus has reached what was then all of the known world.
The Acts of the Apostles is read at Mass on the Sundays of Eastertide and semi-continuously on the weekdays of Year Two. These readings are particularly appropriate during this liturgical season, providing a witness to the ideal of the post-Resurrection community. Addressed to someone named Theophilus, Acts is the sequel to the gospel of Luke. Apparently Theophilus was a Christian believer who was seeking more knowledge about the faith of the new community.
Although Acts is not read in the Office of Readings, the story of the early Church is often told at readings for ordinations, for the sick, for funerals and the institution of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion.
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