Michael Barnes S.J.
4th Sunday of Easter
Acts 13.14, 43-52: When Paul and Barnabas set off on their missionary journeys they met with plenty of success, but sometimes their enthusiasm and zeal were not enough to overcome the stubbornness and scheming of the Jews. What is their reaction to apparent failure?
On this occasion they had made a profound impression on the people of Antioch and there were many — "Jews and god-fearing proselytes" (probably meaning those sincerely attracted to the Jewish religion who were allowed to participate in the synagogue service) — who had decided to join them A week later, we are told, "almost the whole town assembled to hear the word of God". This was too much for the Jewish authorities who reacted by stirring up hostility. first in the crowd and then among the people of influence. Such an attitude becomes comprehensible once we realise that Judaism is not a missionary religion. The Jews of Antioch did not want Gentiles to share in what was promised only to Israel. Certainly they believed in maintaining a friendly contact with those who showed an interest in their religion. But a true Jew is born a Jew. not converted.
Paul's proclamation of the Gospel is a new departure. Salvation is to be found in Christ, for Jew as well as for Cicnille, The artificial divisions of race and birth are already being broken
down. The Gospel must be proclaimed to Jews first "but since you have rejected it we must turn to the Gentiles," This, of course, is the theme of Acts: how the Word of God spreads "so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth."
Apocalypse 7.9, 14-1'7: The Book of the Apocalypse is prophecy — with a difference. It contains the vision of the prophet. but the passionate concern for doing the will of God and for making the Kingdom a practical reality is lacking.
But, then, John is writing for those whose lives are being threatened in a new wave of persecution. Their prophetic witness will consist not in the words which they utter or the effectiveness of their condemnations but in the faithfulness and patience with which they accept suffering, sacrifice and inevitable death.
The vision of "a huge number. impossible to count, of people from every nation, race, tribe and
language" is intended to console and uplift. These are the ones who have endured the great persecution and now enjoy the presence or their God. Never again will they have to face pain. hardship, hunger and thirst because "the Lamb who k at the throne will be their Shepherd and God will wipe away all tears from their eyes", These. and many other imuaes l'rom the Old Testament, put God's promises at the centre or the vision: he will reward those who are faithful.
John 10.27-301 Paul's reaction to opposition at Antioch is not to get upset or depressed but simply to move on. John's attitude to persecution is to -look forward in patience and hope. There are many things which we cannot control and are never likely to be able to control. The tasks in front of us can seem impossible and the problems overwhelming. But our faith is not in ourselves hut in a God who has promised never to desert us. This is the meaning of the image of the Good Shepherd. In the Apocalypse. Jesus himself is the Lamb that is sacrificed that we may live'. But he gives himself "to those who listen to my voice" in another way too: by leading and guiding them, Deliberately Jesus contrasts his role with that of the scribes and Pharisees, the false leaders of the people who are like hired hands with no personal concern for the sheep. Jesus knows them intimately and is prepared to lay down his life for them. But he makes it clear that mere separation or the elect is not enough: "I have other sheep. that are not of this fold: I must bring them also, ... so there shall be one flock, one shepherd." Our extract from the very end of the discourse leads inevitably to the final statement which scandalises the Jews: "the Father and I are one". This the) cannot accept and after further argument they try to arrest him. On this occasion Jesus escapes.
In a certain sense it is a failure. but then the Gospel will always cause scandal and division: our three readings are all agreed on that. But the only real failure lies in those who fail to perceive the truth which this man • reveals about their relationship with God — and in ourselves when we allow our own weakness and inadequacy to defeat the faith we have in Jesus the true or 'model' Shepherd.