NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: ACTS 9: 26-31
FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER [B]
LINK to USCCB all three readings here.
When Saul arrived in Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples,
but they were all afraid of him,
not believing that he was a disciple.
Then Barnabas took charge of him and brought him to the apostles,
and he reported to them how he had seen the Lord,
and that he had spoken to him,
and how in Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus.
He moved about freely with them in Jerusalem,
and spoke out boldly in the name of the Lord.
He also spoke and debated with the Hellenists,
but they tried to kill him.
And when the brothers learned of this,
they took him down to Caesarea
and sent him on his way to Tarsus.
The church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria was at peace.
It was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord,
and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers.
While St. Paul is a major contributor to the Sunday Eucharist virtually every week in the second reading, this Sunday’s first reading from Acts is one of those rare occasions where he is the subject, not the author. The full account of Chapter 9 makes clear why the disciples in Jerusalem might be afraid of him. Saul [Paul], having witnessed the execution of Stephen in Jerusalem, seeks permission from the high priest in Jerusalem to become a bounty hunter of sorts among the synagogues of Damascus, Syria, with the expectation of rounding up Jews who had embraced “The Way,” an early term for Christian belief, and returning to Jerusalem with them in chains and presumably execution.
The best way to describe Saul in his first appearance in the New Testament is as a religious fanatic. Traditionalists among the Jerusalem Jewish community were distraught by the continuing growth of “The Way” as the end of Sunday’s reading attests. Jews who did not believe in Jesus would have seen the growing influence of the Christ as a particular betrayal of brother versus brother. The conflict within the Jewish family was much more intense than a simple doctrinal point of contention.
Chapter 9 emphasizes the intense personal love and devotion to the Risen Jesus that bound the Christians to him and to one another. Saul failed to appreciate this, and thus when he is struck down on the road to Damascus, he hears the voice of Jesus in a very personal and wounded fashion, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul, as Chapter 9 indicates, does not know Christ [“Who are you, Sir?”], and as the Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990) observes, the Damasus road incident represents a conversion for Saul, not a missionary commissioning. That would occur much later.
Certainly, two of Christianity’s unsung heroes have to be Ananias and Barnabas. The first, in Damascus, receives a vision from the Lord to seek out the blinded Saul and perform a healing miracle by restoring his sight. It is some measure of Saul’s notoriety that Ananias feels compelled to remind God that Saul was in Damascus precisely to arrest men as himself. It is here that God explains to Ananias the mission of Saul “to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites.” [9: 15] Saul is healed and baptized, and immediately begins to preach the risen Lord Jesus in the synagogues of Damascus.
Not surprisingly, Saul found himself in a no-man’s land of sorts. His reputation as a Christian persecutor had preceded him to Damascus, who now viewed him—not unexpectedly—as a Jewish apostate. The Christian disciples in Damascus, who learned that the Jews there planned to kill him, lowered him over the wall of the city of Damascus and sent him on his way to Jerusalem. Here is where Sunday’s reading picks up the narrative, where Jewish Christians in the holy city are also aware of Saul’s previous persecutorial intent, and the Jerusalem disciples are reluctant to take him in, too.
To the rescue comes Barnabas, an early Christian convert who had sold a sizeable tract of land on behalf of the early Church. Barnabas seems to know the events of Damascus and “sponsors” Saul for the apostles. Saul establishes his bona fides with energetic preaching directed toward the Greek-speaking or Hellenist Jews. “Hellenists” would have been those Jews who embraced the Greek influence of pagan classicism, the ideas of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The Acts [as well as non-Biblical sources] report a significant rift between Jews of a Hellenistic outlook and those with more parochial Hebrew upbringing; Acts 6 describes such a struggle within the Christian community.
As happened in Damascus, the Hellenist Jews in Jerusalem also attempted to kill Saul, and he was again spirited out of the city with the destination being his hometown, Tarsus. Sunday’s reading concludes the portion of Acts devoted exclusively to the Jewish mission of the Apostles. Chapter 10 will describe Peter’s first foray into the Gentile mission with his conversion of Cornelius, the Mass text for April 6. This Sunday’s reading ends with a separate summary of the state of the Church after the conversion of Saul, notable for the spread of Christianity to Judaea, Galilee, and Samaria. The success of The Way in Samaria is notable, and it is recorded several times in the Gospels, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan [Luke] and the Samaritan Woman at the Well [John]. Samaritans were estranged from mainstream Judaism, which gives us a sense that the mission was expanding beyond the confines of Jerusalem “through the consolation of the Holy Spirit.”