Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 2, 2004
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
(Based on Acts 13:13-14-, 43-52; Psalm 100:1-5; Revelation 7:9, 14-17; John 10:27-30)
"So they shook the dust from their feet."
I want to take you back again into the story of the early followers of Jesus in Acts, into our story.
Last week we saw Peter and John, leaders in that young body of believers, and how they confronted the religious leaders. How they refused to obey them because they were called to proclaim the name and power of the risen Lord.
The story continues, only now it is much later. Paul has gone through his conversion and he and Barnabas are now on his first missionary journey. They are no longer in the large Jewish center at Jerusalem but out visiting the Jewish settlements in the diaspora: the Jews scattered in small settlements up in what is today Turkey.
It was the custom of the synagogue that when visitors came from other Jewish communities they would be invited to speak a word of encouragement, and that is what happened here. Paul and Barnabas are well received. So much so that the following Sabbath "the whole town" came out to hear these itinerant preachers.
And we experience the first signs of tension and troubles that will grow over time. The young church is still puzzling out the full meaning of the resurrection and when Paul declares that through the power of the risen Jesus God's favor is being extended beyond the Jewish people to the Gentiles the leader are furious. These people are outsiders! And they are receiving the word of liberation and salvation. That challenges these keepers of the Law, so they mount a campaign of slander and violence to drive the apostles away. So Paul and Barnabas shook the dust of that place from their feet.
What's happening is that this Jesus movement -- still within Judaism -- is finding its way and uncovering new implications in the good news. It is reflecting over the meaning of Jesus' new life and that is changing its self-understanding. The old boundary between Jew and Gentile is shifting -- and that is disturbing their relation to their people.
Later on it will become a full-blown, out-and-out conflict between the party of the circumcision and the apostles. The emergence of these new converts raises new questions: What does it mean to be joined to Jesus (remember, they aren't yet called Christians)? How does that relate to the Law, the Torah? What norms will these new followers be held to? What's central once they realize that God's favor is available to all?
Why should we concern ourselves with this old business? What does it have to do with us?
Well, we need to understand it because it has continued down through the story of the church and continues to this day. And because this story of the church's dealing with shifting boundaries is a model for what goes in our own personal spiritual journeys.
What do we -- you and I -- do when new circumstances challenge our accepted understanding of God and of Jesus and what God's kingdom might be about?
We need to imagine how these events must have been acted out in the families of these early believers. How a son or daughter, or a father or mother, might say "I believe in these new ways" -- and how they might be treated as infidels or heretics , apostates falling away from the long established tradition and ways of their ancestors. How painful it must have been! It is not easy to shake the dust from your feet when it's a matter of relationships with people you love.
We sometimes forget that the same Jesus who is the Prince of Peace also said, "I have not come to bring peace but the sword." It's one of his sayings we'd rather not hear. He's not advocating real war, of course, but he is drawing lines. He says, "Because of me a son will be divided against his father, a daughter against her mother."
Just think of how painful the whole changes called for by Vatican II have been for many people. It upset too much of their spiritual worlds. The priest should be facing God, not the people; the Mass should be in Latin. And we should not be moving into dialogue with Protestants; they're going to hell!
When old boundaries move it can be very disturbing.
I was with a group of priests recently projecting what kind of a world they will have to be ministering in not too many years from now. And the major thing they all saw coming is the need to deal with Islam. Can God be at work in such a movement?
The children in our midst here today will have to face a much more complex world than we face today. The old boxes and boundaries will dissolve and they will be in a world of direct contact with Buddhists and Hindus.
How do you respond when your children begin to paint outside the old lines, when they begin to travel in circles with other kids you don't understand?
I read an article last week in which a woman captured the experience in a great image. You know, when kids are little they are always calling you to come and see what they have created. "Dad, come and see the airplane I put together; Mom, look at our tent; watch me dive off the board." But then comes that difficult day when Mom passes her daughter's room and there is a sign on the door: Private! Parents not allowed! And the parent has to recognize that my child has become an independent person, she's in a world that I can't just enter the way I used to. And the parents have to figure out who they are.
The church had to grow gradually in understanding itself, as each new circumstance confronted it with new questions.
In our own day the church is trying to figure out how we are called to relate to gays and lesbians. A young black boy sees his parents in St. Agnes relating to white folk when other kids are in a single-color world; the same for a young white child observing his parents relating to black people. What's that all about? Who are we? Who am I? Today some life-long Republicans wonder where they stand when they believe their president has misled them and led us into a disastrous war -- and some life-long Democrats don't know how to handle the fact that they feel compelled to support a Republican president because we're at war.
How do we deal with difference that disturbs the neat boxes we put even our God and faith-life in?
The leaders of the synagogue in Antioch show us one way. They can't deal with this challenge so they become violent and vicious.
The Acts show us another way. It is in an earlier event when the Sanhedrin is trying to figure out how to deal with these people disturbing their way of life. A man named Gamaliel is no small fry; he is one of those in this important religious body. He tells them to take the apostles out of the chamber so he can address the members in executive session. He says, "Fellow Israelites, be careful what you are about to do to these men. I tell you, have nothing to do with these men, and let them go. For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God."
Remember, Jesus himself told the parable of the farmer who sowed good seed but when the reapers went out to reap the harvest they found weeds mixed in among the wheat. They wanted to pull out all the weeds so they wouldn't choke the good growth. But the farmer (who is God) tells them, no, if you do that you may destroy the good wheat along with the weeds. Just let them grow alongside one another; later on they can reap both and then sort out the wheat from the weeds.
The very reality of the drive within creation will compel each generation of the church to confront new complexity. Old boundaries will be continually challenged as new questions have to be faced. In the reading from Revelation today John tells us how wide God's plan will eventually callus to grow: to embrace people from every nation, race, people, and tongue. We call the church "Catholic" and that means 'universal' but that is with us now only as an ideal we are called to grow into.
It will take place ultimately in the small steps we take to respect even the closed door we meet as our children aks us to stay out and respect the new choices they have to make on their way to full maturity.
By the way, at the end of the article I told you about, the woman going through the pain of not knowing comes to an important insight. She's been asking herself what her daughter is doing in that room, and she ends by saying, "Maybe she could be in there praying. . . ."