These weeks between Easter and Pentecost are truly “Alleluia” time as we praise our God for Christ’s Resurrection and the gift of the new life of grace we all received in Baptism. The good news of Easter was so good that it had to be acclaimed for much more than one day. Fifty days, in fact, has been the tradition for the church. During this seven-week period the first reading at Mass is almost always taken from the Acts of the Apostles, the book in the New Testament found right after the four gospels. Some have described this work of St. Luke, the author of the third gospel, as the gospel of the Holy Spirit.
During these days we also prepare ourselves for the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday. The readings in the Acts of the Apostles are all about what happened in the early church after the Spirit came. We learn how the church began in Jerusalem with unity of heart and mind. Eventually we learn about some diversity in the church and its expansion into Judea and Samaria. Then we come to what should be of interest to us, the outreach to the Gentiles and the establishment of the Church of Antioch. Finally, we hear of the great Jerusalem Conference which led the church to send missionaries to the ends of the earth, as it was known in those days.
In the Book of Acts we also learn about the life of the church in Jerusalem up to the time of the stoning of St. Stephen, the proto-martyr. One of those present at Stephen’s stoning was St. Paul, who had been persecuting Christians. Paul eventually became the great apostle to the Gentiles, a reminder how, even in the worst of circumstances, God can bring forth some good. We learn about all the missionary travels of Paul as he sets out from Antioch until he returns to Jerusalem where he is arrested.
The painful story of the transition in the church from being a Jewish community to one that embraced people of all races and cultures is yet another reminder that change is never easy for us humans. Without the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the church would have self-destructed right at the beginning. What impresses us is the courage and forthright proclamation of the good news by St. Peter and the other apostles. The people were being told that “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Acts 2: 21) In preaching to his fellow Jews, St. Peter points out that what God had done in Jesus is consistent with what God had done for the Jews in leading them from slavery in Egypt to becoming the people of Israel.
The importance of Baptism for the forgiveness of sins is evident in the early chapters of the Book of Acts. St. Peter tells the people that their first reaction to the gift of redemption must be repentance. At the beginning of his own ministry Jesus told his listeners, “Repent and believe in the gospel.” Father Raymond Brown, the great Scripture scholar, reminds us that the call to repentance means that we must change our minds, our way of thinking, our outlook. Peter calls for a change of lifestyle, an invitation to move beyond a purely personal relationship with God to one that invites participation in the community of believers if one wishes to be saved.
Early Christian teaching was for the most part Jewish, based on the law of the Old Testament. The first Christian teachers applied the teachings of Jesus to situations that the Lord himself had not encountered. In all of this there is a certain continuity with Judaism, and some new distinctive features that separated Christians from their Jewish friends. It was St. Paul who challenged the early Christian community to think bigger and to move beyond the narrow confines of place in history. “Go and make disciples of all nations” was the parting message of the Lord, one that took the apostles a while to understand fully.
The second half of the Acts of the Apostles focuses on the mission to the Gentiles. St. Peter is led by the Holy Spirit to baptize Cornelius, a Gentile, in his household. The mission of St. Barnabas and St. Paul from Antioch is described for us. At the Jerusalem Conference a serious discussion results in the sending of missionaries all over the world of that day. Were their differences at the Conference? Definitely. Would the Gentiles have to live up to all the traditions of the Christian Jews? Peter and James thought they should but Paul and his allies felt differently. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it was decided that Gentiles could indeed enter the church without complying with all the requirements of the Law of Moses, particularly circumcision. The apostles left the Conference united, but this decision led to the reality that has been our experience for centuries, namely, Christianity is viewed more as a Gentile religion somewhat alien to Judaism, for which the Law would remain central.
The end of the Book of Acts tells about the missionary activities of St. Paul, his arrest in Jerusalem, his imprisonment and his time in Rome awaiting judgment and execution. We learn how Paul continued to teach in Rome, even though in prison, with some success. He has little success, however, with his Jewish confreres in Rome, and this, of course, must have been a great disappointment.
Yes, the beginnings of the church provide a fascinating story just as the events involving our Catholic family still do today. Pentecost will be celebrated on May 27 this year. The days between now and then would be well spent in a prayerful reading of the Acts of the Apostles. There we learn how the church begins. It is there that we learn how, without the Holy Spirit, the beginning would have quickly turned into an unhappy ending.