The dramatic spreading of the Church

Christianity, from being a tiny movement of a small number of Jews, is now a worldwide phenomenon. From now on, its mission is to make God's Kingdom a reality in every corner of our planet. There are many more triumphs and tragedies to come. But to have reached Rome in such a short time was little short of miraculous.

Italy map

The dramatic spreading of the Church

By Tim Trainor

Saturday of the Seventh Week of Easter
Acts 28:16-20, 30-31
John 21:20-25

Today, we completed the readings for the Easter season. During these last seven weeks, we have been going through all of the Acts of the Apostles, and today, we finished it and the Gospel of John. From our Easter liturgical readings, we get a general picture of the extraordinary developments of the Church from a small group of uneducated fishermen to a chain of communities which, today, we read, has reached the very center of their known world — the empire’s seat of government in Rome! This would be the new center from which the Church will expand over the coming centuries to every corner of the world!

In Friday's Mass Reading, Paul is in the presence of King Agrippa and Bernice in Caesarea, while Festus explains the reason for Paul’s arrest to them. The following day, Paul was again brought before the king and, for the third time in Acts, he gives an account of how he had tried to destroy the followers of Christ - only to experience his conversion on the way to Damascus. At the end of his speech, Festus said he thought it was all crazy nonsense, but he and the king agreed that Paul had done nothing to warrant punishment. They all agreed that he could have been released right then if he had not appealed to the emperor.

In the following two chapters of Acts, we follow Paul on his long and eventful sea journey to Rome, including a storm and shipwreck on Malta. When Paul eventually arrived in Rome, new and growing Christian community members welcomed him to the city.

It is at this point that today’s Reading in Acts begins. We are told that when Paul entered Rome, he was allowed to live with a soldier guarding him. It was clearly a very benign form of house arrest, as Paul was not regarded as dangerous.

As he did so often, Paul made contact with the local Jews. The decree of the emperor Claudius, which, we remember, had caused Apollos and Priscilla to leave Rome, had been allowed to lapse, and Jews now had returned to Rome with their leaders. Paul wanted to establish good relations with the Jews of Rome as soon as possible. He insists that he has nothing against his people, although there were certain Jews back in Jerusalem who did cause him a great deal of trouble and who was ultimately responsible for his having to appeal to Caesar. Ironically, as we saw, Governor Festus and King Agrippa had agreed that Paul had done no wrong and could have been released if he had not made his appeal to Caesar. There was method in Paul's decision, as he had emphasized all along:

“ …it is for the sake of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.”

In the final sentences of the Acts, we are told that Paul spent two years in his place of arrest:

“…proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.”

He was able to receive all who came looking for him and was able to preach without hindrance. The two years represent the legal period he could be kept in custody. Within that period, his case would have to be tried, so he was likely released at the end of the period. At the end of his short letter to Philemon, he seems to be looking forward to his release and asks for a room to be made ready for him in Philemon’s house. During this time also, he would have written his letter to the Christians at Colosse and the letter to the Ephesians, plus, as mentioned, his note to Philemon.

As the NIV Bible points out, there are several indications that Paul was released from his imprisonment at the end of two years: Acts stops abruptly at this time; Paul wrote to churches expecting to visit them soon, so he must have anticipated a release (see Phil 2:24; Philem 22). So, following the close of Acts, Paul returned to Asia Minor, Crete, and Greece; tradition indicates that Paul also went to Spain.

The sudden ending of Acts indicates that it is not an ending but a beginning — the dramatic spreading of the Church in the known World!

As you recall, Luke’s two-part story to us was begun in his Gospel with Jesus’ “mission statement” made in the synagogue at Nazareth. From there, He progresses steadily south to Jerusalem, the climax of His life and work — through His passion, death, and resurrection. The story is then taken up, again by Luke with the Book of Acts, which begins with the Pentecost experience (which, by the way, the Church celebrates next Sunday) when the baton of Jesus’ mission, along with the Power of the Holy Spirit, is passed to His disciples. Their mission or journey begins where Jesus left off, in Jerusalem, and spreads progressively to the surrounding territories. Then, it is preached to Macedonia and Greece, and ultimately, it is preached within the heart of the empire and the center of their world — Rome.

Thus, Jesus' Gospel can ultimately reach the worldwide Roman Empire!

Christianity, from being a tiny movement of a small number of Jews, is now a worldwide phenomenon. From now on, its mission is to make God's Kingdom a reality in every corner of our planet. There are many more triumphs and tragedies to come. But to have reached Rome in such a short time was little short of miraculous. So, these final sentences of Acts sound like an understandable note of triumph for the fledgling Church.

In our Gospel Reading from the last Chapter of John, Peter was mandated to shepherd the Lord’s flock and fully rehabilitated after his sad betrayal earlier on. But he is still the same old, impetuous Peter. Having heard about his future, he now wants to know that of the “beloved disciple”.

He is told to mind his own business; it is no concern of his. Jesus then said enigmatically:

“Suppose I want him to stay until I come, how does that concern you? Your business is to follow me.”

As a result, Jesus' words became distorted, and some understood that the “beloved disciple” (John) was not going to die but would stay alive until the Lord came again. But the author of this chapter of John's Gospel strongly denies this.

The New American Bible comments: “This whole scene takes on more significance if the disciple is already dead at its writing. The death of the apostolic generation caused problems in the church because of a belief that some had that Jesus was to have returned before all the Apostles had died! I believe that Peter directly addressed this concern when he wrote in 2 Peter 3: Know this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying: 'Where is the promise of his coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue [just]as they were from the beginning of the creation.’”

In light of this passage, we can ask ourselves what we see as Jesus' mission for us (like He had for Peter). Secondly, while we do, of course, need to be responsible for the well-being of our brothers and sisters, our main concern, I believe, is to focus on what God is calling each of us to do and not be too worried about what He expects from the others around us—like Peter was of John!

Therefore, here, Jesus is, so to speak, telling Peter to mind his journey. This is also good advice for all of us! Too often, we base our own sense of self-worth and spirituality on comparing ourselves to others and their journeys.

On a final note, the author claims to have witnessed everything written, but it still is only a fraction of all the things that Jesus said and did. We would love to know what some of those unreported words and actions were, but we have more than enough with the existing texts to challenge us for the rest of our lives! And, with the imminent approach of Pentecost, we remember that the Spirit is there to continue teaching and guiding us and leading us ever deeper into the meanings of God’s existing Word – just like He did to these early Disciples!

Thus, John could say that our Easter Gospel is finished but incomplete!

We should be open to his and other authors' Gospel stories that dovetail with events in our own lives and paint a clearer picture of just who Jesus is and His love for us, just as He may well have done in unrecorded teaching sessions for His Disciples back in the day.

Another view, one that I like and will now close with, is that Jesus’ work is also continuing to be done today in this present age, both in heaven and on earth through His people and His love. So, in a sense, I believe it to be a true statement also in that manner—it's still ongoing!

How could a finite world hold or record all that could be told about Jesus and His love, which are both infinite? Poets and hymn writers like Frederick Lehman come close to capturing it. Consider the third stanza of his work, entitled:                   

                                                “The Love of God”

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.
O love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure as
The saint's and angel's song.

That's what I think John had in mind when he wrote the last lines of his Gospel!

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