Let’s imagine you are a good living Jew, living in the city of Antioch. As a Jew you would be an outsider in the city. Your only friends would be other Jews. Your faith told you to avoid, as much as possible, any contact or dealings with the Gentiles, neighbours who worshiped the gods of the Romans or Greeks.
As a Jew you believed in the ancient oath God made with you ancestor Abraham,” I will be your God and you will be my people.’ As a Jew every year you celebrated the high point of your religion, the Passover. At the Passover meal you heard again the story of your people’s deliverance from centuries of slavery and hard labor in Egypt. Led by the prophet Moses your ancestors wandered for 40 years in the desert until they came to the land promised to them by God – a land flowing with milk and honey. You knew from your holy books and from old stories the history of prophets and kings. If it were at all possible you made a trip back to your holy city, Jerusalem, the city of King David and you had the joy of celebrating your Passover meal with family and friends. You, like every other Jewish person, knew of a promised Messiah, a saviour who would restore the Jewish people to their past glories and free them from the foreign domination the Jewish people suffered under through the centuries. On the Sabbath you gathered with friends and neighbours to sing your ancient psalms and listen to the teachings of prophets long since dead. But you also looked forward to the coming of Messiah.
On this particular Sabbath two strangers join your congregation. One was called Paul, the other Barnabas. They told you about a man named Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee. He was a man who taught people that they were loved by God. This man healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, made cripples walk. He even raised the dead. But he was a man who got in trouble with the religious leaders because he broke the Sabbath by healing people on the Sabbath. He wasn’t too concerned about ritual cleansing, he befriended tax collectors and prostitutes and he really got into trouble when he drove the money changers and the merchants out of the temple grounds claiming that God’s house was a house of prayer not a market place.
The high priest had him arrested and charged with blasphemy. They brought him before Pilate, the Roman governor, and demanded his death. Pilate had him whipped but that didn’t satisfy the religious authorities, they wanted him gone so Pilate had Jesus crucified.
You listened to Paul tell all this and thought the Jesus must have been a disillusioned loser. Crucifixion was the most humiliating and cruellest deaths a person could die. How could the Messiah die such a death?
You can’t believe your ears when Paul goes on to say that Jesus story isn’t over. Paul claims that God raised Jesus from the dead and that Jesus showed himself to his immediate followers and even to Paul himself. You wonder if Paul is playing with a full deck but it gets even stranger. Paul claims that the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus changes everything for everybody. You can’t believe your ears when he tells the congregation that a person’s righteousness with God has nothing to do with circumcision or the Law or the rituals that are so important to you. This stranger claims that belief in Jesus as the Christ is what makes you acceptable to God. Jesus is the Messiah who sets people free not from political domination but free from the Law and rituals of the past. Paul makes the outlandish claim that before the world began God chose us in this Christ to be his adopted sons and daughters and that there is no salvation apart from Jesus.
You join in the protests and outrage of the people around you. This is madness. Who would want to listen to or follow a man who was publicly executed? Who would be foolish enough to listen to a man who dismissed centuries of faith and tradition which enriched the lives of so many people? In the next few days you join in the conversation of other members of the synagogue and your anger increases against these two strangers, Paul and Barnabas and you are happy to see them driven out of town. You settle down to the comfort of old and tested ways and life goes on.
Are you a bad person? Are you evil person because you wouldn’t listen to the words of Paul and Barnabas? I guess that would depend upon your motives. Our first reading tells us that the synagogue officials were motivated by jealousy but probably fear as well, fear of something new. Maybe you shared in that fear, fear of the new, fear of having to change the way you looked at your relationship with God. Maybe you are at peace with the way things are in your spiritual life, you were not looking for new ways of living your faith. So you didn’t get involved with the leaders of the synagogue’s opposition to Paul.
We know faith is a gift of God; it is not something can earn. Jesus told us no one comes to the Son unless the Father draws him. We were all blessed with this gift of faith when we were baptized. We know gifts are meant to be treasured and used. Suppose we are gifted with the ability to sing or write or we are good with things mechanical and we never made the effort to develop these gifts. We would never reach our potential. It is the same with faith. Jesus compared the life of God within us as a seed, a measure of yeast – things meant to grow and transform.
Paul would tell us we are meant to grow, to grow to full maturity in Christ, we are to ‘put on’ Christ. Just as Paul offered the people in the synagogue of Antioch a deeper meaning of their Jewish faith so too the Holy Spirit calls each of us to a deeper understanding of our relationship with Christ as the man who loved us even unto dying for us. The Holy Spirit calls us to a deeper understanding of the word of God we hear in Scripture, the Spirit calls us to a deep appreciation of the Mass we are celebrating and a deeper appreciation for the Bread of Life we receive at this Mass. Are we open to these invitations to growth or are we satisfied with stagnation? Maybe our daily prayer could be the prayer of the apostles when they said, Lord, increase our faith’, Lord help us grow in our relationship with you. Help us grow to full maturity in Christ.