Acts 11:21b-26; 13:1-3 / Psalm 98 / Matthew 5:20-26
Stories spread quickly about the resurrected Jesus. Initially focused upon Jews, the power of the Good News could not be contained. Reaching the ears of the Gentiles, the Gospel quickly penetrated their hearts and minds. Ironically, it was the stoning of Stephen (for which Saul of Tarsus shared culpability) that drove many Jewish believers into the more distant Gentile territories. Many encountered by these witnesses were moved by their testimony and wanted to be part of the Christian community. Jewish converts, themselves, were not sure what to make of this surprising turn of events. Barnabas was sent to Antioch for an appraisal of the situation and to give needed guidance. He confirmed their faith and rejoiced that divine grace could so transform and give hope to Jew and Gentile alike. A good man, he saw in them the same Spirit of God which filled him. Not bigoted against the extension of Christ’s dispensation to an alien people, Barnabas wanted both to take advantage of this fertile field and to be edified by their faith. Truly as our Psalm celebrates, “All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.”
He sought out Paul (Saul of Tarsus), bringing him to Antioch. They spent a year teaching and praying with the infant church there. Given Paul’s conversion, it was no doubt also a time for him to grow in the faith, although he was a learned Jew and Pharisee. I suspect many Jews in Jerusalem were also somewhat relieved to see him go, given his past history as one who persecuted them. Antioch provided a fresh environment. Growing at a surprising rate, believers were first called CHRISTIANS in Antioch. Acknowledging Jewish roots, the new term signified something radical; Christianity was no deviant sect of Judaism. It was something significant and unique to itself.
A list of names of the prophets and teachers are given, not unlike the naming of the apostles by Jesus. The Church would take great store in such lists of names. Indeed, what we see here would be a nucleus for what we call APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION. Men were called to ministry and they in turn ordained others. A pattern “similar” to ordination is in this text: “While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then, completing their fasting and prayer, they laid hands on them and sent them off.” They are sent to continue their missionary work.
Jesus speaks in the Gospel about the importance of forgiveness and mercy. If we forgive as Christ forgives, then the Father will see something of his Son in us and give us a share in his Son’s reward. Our Lord tells his disciples that their righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and the Pharisees if they want a share of his kingdom. We see where this is leading in the first reading where Saul of Tarsus, a privileged and learned Pharisee, must set aside his strict customs and pride, to associate with a people he once regarded as dogs and blasphemers. Christians have forgiven him; now he must become a minister of reconciliation, too. It may be that Jesus hoped many of his number would follow suit.