May 09, 2019
In the missionary enterprise of Paul and his companions we see the ministry of Jesus continuing in places far from Galilee and Judea. There are the same elements of challenge, then the reaction of the hearers accepting or rejecting the message. Luke places great emphasis on the driving force of this outreach being the Holy Spirit. The purpose of the Church today is to present to the people of our time the person of Jesus and the message of his Gospel: we are to continue the mission of Paul in our own time and place. It is easy to think of missionaries as people who go to far-off lands, but by Baptism we are all called to be missionary disciples of Jesus. There is still a hunger in people for a deeper meaning to their existence than material success and prosperity can provide.
The Church as a whole may be suffering from a lack of confidence and credibility because of all the problems besetting it at the moment, but after a period of painful purification, we can hope that the message of the Gospel will be found first of all at the heart of our leaders and of all the members so that the Church may be, as Paul says in our reading, ‘a light for the nations, so that [God’s] salvation may reach the ends of the earth’. For Luke, the characteristics of those who have accepted the message are ‘joy, thanksgiving and being filled with the Holy Spirit’. Perhaps if we regarded the Church less as a human institution with all its attendant problems and dangers and more as the sacrament of Christ’s presence in the world, we might have a more positive outlook on our role as disciples of Jesus today.
In a way, the reading from the Apocalypse might help us to think about our standing as disciples of Jesus. John, the visionary of the book, presents us with an image of the saints in glory. In the early days of the Church, the heroes, we might say the super-Christians, were the ones who had suffered martyrdom for the faith during persecution in the Roman empire. When the hostility towards Christians ceased, the super-disciples became, in the eyes of many, those individuals who left the cities to live an ascetic life in the desert as monks and nuns. As the monastic and religious life developed, there were even degrees of apparent excellence among the religious orders according to the strictness of the rule of life. This meant that layfolk were left at the bottom of the holiness ladder. In recent years, we have recovered the sense of all having a common vocation as disciples of Jesus which is expressed in our Baptism. How we live out our baptismal calling is particular to each one, but none is essentially superior to another. This development in appreciating the positive vocation of the lay person may well be one of the factors in the decline of the number of people entering religious life in recent times.
There are places in the world where the message of the Apocalypse will still be relevant, where Christians, and others, are being persecuted for their beliefs. This type of writing is realistic: it accepts that the situation will, in all probability, get worse before it improves. It encourages those affected to remain firm, that in the end, God will intervene and they will be vindicated. We who are not similarly challenged might remember before God our suffering sisters and brothers: we might also reflect on the petition in the Our Father ‘lead us not into temptation’ which really means ‘Do not put us to the test’: the final test for Jesus was his Passion, and he told his sleepy disciples in Gethsemane to pray that they should not find themselves in that position. Suffering for bearing witness is the ultimate test: we might pray for those who are undergoing it and that we might not be subjected to a similar ordeal, which we might not pass.
In the light of the Gospel passage, we might reflect on our personal relationship with Jesus. To be a true disciple, is not a matter of being an anonymous member of the crowd. Eternal life does not come as a result of osmosis, of somehow absorbing it from the surrounding atmosphere of the church community or practice: it is the gift of Jesus to those who have committed themselves personally to him.
Author: Anthony Cassidy
See also Richard Clarke, Shouldering the Lamb
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