Fr. Barry homily, 6th Sunday of Easter, 5/26/19
Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers, (wrongly, that) “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.” Because there arose no little dissension and debate by Paul and Barnabas with them,(because the Gentiles were converting in big numbers, but were not Jews, with no new for male circumcision identification) it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question. The apostles and elders, in agreement with the whole church, decided to choose representatives and to send them to Antioch (where Peter was with some other main apostles). So they choose to accompany Paul and Barnabas, with a leader called Judas, who was (also) called Barsabbas, (along with) Silas, (another leader) among the brothers…. (The final verdict of the apostles and leaders?) “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities…(with some observances on your part,) namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell.'” So the Church stayed as one, by finding agreement, as led by the Holy Spirit. (Jesus said that the Church could rely on the Spirit, and so they did. They remembered His words)…. (Acts 15)
Jesus said to his disciples: “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him….”I have told you this while I am with you. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you. (In Him you can find Peace.) Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” (John 14)
Happy Sunday in Eastertime again! What do we have in the Word today? I’ll preach mostly off the messages of Acts 14 and 15 about the early church.
The phrase “early church” frankly means the life of the very first Christians, in those first decades after Jesus’ Resurrection and the Descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost. Yet, in St. Mary’s County, I learned “the early church” meant Holy Angels parish, where we had the first Sunday Mass in the diocese at 6 a.m. each week. It was early church, alright. I opened the doors at 5 for the early arrivers–in an athletic jogging suit I’d throw on, before my first coffee really raised my eyelids, and sometimes it was still in the darkness that I was fishing for my keys. We also got that Mass done early, at 6:25 usually. The earliest Mass was also maybe the fastest Sunday Mass in the diocese—the earliest done!
The lead-off story in the Scriptures today is of the early church, and of when the apostles and leaders from the First Missionary tour to the Gentiles, in Asia Minor, come over the Antioch, the Middle East city, to see the Apostle Peter there. In Acts 15, they are reporting in, telling of their many endeavors and successes for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Then, they talk about a big potential problem issue of how different the Gentiles converts will be to the Jewish ones. Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Judas Barsabbas, and other “brethren” come in from the mission tour (in what was out in present day Turkey) to talk turkey with Peter and other apostles, of how they can maintain the unity within the Church, under Peter, with all the differences that Gentiles have with Jews, such as over dietary observances, marital situations, and the circumcision thing, that marks the chosen race under Jewish males. Paul and his delegation want not for the Gentiles to have to follow these strict Jewish-only things, because Christianity will be a new thing, even if a fulfilled or completed Judaism, but open to outsiders now. What happens in Acts 15’s account? The whole group of pope, apostles, leaders, and others—they join and pray for the help of the Holy Spirit, and they find the unity and a future course for the Church to remain united, though with some diversity of practice or observance in it.
Don’t you love it when differing people can somehow agree, and get on the same page? This is what the Holy Spirit wants to do for Christ’ Church, though it can be a challenge. We need to pray for the Spirit of unity to bond us in Jesus Christ, as many members, as in a body, united under the Head, or Lord, Jesus, the Son.
Peter and Paul and the groups others meet to discuss the Gentile/Jew differences, and what is the verdict they reach? We hear about it in Acts 15:19-20, as James the apostle says: “You have heard Simon Peter. It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you, (the Gentile missionaries and the people you serve) any burden beyond these necessities…” Do you hear that? They are working things out. No unnecessary burdens. The Gentiles don’t have to be Jews—just Christians. Hurrah! So, here is some respect asked for back, as James advices: Can we ask for “some observances on your part, (our way) namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell.'” So, they are talking and working it out. For centuries Jews and Gentiles had a huge divide, now in Christ they have a great bridging. The text continues, “So the Church stayed as one, by finding agreement, as led by the Holy Spirit.” Hence: The Holy Spirit guided the way, through the differences, and the compliant counsel of leaders led God lead them.
Why did they go to the Spirit for help? Today’s Gospel tells us of how Jesus had taught them of how they could rely ahead on the Spirit, as a new present Advocate to them, and so they did. They remembered Jesus’ words: In John 14, from our gospel in Mass today, it proclaims Jesus saying: “Whoever loves Me will keep my word, and my Father will love (them), and we will come to (them) and make our dwelling with them….”I have told you this while I am with you. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, Whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you… Peace I leave with you.”
So, they relied on the Spirit, and being united as in dwelling in the life of the “We”—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus said: We will love you and come to you and make our dwelling within you.” This is one of the times Jesus spoke of the whole work of the Trinity going on. As God is one, so should God’s people be one. That was the message there. God as We—the United Holy Trinity—wants to bring the loving union of the Divine down into us. That’s a Divine Promise, and the apostles believed it, and the First Church banked on it. Jesus had said: “My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” They definitely needed a peace, in this matter, to settle a disturbance that could have set the Church apart as Jewish and Gentile parts. But, that separation didn’t happen.
I’d like to remind you again of the message of unity in last Sunday’s Gospel, from John 13: Jesus said: “My children…I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Godly love does make for unity. There was this love going on in the early Church.
Today, we of the 2019 Third Millennium Christianity Church still need do that unity and love, founded in the indwelling life of the Holy Trinity among and in us. We need to participate in the life of God, by the exercise of faith and growth and understanding.
I really like the message that we are getting in the Acts of the Apostles in week after week in the Liturgy of the Word for Easter in the Church’s Sunday and daily Masses. It’s accounts of a Church growing, while still being able to keep together as one Church, and not settling for being a bunch of independent, separated churches. We are meant to be the same Church, wherever on the map, or whenever through time. It is a basic message and principle to who we are as the Catholic Church—as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. The four aspects or marks ought to be present, of the oneness, and having Jesus’ grace and holiness by Sacrament, and to be worldwide in history or “catholic,” and to be apostolic, following the bishops and priests and a pope in history—these are defining marks of the Church from her beginning, which we seek to keep living out. Last week I pointed attention on the Holy Orders in the early Church, with a snapshot verse for you to remember from last week in Acts 14; of the initial organizing of the Catholic Church, in which you recognize today. “They appointed presbyters for them in each church (of those missionary cities) and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith.”
As we come upon ordination time in the Church, as on June 15th we ordain ten new priests to the Archdiocese, I remind you that this process goes back to the early church of apostle-bishops, deacons, and priest/presbyters. Pope Francis just appointed us a new apostle for Washington in Archbishop Wilton Gregory, too. I went to his installation on Tuesday, and I met him anew with clergy on Friday.
He was asking the priests to stand up and identify ourselves with our parish names. As we did, he was looking on a map to see where the places were. It reminded me of the list of names of new places that St. Paul founded. We hear of places, as Acts talks of them, as of going to Lystra, Iconium, Perga, Derbe, Attalia, and Antioch in Pisidia, and starting communities and appointed presbyters and other leaders there.
The end of Acts 14 and into 15 has Paul reporting in back to the other Antioch, St. Peter’s home city. Peter hears what is happening in these cities of the first Gentile missions, in lower lands of Asia, inside the territories of Galatia and Pamphylia (near Turkey today). They are the places where Luke comments in Acts, that especially under the mission of the apostle Paul, God “opened up wide the door” to this whole new sector for Christianity.” Paul and Barnabas and Silas and others come to Peter to reports back to him, the head apostle, of all the breakthroughs. It is 48-49 a.d. when this happens.
I was thinking of St. Paul’s list in Acts 14 that we heard last Sunday, as new churches that Paul founded. I know that over the past decade and a half, Bishop Gregory was shepherd over the start of many new parishes in Atlanta, a fast growing diocese. Now he gets to know new parishes and new plans. He has presbyters like me to tell him what’s going on in our part of Montgomery County.
He, as our new bishop from elsewhere, will be learning how the Archdiocese of Washington was formed, as he goes pondering of what our first places were in this Montgomery County and its Catholic history. Just like those towns named in Acts 14 of Perga, Attalia, or Lystrya –which were the first in Asia Minor to be parishes under a bishop and presbyter (priest)—so we had our firsts, and I know our local history. Catholicism’s first official start ups in Montgomery county were in St. John’s Forest Glen Silver Spring in 1774, thanks to the Carroll family, then in 1812 officially up in the Clopper Road Gaithersburg area today off Rt. 270 and exit 10 there of today’s St. Rose of Lima parish, which was on the Seneca River plantation, or known as the Clopper’s Woodland Estate mansion. That’s where they have Masses up that way. Just a few years later from then, in 1817, Rockville’s St. Mary’s church opened (not in its present location, but near the Rockville mansion). Yet in 1988, when I was sent there, for a first assignment, it was better ensconced at the new location of the busy “mixing bowl” of Veirs Mill Road, and Rt. 355. They were the first ones in this area of Maryland, as God “opened the door” to our region for beginning parishes, under the apostle bishops of Baltimore. It led on to later parishes like our own getting on the parish map in 1981 on this east end of the county, or to Mother Seton parish in Germantown getting on to the county’s far northwest, or to Our Lady of the Presentation church in Poolesville in the west, or to St. Peters and St. Andrew Kim up north in Olney. They are dots on the map for Christ’ Church, much like Perga or Derbe or Lystra of old, as told in Acts.
Not many have heard of these Bible cities of Acts 14, but I know someone has in America, for there is one town in America called Attalia, in Walla Walla county, Washington, which they likely named after that bible church in Acts 14. As for Symrna, there’s a town in Georgia so named for that Asia Minor one of old. As for Antioch, there are three places in America that named themselves after that bible city, and presumably there were some Christian at their start, in Antioch of Ohio, Antioch of California, and Antioch of Tennessee.
Me, I like the name of Derbe, from Acts 14. St. Luke says in verse 21 that Derbe had a good first response to the gospel, and a church started there, describing how “they had proclaimed the good news to that city and made a considerable number of disciples.” (That’s the opening line of today’s epistle.) I have never been to any Derbe, anywhere, but it sounds like a horse racing town to me. Maybe it should be in Kentucky near Lexington somewhere, right? Or, like in around Baltimore, who just had a famous horse race, the Preakness Derby. Did you see the race on tv or internet or even in person last Saturday? It was an exhilarating race and a bit of a funny one. “War of Will” won it, riding the rails, like he did in the Kentucky Derby, but unlike that first Triple Crown race, no horse illegally veered into his way in Baltimore’s horse race, and War of Will passed inside quickly of Warrior’s Charge (my own private pick) in the home stretch to win it. The horses were running very fast for this race, even a jockey less horse who ditched his rider at the gate, and ran well to the finish line absent him. I wondered what happens when a rider-less horse comes in first? Or what if the jockey chasing after him beats all the horses? Who wins ,then? Well, War of Well crossed the finish line first.
Anyway, those places of Derbe and Perga and Lystra are dots on a map of early parishes in Christianity, much like we had some dots on the map in our Montgomery County Catholic communities, getting first established about 200 years ago or more, back when the fastest way for a priest to get to them was by horse, like when Bishop John Carroll had to get around to our county that way, or when Fr. (and later) Saint John Neumann rode around Maryland on a trusted horse, back when he was pastor in Elkridge or in Baltimore, or before that when on a horserider circuit in Md. Ohio and Pennsylvania as a Redemptorist missionary to a budding American church.
For fun, I did a google search in America for North American cities with the same name as a Biblical community or parish. The best local one, here in our county in Maryland, was Damascus, named after a persecuted church in the first decade of Christianity, but whom God protected before an enraged Saul of Tarsus got there, and converted him and healed him into Paul, to the Church’s side, in the Light. We have a St. Paul’s parish in our Damascus. Someone had a sense of humor and/or a Biblical sense in naming it. Over in Delaware, Bethany Beach conjures up connections to Mary and Martha and Lazarus home, probably being home to a post-Resurrection Mass. St. Ann’s parish is there at that Delaware beach town now. Up in Pennsylvania, they have two significant ones, a parish in Rome, PA named after the first underground church, of the catacombs, where Peter and Paul gave their lives in martyrdom. Another Pennsylvania city of many parishes in supposed brotherly love dared to call herself Philadelphia, mostly because William Penn knew his Bible, and that an early church pleasing to God in Asia Minor, begun by the apostle John, had
the name. The same John Neumann trailblazing here in Md. became the apostle to really get that Philly Pennsylvania city alive in the Catholic faith. Now it’s in Archbishop Chaput’s capable shepherding care.