Acts of the Apostles: The universal mission of the Church

Following the martyrdom of Stephen a severe persecution of the Church broke out in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1). Far from slowing down the growth of the Church, this persecution sends Philip and others to preach in the outer regions of Judea and even Samaria. As Tertullian famously wrote, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” (Apologeticus, 50). We see in these events the fulfillment of the outline suggested by Acts 1:8, “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” A special work of the Spirit is needed to convince the Apostles Peter and John that the Holy Spirit had been received by the Samaritans as well (Acts 8:17). After this an angel prompts Philip to preach to an Ethiopian court official who joyfully receives the proclamation about Jesus and is immediately baptized by Philip (8:39). Philip continues preaching until he reaches Caesarea. The mission of taking the Gospel to the “ends of the earth” is fulfilled by the conversion of Saul which occurs next in the narrative. The Jewish Rabbi Saul becomes Paul an apostle to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:7-8).

Paul’s journey begins on the road to Damascus which Luke narrates in Acts 9. Prior to his conversion, Saul is a pious Pharisee. He was probably from the School of Shammai which believed that Israel must be free of the Gentile yoke. Later in Acts Paul recounts; “I am a Jew, born at Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as you all are this day” (Acts 22:3). As a zealous Pharisee, he had gone “to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1-2).

The Rabbi Saul most likely felt very righteous as he traveled to Damascus, so when he experienced “a light from heaven [that] flashed about him” (Acts 9:3) he probably expected to hear a heavenly cheer. He expected to hear something like, “well done my good and faithful servant.” Saul may have been thinking of the stories from other rabbinic mystics who had experienced visions of the Merkabah or throne of God descending from heaven just as the prophet Ezekiel had seen in the Old Testament. Instead what he heard shocked him. He fell to the ground and began to dialogue with a heavenly voice. The voice cried out, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul replied with some confusion, “Who are you, Lord?” The heavenly voice replied, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do” (Acts 9:5-6).

We need to think about this, the heavenly voice said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting…” We need to ask, did the Rabbi Saul ever literally persecute Jesus? Had he even met Jesus? As far as we can tell the answer is “No.” He had persecuted Christians or the followers of the Way as they are called in this passage. Here for the first time he learns the central truth about communion in Christ. To persecute the Church is to persecute Jesus. Jesus and the Church are one. After this life changing encounter, Saul the Rabbi becomes Paul the Apostle of Christ Jesus, by the will of God (1 Corinthians 1:1).

From this experience the Apostle Paul gains one of his most characteristic ways of describing all of the faithful as “in Christ Jesus.” The expression “in Christ” or “in Christ Jesus” occurs 164 times in Paul’s writings. Furthermore, if you investigate this theme, to be “in Christ” is to be “in the Spirit” and this is frequently connected to baptism. For example in Galatians Paul, notes,

“But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:26-27).

There is a parallelism between verse 26 “you are all sons of God” and verse 27 “as many of you as were baptized.” It is through baptism that we are brought into communion with Christ. The Greek word translated “put on” can also mean “clothe.” Richard Longnecker notes that when used figuratively this term means “to take on the characteristics, virtues and/or intensions of the one referred to, and so to become like that person.” The communion or oneness pictured here involves becoming like Christ and perhaps in a deeper sense to actually become Christ. At a basic level this clearly implies being a disciple of Jesus, trying to faithfully imitate his teachings and way of life.

St. Augustine comments on the deeper significance of our oneness or communion with Christ in his commentary on Psalm 26. He notes that the practice of anointing in the Old Testament was normally reserved for either the king or the priest. But Christ now holds both offices as both Priest and King in virtue of his anointing or literally being the Messiah or Anointed one. Speaking of Christ, St. Augustine observes, “But not only was our Head anointed; but his body was too, we ourselves. . . . From this it is obvious that we are the body of Christ, being all anointed. In him all of us belong to Christ, but we are Christ too, because in some sense the whole Christ is Head and body” (Exposition 2 of Psalm 26). St. Augustine has perfectly captured the emphasis St. Paul is leading us to. We not only become like Christ in Baptism but we actually become a New Creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) which is joined to the New Adam—Christ Jesus (Romans 5:14).

The fathers of Second Vatican Council highlight the central feature of our common baptismal vocation in the chapter on the universal call to holiness (LG 39-42). Each and every Christian by virtue of their baptism is called to be Christ and so to be a saint.

Scott McKellar is Director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.

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Monday
August 21, 2017
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph