If we stand during the liturgical proclamation of the Gospel, we should also stand when any passage from the Acts of the Apostles is proclaimed. Luke believed the second part of his double volume work was just as much "Gospel" as the first. Only in the second century did people begin to think that Gospels should end with empty tomb and apparition narratives.<F255>

They separated Acts from Luke's Gospel, eventually inserting John's Gospel between the two sections, regarding it as a different kind of literature from the four works preceding it.

Just as the other three Gospel authors used the ministry of the "pre-risen" Jesus to demonstrate the implications of the risen Jesus living and working in their communities, so Luke demonstrates the same reality by going beyond Jesus' death, resurrection and ascension. He also focuses on the early Christian community's experience of imitating Jesus. Luke believes that whatever happened in the primitive Church parallels what's happening in his Church 50 years later.

That's why he emphasizes the community situation before and after Saul's conversion. Luke believes that Jesus, working through His Holy Spirit, always supplies each Church with everything it needs to faithfully follow Him even before it realizes what it needs.

Saul's "story"

Saul is the case in point. The person who later would become Christianity's great Apostle to the Gentiles begins his Christian career in an ambiguous way. Sunday's Acts passage shows that many of the disciples thought Saul made up his Damascus Road conversion story so he could be admitted into the Christian community, find out who else belonged to the group, then spring the trap and cart his "friends" away for trial as he had originally planned.

Even when Barnabas, a respected member of the community, takes Paul under his wing and vouches for his sincerity, Saul insists on stirring up a conflict with his fellow Hellenist (Greek-speaking Jews), and the community gives him a one way ticket back to Tarsus.

Saul's more of an embarrassment than a help. What's the value of a Greek-speaking persecutor's conversion to the faith? Only later when Greek-speaking Gentiles start to convert does Saul's conversion begin to make sense. Jewish Christians in Antioch don't know how to deal with these people who speak a strange language and share a different culture. Then someone remembers Saul, the Hellenist, sends to Tarsus and asks for his help. The rest is salvation history.

One step ahead

All early Christian authors are convinced that Jesus continually guides His Church. But they're also certain that the way He guides it doesn't fit into our patterns of logic. Jesus usually gives us the solution before we know we have the problem. That's why the author of I John reminds his community, "God is greater than our hearts and knows everything." God is always one step ahead of those who follow God.

Yet, just as Luke's ideal Christian community in Acts only discovers the reason for Saul's conversion when they reach out to people whom their traditions forbade them to contact, so we best discern Jesus' helping presence when we go beyond the security of loving just "in word and speech," and begin to love also "in deed and truth."

John tells us that our faith is always being "pruned." It's the only way to bear the fruit Jesus expects. If our generous love of others is the universal sign that we're one with Jesus, then people who refuse to be pruned by reaching out to touch those "outside" rarely notice the guidance Jesus offers His followers.

Of course, such secure, low-risk Christians are usually the same people who think the Acts of the Apostles is a record of someone else's history instead of a reflection on their own.

(05-18-00)