In Sunday's first reading, Luke reflects on one of first-century Christianity's three basic changes: the switch from a Jewish to a Gentile Church (Acts 13: 14, 43-52). By the time Luke writes his Gospel and Acts in the mid-80s, a movement which had started out almost 100 percent Jewish was now almost 100 percent Gentile. How (and why) had such a turnabout happened?

Experts in the Christian Scriptures constantly remind us that the historical Jesus saw Himself as a reformer of Judaism, not as a founder of a new religion. Jesus simply tried to lead His followers back to the original charism of Jewish faith, to that primary relationship with Yahweh through which Abraham, the founder of Judaism, had become "justified."

But Abraham's descendants didn't exactly beat down the door to join the movement. Eventually, it became clear both to Jesus and His early disciples that the vast majority of their fellow Jews would reject their attempts at reform. Yet, the rejection didn't consign Christianity to the fringes of Judaism; it just opened up a new, unexpected door.


Summarizing a thousand such rejections and responses, Luke constructs the Acts reading with unforgettable images and words. "When the Jews saw the crowds (in the Antioch synagogue)," he writes, "they became very jealous and countered with violent abuse whatever Paul said. Paul and Barnabas spoke out fearlessly nonetheless: `The word of God has to be declared to you first of all; but since you reject it and thus convict yourselves as unworthy of everlasting life, we now turn to the Gentiles.' The Gentiles were delighted when they heard this and responded to the word of the Lord with praise."

Meanwhile, Paul and Barnabas, forced out of the "territory of the Jews," turn toward the Gentile city of Iconium, shaking "the dust from their shoes in protest" as they go.

Responding to those who claimed that Jesus, from the beginning, had planned to bolt Judaism and start a Gentile religion, Luke teaches that the non-Christian Jews of his day have no one to blame but themselves. Jesus' efforts at reform were directed to and revolved around them. If Gentiles were now carrying on Jesus' teaching and ministry, it was because these outsiders had willingly picked up a torch which insiders had flung away.

We must listen to the second (Rev. 7:9, 14-17) and third readings (Jn 10:27-30) against the background of this Jewish/Gentile switch. For instance, we can be fairly certain that when the author of Revelation describes a "huge crowd which no one could count from every nation and race, people and tongue," he has a Gentile crowd in mind.

New followersBY the time of the writing of Revelation, few Jews were converting to Christianity. What once had been just a small sect in a small religion, was rapidly developing into a full-blown universal faith.

That why the author mentions nothing about the crowd's relationship to Abraham or Moses. The faithful simply are "the ones who have survived the great period of trial; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." In other words, they've gone through a persecution as Jesus would have gone through a persecution. They're saved because Jesus saves them.

No longer does the Sacred Author worry about how the Jewish law relates to faith (as Paul had worried years before). Only faith in Jesus matters, a faith which applies equally to everyone.

Writing in the middle 90s, John likewise presumes Christianity is a Gentile religion. He completely separates Jesus from a people and a faith to which He historically was tied. Notice how frequently (and how impossibly) Jesus of the fourth Gospel addresses His audience as "you Jews!" With no reference to Judaism or Jewish belief, John's Jesus can proclaim, "My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me, I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish." Anyone willing to hear His voice -- no matter their former religious affiliation -- can be saved.