Sunday’s first reading is more than a biblical travelogue (Acts 14: 21-27). Luke composed this itinerary narrative for a community that recently had swerved from the path of evangelizing just Jews and started down the road of preaching the good news to Gentiles.

The Acts of the Apostles chronicles this fundamental change in direction, assuring his readers that the shift was instigated and supported by both the risen Jesus and His Holy Spirit.

For our purposes, the most important lines are at the end of the reading: "They [Paul and Barnabas] sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work they had now accomplished. When they arrived, they called the church together and reported what God had done with them, and how He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles."

Growing faith

The community in Antioch plays a key role when Luke explains the shift from a Jewish to a Gentile church. Back in chapter 11, he tells us that some Cypriot and Cyrenian members of that community went against early Christian tradition and began "to speak to the Greeks,...proclaiming the Lord Jesus."

The older, more prestigious Jerusalem church immediately sent Barnabas to Antioch to investigate. But because "he was a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and faith," Barnabas not only approves of their behavior, but also travels to Tarsus and brings the recently converted Saul to assist this new project. Paul was a "Hellenist" Jew: an Israelite who lived his faith against the background of Gentile culture. He spoke Greek and was comfortable relating to non-Jews.

Historians often reflect on the Antioch community. It possessed a dynamism that strengthened and supported its members in taking this radical step into the unknown. No one could predict what would happen when Christians were no longer bound by the 613 laws of Moses. Today, we realize that Christianity would never be the same. The actions of the relatively small church of Antioch opened the entire world to Jesus’ message. No longer would Christianity be destined to be just a small sect within Judaism.

All of us can identify with the author of Revelation (21: 1-5). We also look for the day when we’ll see "a new heaven and a new earth," a day on which "God’s dwelling" truly will be "with the human race....He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away." We long to experience the fulfillment of God’s promise: "Behold, I make all things new."

Community

Perhaps one of the reasons we’ve yet to experience this newness can be traced back to the situation in first-century Antioch. The new path Paul and Barnabas traveled was supported by their Christian community. Without its encouragement, Barnabas likely would have returned to Jerusalem and filed a report on a dissident church, and Paul would have been known only by the small clientele in Tarsus who purchased his tents. With their community’s support, they took steps which forever changed the face and heart of Christianity.

The Antiochene church must have resonated with Jesus’ Last Supper command, "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" (John 13: 31-35).

Especially on Mother’s Day, it’s good to recall that love is the most supportive element in our lives and to reflect on what we can accomplish when it’s present and what we fail to achieve when it’s absent.

If our local churches become true communities of love, there’s no limit to what we can accomplish. As in Antioch, love is the only security we require to travel down those unexplored roads which the risen Jesus expects us to travel.

(5/6/04)