After the great messages of the passion and resurrection of recent weeks, this Sunday's readings take us into the centre of the complex reality of evangelization.
We see Paul and Barnabas travel to Antioch in Pisidia, a pagan city in Asia Minor. They come to the synagogue first, as they know they should. Their message is rejected by the leaders of the Jewish community who feel that they are the only ones who specialize in truth. Much more open are the Gentiles, friends of the Jewish community, who seek God in any way they can.
In those times, a large number of inhabitants of the vast Roman Empire leaned towards religious philosophies which suggested the existence of one, as opposed to many, gods. The Jewish God, perfect, loving yet transcendent, had many followers among the pagans, especially among upper classes.
Judaism would have probably grown in numbers at that time, if not for its many laws which had to be followed daily and which regulated life in every aspect. Circumcision especially, considered an entry requirement, kept these sympathizers of Judaism at a respectful distance.
Gentiles aside, what we witness is an ancient form of confrontation between "the professionals of God" and the "non-professionals," the latter being Barnabas and Paul.
I am reminded of my own doubts as to how "professional" or rather "exclusive" we should be in matters of faith whenever I walk by a huge advertisement next to an evangelical church in Millwoods. It says: "Sunday Service 11 a.m. Everybody welcome."
I would like to see the sign "Everybody Welcome" on every Catholic church. We say we are welcoming, but we do not show it much.
I would not have admitted this desire to open the door of every church and cry out, "Come all, there is life here! Life and love!" if not for Pope Francis who washed the feet of juvenile convicts without first checking their baptismal certificates. Such is the power of example coming from bishops, the supreme shepherds of the Church.
'My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.'
Going back to the reading: What mistake did the leaders of the synagogue make at that fateful meeting with Paul and Barnabas? The synagogue leaders "were filled with jealousy."
This short statement says a lot. The leaders were no longer concerned with the truth of God, with service to God, with spreading the faith. Their concern was with themselves, their own careers, petty desires and ambitions.
They no longer looked beyond the horizon of life, as they once may have, when they were younger and still in love with God. Entangled, day by day, in administrative duties, collections, maintaining profitable alliances, building political ties, they gradually forgot Who it was they were to serve.
They may not even have noticed their own degradation of spirit. They may have been quite certain the campaign of hatred and rejection they were beginning, was all for "the greater good of the community." Had they listened to Paul and Barnabas? They heard, but did not listen.
So, they "stirred up a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their territory."
I doubt if Paul and Barnabas could have launched any appeal. In the synagogue, judging by the treatment of Jesus, fair judgment was not at that time possible.
At this point the disciples could do only one thing. "They shook the dust from their feet in protest against them, and went to Iconium."
That would have been the end of the story if not for the last sentence in the reading. Walking along the dusty road to Iconium, "the disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit."
One might wonder – here are two men, humiliated publicly by the religious congregation they belong to, and abroad, too. Even the pagans embraced a principle of hospitality and solidarity when meeting compatriots away from their homeland.
Thus Paul and Barnabas were treated worse than if they had been pagans. They experienced total rejection from their own people and were cast out of the city. On top of that, they could be sure that secret letters were sent worldwide to leaders of other Jewish communities to warn them of "the disease" spread by those two.
Why on earth, then, do we find them "filled with joy and the Holy Spirit?"
The answer comes earlier in the text. After they spoke to the God-hungry Gentiles "The Gentiles were delighted when they heard this and glorified the word of the Lord . . . and the word of the Lord continued to spread through the whole region."
Paul and Barnabas had every reason to be happy – their work for God was fruitful and evangelization was taking root. Why? For them, unlike for so many others, including myself, evangelization was life.
They lived it. They had no secret agendas, no political or economic plans involved with it, created no committees to spread the Word of God, and had no long and short-term plans drafted.
Nor did they use computer programs to quantify or qualify the process of evangelization. They had the Holy Spirit and that was sufficient.