In these Sundays of the Easter season, we hear from the Acts of the Apostles how the apostles began to spread throughout the Roman Empire, beginning from Jerusalem. Today in particular we hear how Paul and Barnabas have come to the city of Antioch (in present-day Syria) and have gone into the synagogue on the sabbath, which is how the first Christians started to evangelize. They got up to speak, and one of the things they said was this: “We now turn to the Gentiles. For so the Lord commanded us, I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.”
Jews outside of Jerusalem worshipped in synagogues, since there was only one Temple and that was the one in Jerusalem. And as the reading from Acts tells us, there were Gentile converts to Judaism who also attended the synagogue. Because the leading Jews of the city rejected Paul’s message, he turned instead to the Gentiles to share the same message with them. What Paul makes clear here is that the Gospel message – the good news – that Jesus Christ, who is God and had become man, and had suffered and died for our salvation – this good news was meant not only for the Jews but for the whole world. God of course had first revealed himself to the Jewish people, his Chosen People. But his plan of salvation, which began with the Jewish people, was always intended for the Gentiles too, in other words, the whole world. After Jesus’s resurrection and ascension into heaven, the age of the Church on earth began, and God has intended that the Church be his instrument to spread this good news of salvation to the world. What we heard in our reading today from Acts was one of the first examples of this happening. And, as the reading tells us, the Gentiles were “delighted” to hear this. More and more people, both Jews and Gentiles, began to accept this new way of Jesus Christ.
So the Acts of the Apostles tell us the story of the beginnings of the Church, and the beginnings of evangelization. And that evangelization has continued ever since, throughout the past 2000 years. Christianity has spread throughout the world, although it has not yet reached everywhere. But it is getting closer. There are fewer and fewer places that have never heard of Jesus Christ. Even though Christians remain a tiny minority in many countries around the world – and there are countries where they have largely been driven out – there are fewer and fewer places around the world that have had at least some exposure to Christianity.
It is our obligation as a Church to continue this work of evangelization, because that is the mandate Jesus has given to every Christian. And who must be evangelized? Everyone: people who may have heard something about Jesus Christ but don’t really know much about Him, and people who have not heard of Jesus Christ. And every new generation must be evangelized. And even we are always in need of a deeper understanding of our faith and a stronger relationship with Christ. So there is always work to be done. And of course, this work should not be seen as a burden but rather as a gift.
Evangelization continues to spread throughout the world, to ever more remote locations and people. Last November a young Evangelical missionary named John Chau traveled to a remote island in the Indian Ocean whose inhabitants have had virtually no contact with the outside world. They are notorious for their fierceness – anyone who has ever tried to land on their island has not lived long. They are probably one of the few communities in the world who have never heard of Jesus Christ. So this young Evangelical missionary prepared himself for this mission knowing that he too probably wouldn’t survive. Fishermen who helped bring him there reported that they saw him get shot and killed by a bow and arrow shortly after arriving on the island. It seems that his efforts at evangelizing the people of this remote island had failed.
Many people would think what this young man did was foolish; that he was a failure. But God can work even through our failures. While success is great and feels great, what matters is faithfulness to what God calls us to, whether or not we succeed. I think there is something very beautiful about what this young man did, how he went to this island knowing that he might not survive. Yet he had the desire to share with them the good news that God had become man and died for their salvation too. The time was not yet right; they were still not ready to receive the Gospel. But perhaps this young man did have some small impact on them. Who knows how God will use what he did to further his work on earth? And maybe one day another missionary will go who will succeed, and this people will receive the good news.
Which leads me to a couple points: one is that where one sows the seed, another reaps. We do not always get to see the fruits of our efforts. I sometimes think that if we do, we are very fortunate. I think every teacher, probably every catechist, maybe even most parents, knows this too. Perhaps they sometimes despair of ever getting through to the children they are trying to teach. If that is you, remind yourself that where one sows, another may reap. Our efforts at evangelization – of sharing the faith with others – however halting or imperfect they might be – are little seeds that we are planting. We might plant the seed; another might water it; another will see it bear fruit. What matters is that we do our small part.
A second point I would like to make is that our attempts at sharing our faith are not always going to be received, period. Sometimes people will receive it with open ears and open hearts, and when that happens we should rejoice. But often they will show no interest. And sometimes, like the people of this remote island, they will be openly hostile and will completely reject our efforts. Most likely it will not come in the form of being shot with a bow and arrow. More likely it will be in the form of anger or rudeness or ridicule. Or perhaps it will come in the form of seeking to push Christians more and more out of public life. I get uncomfortable when I hear politicians talk about “freedom of worship” and never mention “freedom of religion” – there is a difference. “Freedom of worship” says that we can worship in our churches on Sunday. Catholics who lived in the Communist countries of Eastern Europe in the 40 or so years following World War Two spoke of how the Communist authorities would assure them that they had the freedom to worship in their churches. But when they tried to let their faith inform how they lived their lives and what they stood up for, they would face repercussions, some of them very serious. While we are not there (yet), and hopefully we will never get to that point, it is a warning that our faith will sometimes be rejected, and that we, like Paul and Barnabas and all the apostles, will sometimes be rejected for our faith in Christ.
But that is not a reason to not to try to share our faith and live out our faith. But like Paul and Barnabas, it’s true that sometimes we have to move on. We can and should always be charitable to those who reject us, but sometimes we do have to recognize when it is time to focus our efforts elsewhere. We have a message to share, a message too important and too beautiful to keep to ourselves. We have the promise that we hear in our reading from the book of Revelation, that this message is for people of every nation, race, people and tongue. We have a message of good news so beautiful that it motivated that young Evangelical missionary to travel thousands of miles from home, knowing that he would probably never return, because he believed this good news had to be shared with a people who had still never heard it.
The suffering that we experience through rejection, or ridicule, or even persecution and death are nothing compared to what awaits us. We have the hope from our reading from Revelation, that if we are faithful to the Lord and to his will for us, one day we will be united forever with him, and that he will lead us to springs of life-giving water, that he will wipe away every tear from our eyes. We will be a part of Jesus’ flock, gathered to him for all eternity, and no one will be able to take us out of the Father’s hand.