Paul the Disciple

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St. Paul's the Disciple's Early Career

Talk about a bad hair day. Paul woke up one Sabbath morning primed to address an adoring crowd in Antioch, but found debate, persecution, and expulsion instead.

Controversy has haunted Christianity from the beginning. Religion operates at the center of one's life. We make decisions, approve, resist, delight, avoid, and set life's goals based upon the beliefs we hold at the center. If you have accepted Jesus Christ as your center, you'll naturally want others to do the same. If you have found your center elsewhere--in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Greek gods, your lover, your net worth, football, or Leonardo DiCaprio--you will resist any effort to displace that center with Christ. You may also find yourself embroiled in controversy whenever centers collide. That's the business of Christianity.

Paul found out the hard way.

Next Sunday's first reading (Acts 13:14, 43-52) pits Paul against a stalwart Jewish community in Antioch. Everyone involved in the skirmish has religious motives. As incongruous as it seems for religion to provoke hostilities, it happens because religion is embraced by emotion, and the shaking of religious beliefs results in emotional reaction.

We hear the Antioch story next Sunday. The first readings throughout the Easter season highlight the events in the Acts of the Apostles. These are the only Sundays all year long that we never read from the Old Testament. The lectionary bathes us in the New Testament to let the fullness of the risen Christ shine throughout Easter. Paul's ministry began early. He was probably born around 10 A.D., but possibly earlier. His conversion to Christ came around the year 35. After visiting Jerusalem a couple years later, he began missionary activity. The scriptures don't give a coherent travelogue, but this work is usually divided into three journeys. On the first one, Barnabas accompanied Paul to Cyprus and southeast Asia Minor, where we meet him next Sunday.

The episode in question took place in Antioch, a major city in the mountainous region of Pisidia, then part of Galatia (the area toward which Paul later addressed one of his letters), and today part of Syria. During his lifetime Jesus' fame had reached Syria (Matthew 4:24). His followers were first called "Christians" in Antioch (Acts 11:26). Antioch is the probable home of the writer of Matthew's gospel around 80 A.D. And at the turn of the second century, Ignatius of Antioch was the first to call the community of believers the "catholic church." Paul and Barnabas visited there twice on the first missionary journey (13:14-51; 14:24).

Luke uses this story to show a turning point in Paul's career. On the Sabbath after Paul and Barnabas arrived in Antioch, they preached at the local synagogue. Many Jews reacted favorably. So Paul and Barnabas returned the following Sabbath for an encore. By this time, word of their preaching drew almost the whole city to the service. It must have looked like a golden opportunity to Paul and Barnabas. It didn't turn out that way.

The Christian missionaries met heated reaction. Jewish officials contradicted Paul as he spoke. Not a good idea. Paul, never a model for peaceful persuasion, joined Barnabas in denouncing the local religious leaders. Not a good idea. The officials "incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city" to persecute the missionaries and expel them from the region. At the city limits Paul and Barnabas shook their feet, wanting absolutely nothing more to do with the place, not even with its dust.

This bitter end to the episode, an early example of evangelization, works poorly as a model for Christian debate, but it shows a turning point in Paul's career and the progress of early Christianity. In the big story, God revealed the covenant first to the Jews; when many of them rejected Jesus, God opened the covenant to the Gentiles as well. In the Antioch story, a microcosm of that big picture, Paul and Barnabas brought the word first to the Jews, literally making the synagogue their first stop. But when the officials rejected them, they preached to the Gentiles. That freed Christianity to spread far and wide.

Paul's troubles were not over, but the tribulations so obvious in next week's first reading conceal a bigger story. Even in the midst of a really bad hair day, God may be working wonders we cannot see.

[Published in the Catholic Key on 4/26/98 for the 4th Sunday of Easter]