One of the great blessings of the Easter Season is the way in which the church directs our attention to the Acts of the Apostles in both the weekday and the Sunday readings. In this time when we celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord, it only makes sense that we remember the beginning of the spread of our faith. We attend to the “acts” of these apostolic figures. These interesting stories enable wonderful and familiar characters to emerge.
Peter makes his appearance as a bold proclaimer of the Gospel. No longer a simple fisherman who followed Jesus, he takes the lead and suffers the consequences for his efforts. He also starts to have dreams and wondrous encounters that support and give direction to his thinking. He begins to take that leadership role in the Church promised by Jesus. Note how some of the stories involving Peter parallel those that characterized Jesus!
Acts introduces us to the deacons (Acts 6:5) who receive the appointment to care for the widows among the Hellenists. Yet, their role immediately expands to the proclamation of the Gospel. As a result of his preaching, the deacon Stephen becomes the first martyr of the earliest Church. His death has elements in common with that of Jesus. Another deacon, Phillip, becomes the protagonist in several of the following stories as he causes the spread of the Gospel message in Samaria, Ethiopia, and Caesarea. Clearly, the Holy Spirit has been active since the Pentecost event. New characters are called forth and new journeys are initiated.
One-third of the way through Acts, we have the first story of the conversion of St. Paul (9:1-30). This important event is told twice more—once as Paul recounts it to a Jewish audience (c. 21) and once as Paul recounts it to Gentile hearers (c. 26). The greater part of the second half of Acts (cc. 11-28) tells of the journeys and adventures of Paul as he boldly proclaims the Christian message to the wider world. An embrace of this bigger world characterizes his three missionary journeys. Paul’s fidelity to his Jewish heritage did not hinder him from including a Gentile bounty in his vision; his fluidity in speaking Hebrew did not impede his preaching in Greek; and his numerous difficulties in traveling (with shipwrecks, beatings and even stoning) did not slow him down in continuing to visit and re-visit the places to which the Spirit led him. We know, of course, of his letters to these foundational churches. Paul was the model of the missionary. The Acts of the Apostles holds his story forward as a lesson for Christians of every era.
Perhaps, it is too easy to give Paul the dominant place in the Acts. I confess to be drawn to another character who receives his introduction before Paul and who enables Paul to become the powerful figure that he becomes. I am referring, of course, to Barnabbas. I love the character and role of Barnabbas. His name means “son of encouragement” and that is his primary and necessary role in his stories. From the very first, Acts introduces him as a contributor to the support of the Church as he sold a field and put the money “at the feet of the apostles” (4:36-37). After Paul’s conversion, he presents Paul to a fearful community in Jerusalem (9:27). Later, after Barnabas is sent by the Church of Jerusalem to build up the Gentile Church in Antioch (11:21-22), he again seeks out Paul and begins him on the journey that will lead to his designation as the “Apostle to the Gentiles” (11:25-26). Paul himself refers to Barnabas in Galatians (2:1, 9), 1 Corinthians (9:6), and Colossians (4:10). Among the characters of Acts, Barnabbas holds a valued place.
Thus, during the Easter time, the Acts of the Apostles holds out a compelling story of the growth of the Church and invites the Christians of every age, and of this age, to take responsibility for the spread of the Gospel. We are the Apostles whose Acts respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.