May 3, 2015
First Reading: Acts 9:26-31
Fear prevents us from doing a lot of things that we want to do, ought to do. Fear divides people against one another. Fear builds walls, invisible psychological walls, between us. Sometimes we need another person to shake us out of our fear, to encourage us, to stir up the boldness that lies within.
Including and Excluding
This Sunday’s first reading begins on a note of fear. The recently converted persecutor of the Church, Saul (later Paul), comes to Jerusalem as a new convert and seeks to join the Christian community. But knowing his background as an enemy of the Church, they refuse to accept him. Perhaps they think he’s a spy or they don’t believe that a person can have such a dramatic conversion. But ultimately, they are driven by fear. They exclude Saul because they are afraid of him. While we might not confront a murderous persecutor of the Church at the doors of our parish, we would do well to think of the people that we “fear” because of their lifestyle, their social status, their appearance. Can we get past that fear and “touch the hands of the poor” as Pope Francis repeatedly encourages us?
Son of Encouragement
The journey from fear to boldness is not usually a solo journey. Often we need someone to encourage us, to “put heart” into us, to slap us on the back, tell us our potential, and push us to perform. We might think of a good coach, an inspiring teacher, or a loving parent, as an this kind of uplifting voice in our lives. Here in the Book of Acts, we get a great example in Barnabas. His real name was Joseph, but his nickname was “son of encouragement” or “son of exhortation,” in Aramaic, Barnabas (Acts 4:36). As we see from his name and actions, Barnabas was known for encouraging people. He was the one who went and sought out the newly converted Saul in Tarsus to bring him on one of the greatest mission trips in the history of the Church (Acts 11:25). Barnabas was so successful in encouraging and mentoring Saul that he himself fades into the background while Saul/Paul takes center stage.
After the Jerusalem Christians exclude Saul, the text says that Barnabas “took hold of him,” from epilambanomai, which can mean to “seize” or “grasp.” I like to think of him grabbing Paul by the shirt collar and hauling him away. Barnabas then brings Saul to the apostles and advocates for him. His exhortation releases Saul from fear of being excluded from the Church and turns the Church’s fear into faith. His attitude toward Saul and his words of encouragement turn a bad situation of exclusion into a great reception of one of the greatest apostles.
After being received into the Christian community at Jerusalem, Saul is soon exhibiting the great faith which Barnabas saw in him. He boldly proclaims the gospel in public in Jerusalem—a dangerous gamble in a time when Christians are being persecuted. Saul takes a stand with the Church he has just joined and even sets an example of fearless preaching for them. Saul is unafraid to proclaim the gospel, despite the dangers. Of course, soon some of the “Hellenists,” that is, Greek-speaking Jews, are seeking to put him to death.
Guarding the Treasure
While Paul does eventually die as a martyr in Rome, this is not the time. God still has work for him to do, so the Christians at Jerusalem hide him and send him away where those who want to harm him won’t be able to find him. To me, this is an interesting example. Often I think we view martyrs as reckless or determined, walking straight into the lion’s mouth. But for many martyrs, like St. Paul, there were many times when their life was threatened and they fled rather than be killed. Only at the time appointed by God do they come to offer themselves to him as martyrs for the Faith.
Fear vs. Encouragement
After Saul’s eventful visit, Acts offers a summary: The Church is growing just like Jesus said it would, starting at Jerusalem, then Galilee, then Samaria. The Christians throw off the fear of persecution and the world, embracing instead the right kind of fear: fear of the Lord (Acts 9:31). Fear of the Lord is not a servile, quaking, nasty fear, but a beautiful surrender of one’s life to the Author of Life, a giving back of what has been given, a wise submission to “the only wise God” (Acts 16:27). Not only do the Christians embrace fear of the Lord, they also have the “paraklesis of the Holy Spirit.” The word paraklesis is related to “Paraclete,” one of the titles of the Holy Spirit. Often it is translated as “comfort” or “consolation,” but I think the best translation is “encouragement.” The Holy Spirit comes to vanquish fear and to encourage our hearts to believe, to hope, to love.
No doubt fear has a good purpose—to help us hide from a tornado or escape from a sinking ship—but too often, we allow fear to boil over and invade areas of our lives where it should not. Fear of others, fear of failure, fear of being laughed at, often prevent us from doing what God wants us to do. This reading from Acts shows us that through the power of the Spirit and the aid of a good, encouraging mentor, we can overcome fear with faith. And sometimes we are called to be like Barnabas, encouraging and exhorting another person, helping him or her to let go of fear and grab onto courage. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18 RSV).