During this season of Easter, the Church gives us readings for Mass taken from the Acts of the Apostles. The Book of Acts tells us about the earliest days of the Church and the missionary work of the Apostles, especially St. Paul. This past week featured a remarkable passage (Acts 14:5-28) about the experiences of Paul and Barnabas as they preached the Gospel in Asia Minor, or modern-day Turkey.
The passage begins by telling us about Paul and Barnabas’ flight from the town of Iconium because pretty much everyone there wants to kill them. From there, they decide to go to the region of Lycaonia, and they come to a town called Lystra. There, Paul heals a man who the scriptures say was “lame from birth.” When the crowds see what Paul had done, they go wild. They think that Paul and Barnabas are the gods Hermes and Zeus in disguise and they try to worship them. Even the local pagan priest presents oxen to be slaughtered and offered in sacrifice. Horrified, Paul and Barnabas plead with the people to stop. They try to tell them that they should turn away from their idols and worship the living God. “Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.”
Shortly after this, a group of enemies from previous stops show up at Lystra and they turn the crowds against Paul and Barnabas. The same people who just had tried to worship them as gods were suddenly stoning Paul and dragging his lifeless body out of the city. But when the disciples gathered around Paul, he gets up and goes back into the city – the very place where all the people wanted him dead! The next day, he and Barnabas travel to a town called Derbe. There, the scripture tells us, they proclaim the gospel and make a considerable number of disciples. From there, Paul and Barnabas retrace their steps through hostile territory. They return to Lystra and Iconium and Antioch in order to encourage the local Christian communities and to strengthen their spirits. Before moving on, Paul and Barnabas ordain priests to serve them and explain to the members of those communities that “it is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.”
This passage reminds me of a quote that someone recently shared from The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who spent eight years as a prisoner of the Soviet Union. He wrote: “Bless you, prison. Bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.” The terrible experience of the Gulag somehow forged Solzhenitsyn into the man whose writings did much to expose the horror of the Soviet system.
There’s so much in us that craves worldly peace. We want to be left alone, to have no obstacles in the way of our living as we want. That includes our relationship with God, and our ability to worship Him. But when we consider what Our Lord suffered and what the Apostles endured, why would we think it should be easy, that we should be left undisturbed by other people or by nature? The challenges that we face are probably not as severe as those of Paul and Barnabas. They are probably not as severe as those of many of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. But they are our challenges, the ones we must endure and even embrace if, like Paul and Barnabas, we are to enter the Kingdom of God.