The Easter season readings record the advance of the Gospel into the ancient world. Acts notes that St. Paul made a point of first going to the Jewish synagogues to preach in order to be faithful to God’s promise to bring salvation to the Jews. In Christ Jesus, God has fulfilled this promise of salvation to the Jews, and through the Jews, to all humanity. This proclamation of Jesus as the promised Messiah was essential to his message. “Both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, ‘It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first, but since you reject it and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to
Paul’s proclamation was mostly met with rejection by the Jews. He grieved for the salvation of his own Jewish people. Paul was not deterred though and he viewed this rejection as a providential opportunity to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. There are always more souls, equally loved by God, to whom the good news of salvation in Christ must be preached.
The second reading brings us to John’s vision of the “saved” in heaven. He declares them to be “a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people and tongue.” Salvation in Christ is not bound to ethnicity or continent but rather is available to all through Christ. God has established the church as the normal means of encountering the salvation offered in Christ. John’s vision includes the martyrs for Christ holding palm branches as a sign of their victory over death. This image became common in the catacombs and for those who met with brutal death during the persecutions or “the time of the great distress.” These murdered baptized Christians were those who had “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” The church’s sorrow in this loss is comforted by John’s words drawn from Isaiah that in the end, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
These faithful of Christ are known to Christ. “My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me.” This radical union with Christ and his church leads us to his cross. The Christian must first die to self so that the truth of God may live within them. We are then resurrected with the new voice of God. Cruel physical martyrdom still awaits many persons in this world where the Gospel is not allowed to be preached. Martyrdom can also be bloodless as when Christians are persecuted for speaking truth in faith or morality to an increasingly hostile, relativistic and secular world. To these persecuted ones Christ says, “I give them eternal life and they shall never perish.”
Questions for Reflection
1. When did I last vocally share the message of salvation in Christ?
2. Where have I experienced distress for the sake of the Gospel?
3. What truths as professed by the church do I witness being persecuted today?
Fr. Vander Steeg is pastor of St. Mary Parish, Greenville, and St. Edward Parish, Mackville.