In the period following Easter, many of the first readings during Mass have been derived from the Acts of the Apostles, describing the ministry of the Apostles in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. The reason why this has been the focus is because the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, in liberating us from sin, doesn’t concern some abstract reality outside of us; rather, it renews our relationship with God, and in so doing, renews the heart/soul and mind of man, moving us to a greater love of God and neighbor.
We see this in the ministry of the Apostles. They were willing to travel long distances, to far away places, frequently subjected to persecutions of all sorts (ultimately resulting in the death of all but one of them, with John spending the final years of his life in exile). They were on fire with the love of God and the love of souls, with the desire to glorify God and save their fellow man. And that is because what they encountered was a real spiritual phenomena, a spiritual phenomena whereby they were liberated from sin, and whereby this same liberation was made possible for others. So, moved by a sense of gratitude towards God, they embarked on their Divinely-mandated mission of preaching the Gospel, of leading the early Church.
And we see this in the excerpt from Acts of the Apostles last week. Taken from Acts chapter 5, the text notes that the Apostles were brought before the Sanhedrin (the highest religious and political court in Ancient Israel), and were told to stop preaching. Since this was one of several times in which the religious authorities of Ancient Israel attempted to silence them, the members of the Sanhedrin said, “We gave you strict orders to stop preaching in that name. Yet you have filled Jerusalem and want to bring this man’s blood upon us?” (Acts 5:28) Yet, St. Peter, speaking on behalf of the other Apostles, says, “We ought to obey God rather than man.” (v. 29) St. Peter then repeats the core of the Gospel message: Jesus died on the Cross for our sins, rose from the dead, and is now exalted by God as the means of mankind’s reconciliation to God (vv. 30-32)
What do these two sets of statements have in common? If Jesus is Who He said He is, and Who the Apostles – having witnessed His Death and Resurrection and filled with the Holy Spirit – said He is, then the Apostles have a duty to bring all people to Christ as the vessel of salvation. No authority can deter them from their mission to bring the Gospel to as many people as they can.
The Sanhedrin became angered by this, and were so infuriated that they wanted to put the Apostles to death (v. 33). Yet, it then said that a Jewish religious leader named Gamaliel stood up and began to note how other, similar messianic movements had emerged in the past, but since the figures claiming the be the Messiah were in fact not so, the movements they started eventually died out (vv. 34-37) While this discourse is not apart of the excerpt read during Mass, it is important, because it ends with Gamaliel saying, “So now I tell you, have nothing to do with these men, and let them go. For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy it; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.” (vv. 37-38)
Catholicism has survived today precisely because it is of God. Our Lord had said to the Apostles that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church. Now, the Apostles could have assurance of that reality, and even participate in it by grace, because they had seen Christ rise from the dead. Because of this, they saw that the gates of hell could not prevail against the Church, precisely because God had prevailed against the gates of hell. And insofar as the Church is the mystical body of Christ, if Christ conquered the gates of hell, so will the Church. If hell is impotent against Christ, so too will it be against His Church.
Thus, Gamaliel was right: to fight against the Church is to fight against God, and that is a battle that cannot be won. It is for this reason that Acts of the Apostles says that the Apostles took joy even in their suffering: as they were being whipped, the text says, “So they left the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.” (Acts 5:41) They rejoiced in their suffering, not because they were masochists who enjoyed suffering or sought it; rather, it is because their suffering, the evil they were subjected to, had itself been subjected to God’s salvific plan by the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. All things are a playing out of God’s saving act.
I’d like to focus on the concept of how they rejoiced in suffering for the sake of the name. Anything we ask God in the name of His Son we receive (cf. John 14:13). It was in the name of Jesus that the Apostles were able to drive out demons (cf. Luke 10:17, Mark 16:17) and healed (Acts 4:30). It was in the name of Jesus that we are to be baptized (Acts 2:38, Matthew 28:19). This is because in Jesus, God became man. Jesus, as the God-man, is the mediator between God and man. The Father hears and answers our prayers only because we have a Mediator, a Representative before God, Who brings our prayers before Him, and on Whose Merits our prayers are answered. Because Jesus is the Mediator between God and man, it is by Christ’s mediation that mankind and God are reconciled. This was the fulfillment of Jesus’s role as Mediator, by which He subdued the forces of sin, evil and death. He conquered the devil. And it is on the grounds of this that we are purified of our sin.
Jesus conquered evil, and it is thus in the name of Christ that we are purified of our sin, the forces of evil are cast out, and our prayers are answered. Because of this, Jesus’ name is “exalted” above all other names (cf. Philippians 2:9-11). Thus, to suffer in the name of Jesus is a great joy, for that which we suffer on account of our loyalty to Christ, when considered in itself, is merely a desperate attempt from the devil to lead it astray. Yet, since it has already been defeated by God, it can only influence us if we let it influence us. Thus, that which we suffer on account of our loyalty to Christ, in the grand scheme of things, is now a tool by which God brings us to salvation. All things, when accepted or endured for the Glory of the Name of Christ, are the source of joy.
- To read the readings for this week, see: https://www.loyolapress.com/our-catholic-faith/liturgical-year/sunday-connection/third-sunday-of-easter-cycle-c-sunday-connection