The First Reading for the fifth Sunday of Easter is Acts 9:26-31. Luke is often thought to give an ideal, or idealistic, picture of the earliest Church, and perhaps this is so, though elements of friction, disputation and consternation amongst the earliest Christians can be found throughout the Acts of the Apostles. It might be better to say that Luke stays “on message” – in the parlance of politicians and advertising executives – and accentuates the positive. This can be an easy sell when the accent falls on the power of the Holy Spirit, as it does in Acts, the prime example being the Holy Spirit falling on the Church at Pentecost.
Now, I know that Luke probably became a Christian long after Saul, who is also known as Paul, but let’s try the following as a thought experiment. You can hear the voices in the gathered Christian crowd a few years after Pentecost, prodding Luke as he speaks of the Holy Spirit, shouting, “And this Holy Spirit, how powerful is it?” Imagine, if you will, the voice of Luke, strangely and anachronistically reminiscent of Johnny Carson, starting to speak, “The Holy Spirit is so powerful…” – “How powerful is it?” – “so powerful that Saul the persecutor became a Christian…” An uneasy silence descends. Not funny. No sense of awe or wonder falls on the crowd, just awkwardness. A whisper, “I heard Luke was good, but this is embarrassing.” And then in walks Saul.
He wants to join the disciples; they do not want him. Why? “They were all afraid of him, not believing he was a disciple.” Fear is like that, and there are good reasons for our fears some times. Jesus asks us to be as “wise as serpents and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). It was probably wise for the disciples to have some reticence when Paul first approached – what game was he playing? – but when Barnabas vouched for him, told of Paul’s conversion and of how he had boldly spoken on behalf of Christ in Damascus, the greater part of wisdom won the day. Paul was accepted as a believer. He then does his “Paul thing” – which I believe is a technical theological term, but I might be mistaken – and that is get in people’s faces. The group with whom he debates, “the Hellenists,” must be different than the Christian Hellenists we meet in Acts 6:1, but similar to the group described in 11:20. The term must in chapters 9 and 11 denote Greek-speaking Jews. Paul riles them up, and when his life becomes endangered (“they tried to kill him”) Paul is spirited out of town by his fellow believers to preach another day.
Paul is not a neutral figure. The fear the early Christians in Jerusalem have of him was certainly due to his bold and zealous persecution of the earliest Christians, including the death of Stephen. It must have been difficult to welcome him as a brother, even after he had repented and converted, even after Barnabas had vouched for him. Pain must have lingered, wounds re-opened as images of Stephen’s martyrdom came back to them, or as stories of Saul hunting down Christians were told. Others might have wondered about his approach to evangelization, even after being convinced of his bona fides, as he was hustled out of Jerusalem on the sly. Yet, there could be no doubt of his zeal for Jesus Christ.
Paul challenges us today, especially at a time in the United States when it seems that political divisions for some take precedence over our common faith. We fear "them". We have a hard time believing some of them are really disciples. We do not like the way they evangelize. We do not like them. Perhaps Luke is an idealistic historian, but if it is it is because he goes to the source of the Church’s power and unity: the Holy Spirit. "The church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Sa