“It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”
Today’s First Reading from the Acts of the Apostles is from the story of Paul and Barnabas who were spreading the good news to the Gentiles. It comes directly after the end of their first mission.
One of the things they said to the disciples of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch was the quote “I started with hardships.” In Paul’s case, one hardship was that he had just been stoned in Lystra, a town in the center of what is now Turkey. Stoned! And still Paul and Barnabas believed in Jesus and continued to spread the good news, even with the wounds of the stoning.
Let us put ourselves in Paul’s place. A stone is thrown at us and hits us in the arm. Then another in the stomach. As we curl up and turn our backs, more stones are thrown and strike us in the back, buttocks, and legs. And eventually one or more hit us in the head. I have a lot of trouble imagining that. I have never had that kind of beating. But it had to be brutal, since the people stoning him thought Paul was dead, so they dragged him out of the city.
But Paul got up when the disciples gathered around him. He got up!
I don’t know about you, but I’m felled by a cold, in agony over a stubbed toe, laid low by spinal stenosis. Yet Paul was almost stoned to death! I cannot even imagine what he went through. Or what Jesus went through during his passion.
And in the Second Reading, I find what strengthened Paul. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be nor more death or mourning, wailing or pain.” Paul was not living in this world. He was living the world of Heaven, the world of God because the new Jerusalem had already come down to him.
This past week I went to one of my physical therapy sessions. The pain of spinal stenosis I mentioned before has got me in its grasp. And the therapist said to me, “You can’t give in to it. You must move on. You can’t get down because of the pain.”
What? My physical therapist is preaching the Gospel to me! “You can’t get down.” Is that how Paul was handling his pain? He was living in the new Jerusalem. He was spreading the good news. He was loving the people as Jesus had loved him. If Paul is living like that, does he have room to consider the pain? Does he have time to worry about his back? Or the slashes in his skull? Or the bruising of his legs?
“For the old order has passed away.” The “old order.” And Paul and Barnabas have moved on. As Mark says: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.” And if I may be a little more up to date, as Jimmy Dugan says to Evelyn in the movie A League of Their Own, “There’s no crying. There’s no crying in baseball!”
We are not taught that once we become Christians there will be no more pain. Of course, there is pain. This is the world. But we can live in this world, or, as Paul did, we can live in the new Jerusalem. But believe me, I can talk about that, recommend that, suggest that, preach that…but ask me if I have found the open gate to the new Jerusalem. Go ahead, ask. I ask myself that every day.
The answer is no, I haven’t. But I can see it. I can almost feel it. No more death or mourning, wailing or pain. It takes that step through the gate, and try as I might, my feet stumble.
But I have God to lean on, and my patron saints to pray for me, and my community to say to me, You must move on.” I can taste it. I can smell it. I can almost feel it. I can remember what Jesus told us, “I have loved you.” And in the loving of others, I can knock on the gate and be sure that eventually it will be opened to me.
So the answer? I can try to be “not of this world.” I can watch the new Jerusalem constantly coming down to earth, to replace earth, to offer us the way of God. I can work every day to remember that there is no crying in baseball.
Brothers and sisters, as I look into your eyes, I can see a new heaven and a new earth. Talk to me of your love.
Lord, let us continue to look above and move forward, shaking the dust off our sandals and stepping into your glory.