A long time ago in Galilee far, far away …
The journey of discipleship always begins with an encounter. For the Christian – a disciple of Jesus – that means an encounter with Christ. Jesus is unlike anyone else in our lives – unlike anyone else in the history of the world. We encounter Jesus in many ways: in the work of the Church, in the Sacraments, in the liturgy, in one another…. At the heart of that relationship of encounters is the Word of God – the same Word that “became flesh and lived among us” (Jn 1:14). The story of Jesus is at the heart of our journey with Him.
For most of us, this story is very familiar. We can paraphrase the “Gospel” and tell the general tale of the life of Christ: how His coming among us was preceded by Gabriel’s message to Mary and her acceptance of God’s will; how Mary and Joseph journeyed from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born in a stable; how His birth was proclaimed by angels to shepherds, and by the guidance of a star, wise men followed their journey to Him as well.
We know how He grew up in relative anonymity and emerged on the scene as a teacher and worker of miracles – how He healed the lame, gave sight to the blind, even raised the dead; how He preached the newness of God’s kingdom – a kingdom of peace and compassion and of acceptance of the outcast and the weak. We know how He was opposed by the authorities and was finally arrested and accused and condemned to death on a Cross. And we know that He rose again three days later as God’s final victory over sin and death.
We can tell that story. Maybe some of us can quote chapter and verse of the Scriptures too. However, do we know Christ? Not, “do we know things about Christ?” but do we know Jesus Christ in a real and personal way? Has our encounter with Him changed our lives? Is He a regular partner in conversation and action for us?
Jesus never asked His followers to simply repeat what He said; rather, He sent them to do as He did – to “go … make disciples of all nations … and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you” (Mt 28:19,20). When the Apostles heard those words from Jesus, they were filled with the Holy Spirit and sent forth to boldly share their experience and relationship with Jesus with everyone. That is what the Acts of the Apostles is all about.
But now, for us to go and do as Jesus sends us, we must be sure to have our own encounter with Him. We must meet Him in our own lives. The first Apostles met Christ along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where they lived and worked – among their friends and associates. Galilee is also the place of their encounter with the Risen Christ. There, they met their Friend, risen from the dead; and from there they were sent out to “make disciples.”What about us?
Pope Francis reflects beautifully on this “Galilee of our own”:
For each of us, too, there is a “Galilee” at the origin of our journey with Jesus. “To go to Galilee,” means something beautiful, it means rediscovering our baptism as a living fountainhead, drawing new energy from the sources of our faith and our Christian experience. To return to Galilee means above all to return to that blazing light with which God’s grace touched me at the start of the journey. From that flame I can light a fire for today and every day, and bring heat and light to my brothers and sisters. That flame ignites a humble joy, a joy which sorrow and distress cannot dismay, a good, gentle joy.
In the life of every Christian, after baptism there is also another “Galilee”, a more existential “Galilee”: the experience of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ who called me to follow him and to share in his mission. In this sense, returning to Galilee means treasuring in my heart the living memory of that call, when Jesus passed my way, gazed at me with mercy and asked me to follow him. To return there means reviving the memory of that moment when his eyes met mine, the moment when he made me realize that he loved me.
Today, tonight, each of us can ask: What is my Galilee? I need to remind myself, to go back and remember. Where is my Galilee? Do I remember it? Have I forgotten it? Seek and you will find it! There the Lord is waiting for you. Have I gone off on roads and paths which made me forget it? Lord, help me: tell me what my Galilee is; for you know that I want to return there to encounter you and to let myself be embraced by your mercy. Do not be afraid, do not fear, return to Galilee!
We often speak of a “personal encounter with Jesus,” or a “relationship with Christ.” These are not borrowings from a Protestant playbook; rather, they are at the very heart of the Christian experience. We might have forgotten them – lulled into a sense of “Catholic comfort” that growing up in a Catholic family might have given us. “Cultural Catholicism” is a real experience for most of us (myself included), but what it can do is effectively “inoculate” us against real encounter and deliberate decisions in favor of Christ.
“Choosing Christ” is a real challenge to every disciple. It is not simply a one-time decision; it is not something that can be done “corporately” or on behalf of others. Discipleship must be intentional for each Christian, or it will lack the “blazing light” of God’s grace that Pope Francis talked about. Whether we like it or not, “God has no grandchildren.” The way we grew up, in an era of “Cultural Catholicism,” where we became Catholic simply “by osmosis,” is gone. And this is not necessarily a bad thing! God has no grandchildren, because He wills that each of us be His beloved son or daughter. All of us are children of God, and that demands a special, specific, devoted relationship.
Our present task as Parishioners in the Church is to respond to this call to be God’s children – not only passively, because we know that God loves us as His special children; but also actively. The Acts of the Apostles has twenty-eight chapters. It ends, however, with a sense that the story is not over. It is never over. It is the story of the Church – first, as it is born from the Upper Room at Pentecost; then as it grows through the inspired preaching and activity of Peter, James, John, and all the rest; and as it spreads through the world, giving us new heroes like St. Stephen and St. Paul.
We have inherited this story; this is our story. The Church was never meant to sit still. Rather, we are called to continue the “Acts” of the first disciples as disciples in our own right – today. This is what this series is about.
However, before we can dive into the story of the early Church, there are some things that we should know. The Acts of the Apostles is actually the second volume in a two-volume set. Traditionally held to be written by Saint Luke, this book of Scripture continues the story that started in the Gospel according to Luke; and the narrative presumes that the reader already knows what has happened “in the first book” (Acts 1:1a). That book “dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up” (1:1b-2a).
It is significant that Luke uses the words “[what] Jesus began to do and teach.” The natural implication is that He has not finished, and that what He began is continuing still. This is what the Acts is all about – in fact, this is what the Church is all about – and this is what this course is all about!
The beginning, though, as I said, must be Jesus – our knowledge of Him and our real relationship with Him. After all, as Pope Benedict famously said, we do not profess faith in a set of dogmas or a list of “things” but in a Person – Jesus Christ:
Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. … Since God has first loved us (cf. 1 Jn 4:10), love is now no longer a mere “command”; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us.
If we are to learn anything from our faith, it should be that God loves us and has given us His only Son to be our Savior, whose death and resurrection have restored us to favor with God and given us eternal life.
This encounter is key for us. We need to recapture the truth of our Faith – that God is love, and that He wants to have a real, personal relationship with us, as a Father to a beloved child. Too many in our world today do not believe that a personal relationship with God is possible. Too many people in our pews don’t believe this either. God is seen as distant – sometimes conveniently so, sometimes painfully. This was not the faith of the Apostles; this was not the faith that drove the early Church. They knew Christ – personally – and they were driven to share that relationship with everyone. Their conviction was so compelling that many people sought them out and came to faith themselves.
If we have not encountered Jesus, then we cannot begin to share Him. The Lord is present in the Church – today as in the days of the Apostles. He comes to us now, in the liturgy and in the Sacraments. We need to open our eyes and hearts to see Him anew – to see Him “gazing at us with mercy,” inviting us to friendship and communion. Then – and only then – can we share Him with others.
Our journey through the Acts of the Apostles will follow a set pattern. Each week, we will begin with some Scripture study – exposition of the text that (hopefully) we have read beforehand. In the Church, this sort of study is called “exegesis.” This is a Greek word that means “interpretation.” I will share an interpretation of the text, based on various scholarly works. Don’t worry – it won’t be terribly hard, and there’s no test! Second, we will look at what the Church teaches and has taught in relation to the themes and topics covered in the text. This is going to be more catechetical, focusing on what we believe. Finally, we will look at how these themes can be lived out in our own life of discipleship. This will be the missionary aspect of the course.
It is my hope that as we journey through this process we will deepen our understanding not only of Scripture, but also of what we believe, why we believe it, and how we can live it out.
For next time:
Read Acts 1:1 – 2:47
Questions for reflection this week
1. What is my relationship wit Jesus like? Intellectual? Fearful? Dutiful? Personal? Something else?
2. Do I really believe in having a personal relationship with the God of the Universe?
3. Where is “my Galilee”? Where have/do I meet Jesus in my life? 4. For me, is the Church an institution or a place of real encounter with Jesus?
Endnotes  Francis, Homily for Easter, April 19, 2014  Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples, p. 39.  Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, n. 1.