During the great season of Eastertide, basking in the light of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, the Church loves to read the Acts of the Apostles.
One way to read Acts is to focus on the energy and enthusiasm of the apostles and their co-workers. The extent of St Paul’s travels, for example, is really astonishing – he travelled some ten thousand miles on mission – and everywhere he went he and his fellow missionaries faced opposition and contempt. What tenacity they had, what perseverance!
But reading Acts in this way, while it can be inspiring, can also be intimidating. How on earth could we live up to their apostolic example when we struggle even to speak publicly about our faith? The whole thing sounds like such hard work: are we really up to the task?
A more helpful approach to Acts, I think, is to zoom in on the vignettes of conversion, the little stories that reveal the hearts of those who gave a warm welcome to the Good News about Jesus.
Take the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. It’s a fascinating story. Philip is fresh from a fruitful mission in Samaria, but he felt called by the Lord to travel south, on a desert road. On this quiet road he met a foreign official. He could have passed him by. Was the Gospel really meant for eunuchs, for foreigners? Whatever his doubts, Philip felt moved by the Spirit to join him, and he found that the Ethiopian was reading the prophet Isaiah: the eunuch was a man of prayer, a man searching for God! Faced with this open heart, Philip “beginning with this Scripture, told him the good news of Jesus”. And, at the end of their conversation, the eunuch was baptised, finding in Jesus the God he was seeking.
There’s the wonderful story of Lydia, too, the first convert we know of on the European mainland. In Acts 16 we see Paul, accompanied by Timothy, Silas, and Luke himself, journey to Philippi, a Roman colony in Greece. There can’t have been many Jews there, since, we’re told, there was no synagogue in the town. On the Sabbath the Jews of Philippi worshipped, we’re told, beside a river. It was there Paul and his companions went, finding a group of women at prayer, among them Lydia, a wealthy businesswoman. Then, we’re told, “the Lord opened [Lydia’s] heart to listen to what was said by Paul”. Following his preaching, Lydia, along with her household, just like the Ethiopian eunuch, was baptised.
“The Lord opened her heart”: this detail is key for understanding all these stories of conversion. The apostles do not appear in these stories as masters of the situation, or as skilled strategists, or as leaders. The apostles could never have planned or manufactured these situations. Instead, they arrive on the scene as humble co-workers in a work that precedes their efforts. Philip meets a eunuch to whom the Lord was already speaking, through Isaiah. And Lydia is not converted by the force of Paul’s personality, but because she had come to the river to pray, and the Lord had opened her heart.
Co-workers with the Spirit
The apostles’ ‘acts’ are always acts of co-operation, acts of obedience. As these stories show so clearly, the most important apostolic act is simply to listen to the Spirit, even if what the Spirit is saying is surprising. Without that openness of heart the eunuch would have been left alone on the road, struggling with the Old Testament, and Lydia would have carried out her Sabbath ablutions weekly for the rest of her life, instead of being washed, once and for all, in the waters of Baptism.
It is in order to learn again this central lesson that the Church returns, year after year, to the Acts of the Apostles. Spreading the Gospel, building the Kingdom, is not our work, it is God’s work, and he delights in making us his co-workers. We should work hard, certainly, but we should never be anxious about evangelisation. We shouldn’t panic if we can’t find the right words. We shouldn’t worry if we feel we lack talent or courage, nor should we overestimate the value of the talents we do have.
Like Philip, like Peter, like Paul, we 21st Century apostles are co-workers with the Spirit: no more than that, and no less.